Plan-do-check-act (PDCA) and how to create a culture of continuous improvement

Manager plans a PDCA cycle

The most successful businesses are the ones that can keep up with change. To stay on top of growing market needs, businesses must adapt to new challenges and respond to market demands. But leading change can be hard — and figuring out where to start may feel daunting.

The plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle is a lean management strategy that helps leaders master continuous improvement. It’s a guide for creating change in business processes.

This post will get you ready to lead change with your team by discussing:

What is PDCA?

PDCA stands for “plan, do, check, act.” It’s a management framework for achieving constant improvement and growth within a company. PDCA is also sometimes known as the Deming wheel (after its 1950s founder William Deming) and the Shewhart cycle (named for Deming’s mentor, physicist Walter A. Shewhart).

The PDCA cycle includes planning objectives, implementing (doing) new strategies, checking results, and deciding how to act based on those results. It’s an ongoing strategy that continuously repeats, as the circular diagram shows. The PDCA framework is a scientific method applied to business management.

The PDCA cycle

The 4 stages of the PDCA cycle

Let’s discuss each of the four stages of the PDCA cycle, including what they are, what is involved, and what is required in each stage. Pay attention to how these stages flow from one to the other and then right back to the beginning again. PDCA is all about achieving growth through continual change.

1. Plan

The first stage in PDCA is to define the objective you’re hoping to achieve and determine the processes that will be needed to meet it.

This is when you create the foundation for your PDCA cycle. Think of it like an experiment you’re running. Outlining a simple objective and set of processes is critical before moving on to the next stage. You should also plan how you will measure the success of the experiment. Identifying KPIs at the beginning will ensure that you can objectively measure success later.

For example, let’s say a manager is looking for a way to help his team adjust to a hybrid work schedule. The first step would be to define the goal and process to get there. In this case, the goal might be to maintain productivity while working as a hybrid team. The process could involve setting up a project management board for team members to manage during their flexible work hours. The success of the experiment may be measured using KPIs like the number of projects completed in a two-week period.

2. Do

Next, put your plan into action to test theories about processes or strategies. If this step requires a team effort, it is important to organize and assemble resources to ensure that everyone knows what they are responsible for.

Make sure to follow the plan exactly as it was laid out in the stage before. Sticking to the plan will help keep track of which tests or strategies worked and which ones didn’t.

In our example of the team introducing a hybrid schedule, this is when they would put their process of using a project management board into practice for two weeks — being sure to stick with that strategy the entire time. The manager or team lead would need to be careful not to assign any work to team members through any other method but the board since straying from the plan can impact later results.

3. Check

Analyze the results of the implemented plan. Look for ways that the plan either did help you meet your objectives or ways in which it fell short. This is where the KPIs defined in step one will be very useful.

Don’t put too much pressure on unsuccessful aspects of the cycle. Remind yourself and your team that PDCA is a sort of scientific method, so falling short isn’t really a failure — it’s an informative result of your test.

In this stage, the manager in our hybrid team example would analyze the number of projects completed and compare that to the number of projects completed in the previous time period. They may also check in with team members to ask if there are adjustments to the process they would like to explore.

Team checks PDCA results

4. Act

Finally, take your findings from the “check” stage and determine which improvements you want to implement permanently and what changes you want to make in the next PDCA cycle. This last stage flows right back into the initial planning stage of the next cycle. Now that one cycle is complete, you can use your new insights to start planning a new cycle.

Revisiting our example one more time, the manager of the hybrid team would determine if the project board should become a permanent fixture and which improvements to make for the next cycle before starting it over again. For example, in the next two-week period, they may assign due dates to each project in order to keep things moving in a timely manner.

Example — how PDCA enabled Sony to accelerate by 800%

As the evolution of gaming began to accelerate, Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) needed a way to keep up and ensure the user experience would continue to live up to the SIE reputation.

SIE decided that it needed to simplify website content management by bringing it in house while increasing the number of updates made to content. The company also wanted to provide better support across the growing number of devices used by its customers.

Using a PDCA framework, SIE was able to accelerate their website production by 800%. The company did this by testing different methods for managing content and for simplifying the process of sending messages across all devices.

PDCA example

When to use plan-do-check-act

PDCA is helpful any time you need to improve a process or manage change. Whether it’s building a strategy for a brand-new product or making changes to existing methods, PDCA offers a strategic framework to help guide change.

Managers and leaders might use a PDCA cycle to:

Create a process for a new tool or product

Make changes to a current process

Build a continuous improvement culture

Adjust to meet new standards or regulations

Test potential solutions prior to implementation

Streamline time-consuming tasks

Shift to a remote team model

Getting started with PDCA

PDCA helps organizations keep up with change. By treating business initiatives as a cycle (rather than a straight line), you can use PDCA results to move forward continuously.

To introduce continuous change, begin by defining your business objective and the processes needed to meet that objective. Describe the goal thoroughly and outline the processes clearly. Remember, your team will need to stick closely to the plan — so make sure there’s no room for confusion.

When you’re ready to get started, take a free Adobe Workfront product tour to see how a strategic platform can simplify your PDCA cycles. Workfront can help connect the moving parts that are involved in the PDCA framework and drive better collaboration to deliver measurable business outcomes.