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Boost the Power of PDCA By Tackling the Challenge of Self-Awareness

by Mike Orzen
March 10, 2021

Boost the Power of PDCA By Tackling the Challenge of Self-Awareness

by Mike Orzen
March 10, 2021 | Comments (18)

PDCA, the unassuming four-step cycle of plan-do-check-adjust, is the secret sauce of learning and improvement. This scientific method of structured problem-solving brought us the industrial revolution, chemistry, modern medicine, physics, computers, space travel, the internet and the world as it exists today. It seems quite natural that we would apply this potent tool to our work processes to address issues around flow, variability, overburden, and non-value added work.

Indeed, the PDCA mindset captures the essence of lean problem solving. By leveraging the scientific method to address problems, we pursue the goals of lean. Habitual use of this approach builds our ability to understand what our customers value, create and flow that value, and relentlessly strive to improve – all while fostering a learning culture built on respect for people and continuous improvement.

Easier said than done. A scientific mindset searches for facts by testing hypotheses, runs experiments to validate what we think we know, relentlessly uncovers new truths, and revises our thinking based on fact-based learning. It sounds easy but it is deviously tricky, because our mind assumes our current perception and understanding is accurate and we know what we are talking about!

As lean practitioners, we owe it to ourselves and to the world to honor the process, practice PDCA and engage the scientific method with deep respect and mindfulness.Here’s the amazing thing: very few people actually embrace the scientific method when applying PDCA. I certainly don’t mean to offend anyone here, so how can I make such a bold claim? My findings are based on over 200 A3s created by people I have coached, and on the numerous A3s I have personally developed in my formative years of lean practice. All of these examples used an A3 form to structure the PDCA thinking process, but they failed to coach the A3 owner to go deep enough to perceive actual conditions and generate anything that might be called a discovery. These attempts at problem-solving often implemented solutions that were known before the A3 was even started. They simply captured preconceived ideas on paper and declared them as lean improvements.

In Atomic Habitsauthor James Clear writes, "The challenge for anyone interested in making progress is to simultaneously have (1) the confidence to go after what you want, (2) the humility to accept who you are right now, and (3) the willingness to build skills that bridge the gap between 1 and 2." Before you can “accept who you are right now,” you must have the ability to make that determination accurately. Not only do we need to understand and accept who we are, but also where we are. This is known as grasping the situation in lean problem-solving.

In order to grow, a person needs to clearly see the gap between where they are and where they need to be. Gaps exist in every aspect of life: our performance, capability, trust, understanding, comfort level, alignment, teamwork, leadership – the list is endless. To see these types of gaps clearly, the level of perception we’re talking about requires a new degree of self-awareness, non-judgment and neutrality. If we want to “go and see” to understand and grasp the current situation deeply, we must develop greater self-awareness in ourselves, and coach others to do so as well.

To develop an ability to see what is really happening and accept things as they are is more difficult than it sounds. In fact, fewThe key element which enables us to know what is really happening versus what we think is happening is mindful self-awareness.  of us experience this degree of mindful awareness more than a few times in our lives. Think back to a moment when time seemed to stop, and you were totally absorbed in the present moment. You were all there with no distracting thoughts or mental commentary. Things appeared to be more vivid; sounds and smells felt more acute. This often happens in times of great wonder like the birth of a child and at times of great peril like a near-death experience.

The key element which enables us to know what is really happening versus what we think is happening is mindful self-awareness. The difference between these two states of mind is enormous—it is the chasm between our prejudgments and unconscious bias, and the actual facts of the situation. In PDCA problem-solving, we are taught to continually grasp the situation and reflect on where we are in the process. Each step of the way we ask questions such as: “What is happening?” “What should be happening?” “How do actual outcomes compare to my expectations?” “How do my actual behaviors compare to my intended actions?” “What surprised me?” “What can I learn from all this?”

The answers to these questions require curiosity, insight, and honest unvarnished perception of what truly exists—and not what we assume or hope is there or needs to be there. I once had a coach who called this “brutal honesty.” It was brutal because we had to face the unembellished reality however painful it might be.

The key to mindful problem-solving is pausing long enough to ask questions such as:

  1. How do we know what we know?
  2. How much of our thinking is based on evidence?
  3. How can we validate our understanding?
  4. How can we be curious about what we don't know?

Seek Problem Statements Based on Curiosity

I was recently coaching a group of highly-skilled project managers who were concerned that their performance measurement system was no longer aligned with the business. They felt disconnected with the rest of the organization and believed the measures were driving wrong behaviors.

Here is an early version of their problem statement:

The current metrics system doesn’t drive the right behavior resulting in the lack of problem-solving and inconsistent team behavior and focus.

The team was quick to suggest “solutions” ranging from developing new metrics to adopting whatever metrics were in use by the business. I asked them how they knew this was a problem. They responded by saying, “we are not supporting the business,” “there is no alignment,” and “we are not driving the right behaviors.” I felt the team was caught in a loop that looked like this:

I asked the team what the impact of no support, alignment, and wrong behaviors was. They struggled for a while to answer, so I followed up with, “how do you know the impact is negative and to what degree?”

That question seems to trigger a moment of clarity as someone responded, “our project delivery metrics have been dismal for over a year!”

Another team member asked, “so are we saying that our current metrics system is causing our poor performance? If so, what can we do to prove it?”

At that moment, I could feel the collective awareness of the team shift. It was like they were all waking from a dream. They let go of the original problem statement loop they had been stuck in and moved on to the freedom of a new way of looking at the situation.

Their next problem statement was based on curiosity:

Current project delivery performance is significantly underperforming. Over the past year, our blended performance has been at a 62 while our target is 90. The business impact has shown up as late project launches, cost overruns, and lack of promised functionality. Estimated business value of this performance gap represents hundreds of manhours and as much as four million dollars annually.

Note how the team’s second problem statement does not assume a cause (the metrics system) nor suggest a solution (fix the metrics system). It also focuses on a gap (blended performance metric) and not symptoms (lack of alignment and bad behavior). At this point the team is attempting to see the reality of the situation and identify what they need to learn to understand cause and effect.

If we fail to develop our self-awareness, we are sentencing ourselves to life in a prison of our own making.The current state section of the A3 is waiting for them to dive deep into the symptoms and detailed characteristics of the problem. After performing this work, the team may discover the need to modify their problem statement again. That is a good sign. Changing your belief based on new evidence and learning is a wonderful thing—and the essence of PDCA!

If we fail to develop our self-awareness, we are sentencing ourselves to life in a prison of our own making. It may be comfortable to see the world in a way that confirms our limited and current  beliefs, but this safe perspective prevents us from gaining access to the underlying truth of what is really happening. This path of comfort comes at a cost—we miss the insight, the breakthrough and the joy that comes from seeing deeply what is real and responding to the facts.

As lean practitioners, we owe it to ourselves and to the world to honor the process, practice PDCA and engage the scientific method with deep respect and mindfulness. All we need to do is pause, become aware, practice, and persist!

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Simon Gary March 10, 2021

Thank-you for this fantastic article. This describes the Learning Organisation - but with the walls smashed down! Much more free-range!

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Mike Orzen March 10, 2021

Hi Simon, I am happy you liked it! I can sense your energy in your response.


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Geoff Maffett March 13, 2021

Great synthesis. Agree that disciplined execution of the scientific method is a rare skill today. An unskilled problem solver will ignore the new truth that doesn't confirm their hypothesis. An excellent book on this issue is "The logic of Failure" by Dietrich Dorner. When I teach A3 thinking to budding scientific thinkers I use examples from the book to help prevent confirmation bias. 

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Mike Orzen March 13, 2021

Hi Geoff, I agree: we tend to interpret our perceptions in ways which confirm pre-defined thinking patterns we regard as true, complete, and accurate! I will take a look at the book. Thanks, Mike

Tom Paider March 13, 2021

Great article Mike. Solution jumping is sometimes so easy to do and endemic in many organizations. I can't tell you how many times I've seen A3s created that were written AFTER the author had decided on the solution. 

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Mike Orzen March 14, 2021

Hi Tom, Yes, this "cart before the horse" thinking is the antithesis of structured problem solving and all too common. Many of the leaders I work with seem to a have predisposition towards Fast Solutions Thinking which really undermines the efforts of their teams to make effective improvements. Thanks, Mike

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Peter Ward March 14, 2021

Thanks, Mike, for the thoughtful post.  And thanks also to Geoff for the cautionary comment on confirmation bias.

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Mike Orzen March 14, 2021

Thanks Peter, Many of these thoughts have been illuminated working alongside you as we coach others! Mike

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Joe Hesch March 15, 2021

Hi, a recent lesson I learned resonates to me as I read your article...especially the part about the problem statement. In the past, I have admittedly paid minimal attention to quantify my claims in a problem statement. I assumed the real work will happen in current state analysis. Often times during current state analysis, I have went back and modified my problem statement, sometimes significantly. While I agree that this can happen to a small degree, I was guilty of making large changes to the problem statement. On my current A3, I had to humbly accept the uncomfotably disciplined help I was receiving from my coach. It was a blessing! As a result, I have discovered that rigorous fact finding during discovery and writing of the problem statement is paying off. This more disciplined behavior has helped me to develop firm problem statements based on fact, and has led to less back and forth modifications. More importantly, fact finding with quantitative data in the problem statement phase has led me to even less solutions based thinking.  Like your article states, the particular coaching I received on my current A3 has opened my mind, and eyes, to a better way of thinking. Thank you for this insightful article. I wish I read it many years ago!

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Mike Orzen March 15, 2021

Thanks for comments Joe. The clarity we experience from "honoring the process" of PDCA justifies the discipline and effort required. Isn’t it amazing how slowing down to invest more time and thought on the left side of the A3 (background, current state, targets, analysis) almost always generates higher-quality countermeasures and, in turn, delivers improvements and learning much faster? Best, Mike

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Joel Amar March 16, 2021
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Great article Mike! I had about 50 thoughts running through my head as I read it, then I decided I should stop thinking about what I already know and consider what I don't know and how I could find out. Thanks for challenging my thinking today!

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Mike Orzen March 16, 2021

Thanks Joel, You nailed it: we all need to stop leading with what our brain thinks is a pre-determined solution and consciously challenge our embedded assumptions. It is thought-provoking work and deeply rewarding when we practice with mindful intention! Mike

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Laura Christine Willis March 19, 2021

What a great article.  It makes me think about how can I support a culture that makes it safe to do this.  When I was a manager I didn't totally understand that adjusting the Problem Statement was a natural part of the PDCA cycle so when I discovered my assumptions were wrong it was very stressful.  I will be letting my folks know this is part of the process and it is wonderful.  

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Mike Orzen March 19, 2021

Hi Laura, Glad the article was helpful. Thank you for sharing your learning and growth as a manager and coach! Best, Mike

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Jennifer Ayers March 22, 2021

I really appreciate how this synthesizes the connection between PDCA, A3, Kata, and 8-step problem-solving.  They all require understanding the current state, naming the gap, true experimentation, and (most important) reflecting on what you've learned.  This is what creates true scientific thinking and helps us engage those closest to the problem to help solve it successfully.  This was really insightful, thank you.

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Mike Orzen March 22, 2021

Hi Jennifer, thanks for the feedback! You said it well: all the steps are essential, but the most important step is learning from reflection. The key to this is what I like to call "choiceless reflection," meaning without filtering, judgment or bias. That is easier said than done, but self-awareness positions us to be successful! Thanks, Mike

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Dennis Gawlik March 29, 2021


I like how you simplified this concept and approach.  Right from the start you talk about the ‘PDCA’ mindset, the scientific method and habitual use.  Along with other thought leaders like Jeff Liker in his 2nd edition of The Toyota Way, and Mike Rother with his deepening of the Kata approach, you have reminded us about the discipline needed for using the scientific method in continuous improvement.  This takes me back to before ‘lean’ was coined, to Dr. Deming’s work. Continuous improvement he would say requires much more than the right techniques. It requires a discipline around using PDSA and a philosophy around Profound Knowledge; systems thinking, knowledge of variation within a system, a concept of knowledge and an understanding of philosophy to create a learning culture. A disciplined practice of the scientific method will help all of us in our continuous improvement efforts.

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Mike Orzen April 07, 2021

Hi Dennis,

Thanks for the feedback. I think your reference to Dr. Deming’s teachings on discipline, profound knowledge, systems thinking, and process variation are spot on! The funny thing about discipline and problem-solving behavior is that they are relatively easy to comprehend and very difficult to consistently do! Mike

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