Home > Knowledge Center> Developing PDSA Capabilities

Developing PDSA Capabilities


Developing PDSA Capabilities

As with any skills, developing PDSA (plan-do-study-act) capabilities is all about practice. To gain the discipline in consistent problem solving that you need to achieve outstanding performance, you need to have the discipline to practice it—and not just you, but everyone in your organization—over and over and over and over(remember the 10,000 hours required for mastery?).

In recent years, two means for deploying PDSA and generating opportunities for repetitive practice have gained attention. I think that both have value and are useful for organizations. The first, improvement kata, described by Mike Rother in his book, Toyota kata, is an excellent way of deploying PDSA rapidly throughout the organization so that many people get frequent opportunities to practice. The second, A3 Management, detailed in books by John Shook (Managing to Learn) and Durward Sobek and Art Smalley (Understanding A3 Thinking), I find is useful for more complex problems with the intention of developing deep mastery of PDSA and coaching skills. I offer each not as dogmatic approaches to be adopted by all organizations but as two examples of how organizations can instill disciplined improvement into their organizational DNA and to highlight the interplay between people development and generating results.

The Improvement kata

Rother uses the term kata to reflect his take on how Toyota deploys PDSA to improve, adapt, and innovate. kata are routines and movements practiced to develop new habits. In martial arts, kata are detailed choreographed patterns of movement.  In music, kata are the scales or the systematic breaking down of complex pieces into smaller parts to build toward mastery. In Rother’s view, the two primary kata—improvement kata and coaching kata—are the systematic, scientific, and mutually reinforcing ways that the organization goes about meeting challenging objectives and developing its workforce. Improvement kata essentially build deliberate practice and skilled coaching into every employee’s work by allowing each person to solve small problems that affect his or her daily work through rapid and repeated use of PDSA. Through this method, nearly any employee can progress from novice to advanced beginner and so on.

In the beginning, rapid PDSA cycles structured as experiments will be foreign to organizations that are more accustomed to project-based improvements that focus on finding the single best “solution.” Within such an organization, a mental framework predominates that honors waiting for perfection over continuously seeking perfection. Your goal with improvement kata and the practice of rapid PDSA cycles is to build proficiency and instill continuous improvement into the DNA of the organization. Daily short stints of deliberate practice—the rapid PDSA cycles—are a necessary component for changing mindsets.

The kata allow managers at all levels to become skilled improvement coaches by developing capabilities in two areas:

Technical proficiency The manager must have or develop improvement-related knowledge and skills through study and application, including proficiency in applying the PDSA cycle, process-analysis methods, root-cause analysis techniques, the full spectrum of countermeasures that are available to address process design problems, the psychology of change, and process performance measurements, to name a few.

coaching proficiency. All managers (and above) need to be proficient at asking Socratic questions, listening deeply, assessing learning, and knowing when and how to give directed guidance.

Most senior leaders balk at the notion that they need to be skilled in the tools of improvement—cause-and-effect diagrams, value-stream maps, or even the steps of the PDSA cycle. There’s no way to be an effective improvement coach without possessing at least moderate technical expertise.* Likewise, there’s no way to embed improvement into your organization’s DNA—where it becomes “just the way you operate”—without striving to have every manager and senior leader serving as an improvement coach as part of his or her job. In outstanding organizations, improvement is management.

For most organizations, that’s a lot of development. This is why I said that it takes 10 years for an organization to build discipline. You aren’t just sending some high-potential employees off to attend a workshop. Instead, you are teaching everyone and giving them frequent opportunities to practice. Senior leaders should understand that the quickest and most effective way to build problem-solving discipline throughout the organization in a way that requires the least amount of outside resources is to build discipline from the top down. Middle managers either can give this book to senior leaders and hope that they’re convinced, or you can start where you are by developing your own technical skills, and then serving as a coach to your staff.

A special note for readers who are improvement professionals: Your professional goal should be to design yourself out of a job. You are not serving an organization if you aren’t preparing it to be self-sufficient. Don’t worry: The majority of businesses, governmental agencies, health-care organizations, nonprofit groups, and educational institutions haven’t embraced improvement, let alone arrived at self-sufficiency. There still will be plenty of work to do. If history is any indication, we have decades and decades of work ahead. But that doesn’t obviate the need for you to vigorously develop deep-seeded improvement capabilities up, down, and across the organization, with the goal of eliminating the need for specialized improvement professionals for all but the most complex problems.

A3 Management

A3 management is a longer-term process, less focused on repetitive practice to gain basic proficiency and more on developing deep understanding and experience with PDSA and coaching. A3 refers to the paper size, roughly equivalent to the 11- x-17-inch paper common in the United States that’s typically used for single-page reports that reflect the problem-solving process. The reports typically are divided into sections that represent each stage of the problem-solving process: plan, do, study, and adjust. It’s a highly visual “story board” that develops critical thinking not only by limiting the physical space to explain oneself but also by asking the problem owner to consider how best to visually depict relevant data needed to build consensus and aid in organizational learning.* Adopters of the approach often misunderstand the purpose of A3 and place too much emphasis on the report itself and not enough on the process for creating it.

A3 adopters also often ignore the most relevant part of the development process: the role of the coach. A3 management was designed as a developmental tool, similar to the apprenticeship model that predominates in many skill-oriented professions, with the goal of providing directed learning to develop aspiring professionals from novice to master. To begin deploying A3 without skilled coaches is akin to learning guitar on one’s own: You may be able to play a rudimentary version of “Stairway to Heaven,” but you likely will have picked up some bad habits along the way that will prevent you from building true mastery. The primary purpose of A3 management and the A3 report is to facilitate iterative discussion and learning between a seasoned coach and a designated problem “owner.” In an organization with a great deal of problem-solving experience and discipline, the coach typically is the problem owner’s immediate supervisor, no matter the level at which the problem owner resides within the organization. For organizations just beginning to learn the process, a “second coach” typically is needed who teaches both the problem owner and the coach how to succeed in their respective roles.

A3 management is distinguished not only by the role of the coach but also by designating a sole problem owner, which builds accountability into the organizational DNA. While most problems are cross-functional in nature and therefore require a team-based approach for resolution, the problem owner is the one who’s accountable for results. While the coach spends most of his or her time with the problem owner, he or she also may conduct “group coaching” sessions to accelerate learning in a larger number of people.

A3 and the Improvement kata: Bringing it Together

Because you need to practice problem solving whenever you can at all levels, I recommend a twofold approach. The first is to use A3 management to solve your most vexing problems and pursue high-potential business opportunities. In essence, you are taking the results of the improvement planning process discussed in Chapter 3 and tackling the annual priorities that emerged from that effort using the A3 management approach.

The second piece resides on the other end of the spectrum as your organization practices the improvement and coaching kata every day on the smaller issues that play out at and close to the front lines. Many of these problems will roll up into the annual improvement plan, but not everything that confronts the front lines has obvious strategic relevance. For example, a safety issue that emerges within a process may have nothing to do with any of the organization’s annual goals, but it still needs to be addressed for the sake of the workers. The same is true with the quality and consistency of output from one step to the next in a process. These small problems offer perfect opportunities to practice rapid PDSA cycles and work on the microdetails of an operation—the single and double hits—that collectively change the score. This is the essence of daily kaizen (continuous improvement).


* Teaching is an effective means to build mastery; therefore beginning to serve as a coach once one reaches moderate proficiency is an effective developmental tool. But beginning to coach before reaching moderate proficiency oneself can be harmful to both the coach’s and the learner’s development.

* Visit www.outstandingorg.com  for examples of A3 reports.

For more information:

The Outstanding Organization (McGraw-Hill, 2012) by Karen Martin

Karen Martin is principal consultant for Karen Martin & Associates, L.LC. She is a recognized thought leader in applying lean thinking and the psychology of change to office, service, and knowledge work environments. Her client list includes Fortune 500 companies, as well as privately held and small businesses, government agencies, nonprofits, and start-ups. She is the coauthor of The Kaizen Event Planner, co-developer of Metrics-Based process Mapping, instructor for the University of California, San Diego's Lean Enterprise program, and industry advisor to the University of San Diego's Industrial and Systems Engineering program.

Related Content


  • Managing to Learn: The Use of the A3 Management Process
    This workshop introduces the A3 management process and the way of thinking represented in the A3 format that capture the heart of lean management. Participants will be provided an overview of various forms and uses of the A3 format and will have an opportunity to create their own A3. Working in small groups, they will be able to read, discuss, and evaluate each another’s A3s.