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What is the PDCA cycle: Plan Do Check Act explanation, basic principles, examples & 11 tips

Photo Rick Van der Linden
Author: Rick Van der Linden
Continuous improvement and PDCA expert
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PDCA stands for Plan, Do, Check, and Act, a cycle that allows you to start improving your goals, KPIs, and policies in a structural and playful way. In short, this is how it works: make a plan, because a goal without a plan is a vain hope. Execute the plan (Do) and collect as much (process) data as possible and monitor & analyze the information. In the Check step, you check whether the results meet the set goals and target values of the KPIs. Did the plan succeed or fail? Did you meet the standards and targets? Based on that comparison, you adjust the execution or scale up or down (Act). Or you adjust your plan. You don’t go through the PDCA cycle once but as a continuous process: daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annually. Spin the PDCA wheel with regularity and create a flywheel for continuous improvement. View a PDCA example here.

What is PDCA?

To really grasp the PDCA meaning, it is important not only to memorize the PDCA abbreviation but also to understand the essence and live the concept. The order of the four capital letters is often mixed up. So, PDCA stands for: Plan Do Check Act and that is also the only correct order to implement improvement processes. Act does not refer to action, but to actualize.

With Plan you need passion, with Do you need data, with Check you need conscious control and with Act you need autonomy of action.

PDCA cycleFigure 1: What is the PDCA: the steps Plan Do Check Act help you implement continuous improvement.

Why use a PDCA cycle?

With a PDCA cycle, you initiate a continuous learning and improvement process in an organization. You do this by giving KPIs, data analysis and human reflection a leading role. In this way, you give people who are passionate about their work the daily opportunity to improve their work process incrementally, step by step.

What is a PDCA cycle?

A PDCA cycle is a system that ensures that a given value moves around the standard, where you keep raising the bar. The term “cycle” indicates a (self) repeating process. It is also referred to in this context as a loop or control loop, a feedback loop where you measure the output of a process and then compare it to the desired value. Then you start acting on it.

The basic principles of a PDCA cycle

How do you build a robust PDCA model? And is there actually a difference between the Deming circle and the PDCA circle? Below we discuss the basic principles of PDCA, continuous improvement, and learning processes in organizations. We give the PDCA cycle meaning and more clout by connecting two domains – data analysis and continuous improvement. By adding four new dimensions to Deming’s quality cycle, we give the traditional PDCA cycle a new, modern look. Let your organization also benefit from the latest insights and our unique PDCA tips.

PDCA stepsFigure 2: Overview of the PDCA cycle and the four steps needed to get it working.

Phase 1 in the PDCA cycle: Plan

In the Plan phase, managers and professionals draw up a plan that includes what results they want to achieve and how they want to do it. In doing so, they take into account any frameworks imposed on the work process as preconditions. Plans and objectives are made SMART with KPIs and standards. This serious planning explicitly includes inspiring your people. The “why” must be crystal clear to everyone.

Phase 2 in the PDCA cycle: Do

In the Do phase, execution takes place, including the recording of events (input, processing, and output). Through interactive dashboards and data analysis, professionals monitor execution. People are allowed to make mistakes, but these are addressed directly at the source. There is room to experiment. In implementation, however, you have to mobilize your people. You will only succeed if you ensure sufficient capacity (so do not accept staff shortages) and deliver quality (well-trained people).

Phase 3 in the PDCA cycle: Check

In the Check phase, executives and professionals compare their actual results achieved with the planned results. They compare the reality with the KPI standard and the plan. To what extent is the execution still in line with the plans and objectives? In practice, there appears to be a large gaping hole between these two worlds: the world of management and that of the shop floor. Intelligent, data-driven organizations see discrepancies as an opportunity to learn. They evaluate the differences (the gap) and figure out their causes (root cause analysis). At this stage, you should also appreciate your people for what they have accomplished.

Phase 4 in the PDCA cycle: Act

In the Act phase, adaptation and adjustment take place. Think of interventions and measures to still achieve the originally planned result.

Managers adjust standards and KPIs but keep raising the bar. Employees develop a mindset of getting a little better every day. In this phase, you start reflecting with each other not only on the content but also on the progress of the overall PDCA.

PDCA and IMAR cycleFigure 3: The PDCA cycle cannot exist without an IMAR cycle.

NOTE: Inspiring, Mobilizing, Appreciating, and Reflecting, abbreviated to IMAR, is inextricably linked to these four steps in the traditional PDCA cycle.

Securing without worrying about tomorrow

The PDCA cycle is emphatically not meant to be a one-time exercise. The effort is too intensive and the time commitment too costly. Continuous improvement should always be the goal (see figure 4). Ultimately you want to use continuous improvement cycles to achieve structural quality improvements that will still be acceptable, tenable, and sustainable tomorrow.

PDCA cycle continuous improvementFigure 4: Continuous improvement thanks to interim assurance of the results achieved

This means that you will have to secure the often laborious results achieved in order not to have to keep reinventing the wheel. Standardize what works and reject what doesn’t.

The SMART KPI Toolkit Image of The SMART KPI ToolkitUse our Smart KPI Toolkit to find the right KPIs that fit your organization in each step of the PDCA cycle. With the SMART KPI Toolkit 2022 you will learn in 6 steps how to work and steer effectively and efficiently with KPIs. This indispensable handbook helps you compile crucial steering information. You will get a clear picture of your KPIs and it will be easier to implement the PDCA cycle and achieve continuous improvement in your organization.view the SMART KPI Toolkit

PDCA cycle example: make it a sport

As a concrete PDCA example, let’s use a current one for Europeans: reducing your own energy consumption. You want to reduce this because you hate waste, for example. Moreover, it’s also good for your wallet. With energy prices skyrocketing, saving energy is a must.

  • Plan: consume a maximum of 150 kWh of electricity and 80 cubic meters of gas monthly. Current consumption is 180 kWh and 125 cubic meters of gas, respectively. Time to act. In your plan, you devise a number of measures to reduce energy consumption, such as turning off the heating one hour earlier in the evening and installing LED lights.
  • Do: you implement the measures and every month you receive the consumption data from your energy supplier via an app. You analyze that data and plot it over time. You make a graph of it. You also make the costs transparent.
  • Check: the first month after your plan, you discuss your energy consumption with your partner. You are at 179 kWh and 126 cubic meters of gas, severely insufficient to achieve what you planned.
  • Act: you add a number of additional measures to your original plan. For example: take a 1-minute shorter shower (applies to all family members) and turn off appliances that use a lot of power, such as a clothes dryer and a television.

PDCA energy exampleFigure 5: PDCA cycle worked out example – energy consumption across months, constantly look for room for improvement.

You go through the PDCA cycle until you reach your goal (the standard). You make it a sport. Or you adjust your goals and standards because your roommates are running cranky through the house due to the shortened shower times. But note that people are creatures of habit. Therefore, even in the above simplified example, it is essential to secure the results achieved, so as not to fall back into old habits (sneak a minute longer shower). At the same time, it is important to look for new savings opportunities. For example, you can also start improvement cycles with the goal of limiting the use of the dishwasher or clothes dryer, for example, or deactivating the standby mode on all kinds of appliances.

Also in work situations and in almost any business sector, such as healthcare, for example, there are plenty of ambitious improvement projects to define on which you can apply the PDCA principles and achieve continuous improvement. Contact one of our management consultants to discuss and define your project.

11 PDCA tips and prerequisites for success

Below we provide some tips for implementing the PDCA cycle. Use these tips as prerequisites for the proper application of the PDCA model in your own organization.

  1. Going through the PDCA cycle pro forma is pointless and a contempt for the Deming circle. Take the example of a healthcare organization where everyone is critically reviewing and monitoring all processes and KPIs ahead of an inspection that will take place in two months. If after the inspection everyone goes back to business as usual, nothing has been achieved. That is precisely not the purpose of the PDCA cycle. PDCA is about continuous improvement and intervening deeply in the organization and should not take place superficially, once a year or so.
  2. A PDCA without KPIs is like a car without wheels. Don’t forget to name in your plans the desired improvement of one or more KPIs. During the Do phase, you will analyze the data behind the KPIs, in the Check phase you will compare the execution based on your KPIs with your objectives as formulated in the plans or policy intentions. The PDCA circle can never start turning without reliable data, insights, and SMART KPIs. Improve KPIs sustainably based on the rhythm of the PDCA cycle.

PDCA tips for success

  1. Always apply the PDCA cycle integrally: that is, go through all the steps. People tend to pick only those steps from the PDCA method that are useful to them at that moment. There is cherry-picking. Or they get no further than the P and the D, and give up at the C. So, you never reap all the benefits of the Deming cycle. The integral application of the Deming circle, if properly done with KPIs in the line, will eventually always translate into better (financial) performance.
  2. Realize that the PDCA cycle can be applied at strategic, tactical, and operational levels. Moreover, the different levels are closely intertwined. The implementation of the strategic plans determines the frameworks for drawing up the tactical and operational plans. The progress reports from the tactical and operational reports from the Check phase serve as input for the higher strategic plans. You will thus begin to see the connection between improvement initiatives, strategic frameworks, and operational processes.
  3. Regularly test your plans against implementation. Do not wait too long but start with this as soon as possible. There are now enough examples of projects that were started with the best of intentions, but because of a lack of interim adjustment, have gone completely off the rails.
  4. Make data analysis a permanent part of the Do phase. The PDCA cycle stands or falls with reliable data that you need to analyze in more detail. Without solid data analysis, you’ll never get the PDCA cycle completed and you won’t be able to do your job properly.
  5. Take the Check phase seriously. For example, set aside half an hour every two weeks for each team and individual employee to complete the Check phase. Is the process running as expected? Does the output meet the standards? Are deviations staying within the rule boundaries? And how is the trend developing? The same motto applies to the Act phase, but then those responsible at the strategic and team levels must get to work.
  6. Always link the major PDCAs to the minor PDCAs. The decision to only set up a PDCA cycle at the policy level and over a large one-year time frame does not ensure continuous improvement or innovation. A large PDCA cycle alone is too unwieldy for that. And if employees focus solely on their daily improvement in a small PDCA cycle, they lose sight of the larger development. So, both cycles are needed. The large PDCA gives direction and frameworks to the smaller PDCA, allows for in-depth investments, and ensures stability and continuity. The smaller PDCA cycles are improvement loops that are small enough that a person recognizes themselves in them and large enough that a person can measure their own performance against them.
  7. No longer base organizational decisions on opinions or feelings, but on facts. Inspiring managers will regularly adjust standards and KPIs while raising the bar ever so slightly. Employees, in turn, will develop an improvement mentality. They are “in control” and experience more job satisfaction because their autonomy puts them back in control.
  8. Make a link between the PDCA and lean processes. Look for symptoms of poor processes such as long lead times, lots of extra checks, lots of data retyping, high work stocks, buffers, and lots of exceptions in the process. Look for the eight wastes that occur almost in every process or organization: overproduction, overprocessing, waiting, transportation, inventories, moves, defects, Deming wheel, and poor use of talent. For each waste, start a new PDCA cycle and create a plan to stop the waste.
  9. The D of Data and the D of Do: Achieve better financial results using the PDCA. Our large-scale PDCA research shows that applying Plan Do Check Act company-wide doesn’t improve profit margins only. Work stocks drop dramatically and customers are more satisfied. These results are mainly due to a few simple rules of thumb: set standards and targets for each KPI (Plan), regularly evaluate the standards and targets and adjust them (Act), use steering information and KPIs consistently for analysis and action (Do), use steering information and KPIs to improve and innovate (Do), talk about the numbers and hold each other accountable for negative and positive performance (Check).

The data-driven PDCA

Adding four new dimensions to the traditional PDCA circle creates what we call a data-driven PDCA cycle. The P of Plan is extended with the P of Passion. The D of Do is connected to the D of Data. The C of Check is associated with the C of Conscious control and the A of Actualize is correlated with the A of Autonomy.

  • Passion: Every plan ultimately begins with a personal mission, or passion. With someone who really wants something different, who has a dream, or personally feels the urgency or drive to actually improve something.
  • Data: just the Do phase is not enough. Doing, based on data analysis, and on irrefutable facts that reliably monitor, over a long period of time, the impact of your attitudes and behaviors, forms the extension of this phase.
  • Conscious control: monitoring alone is not all that happens in the Check phase. The constant feedback of data and its effects activates a learning loop. People become increasingly aware of their own role, the role of others and the effect of all these influencing factors on the whole. They learn how the business actually works. And they learn how the (whole) system responds. Conscious control allows people to consciously adjust plans. Thus, they become more and more “in control.”
  • Autonomy: the outcome of going through PDCA circles is that the professional develops more and more autonomy. They no longer have to directly follow managers but can determine on the basis of data what works and what needs adjustment.

Following this now amply proven PDCA method, we allow organizations to take maximum advantage of the improvement potential present in every organization. Through this enrichment of the PDCA cycle, we also implicitly respect the ideas of William Edwards Deming. He was a great proponent of the use of statistics and data in the PDCA cycle.

Read about the PDCA pitfalls

PDCA Cycle = Deming Cycle

In practice, the PDCA cycle, Deming’s cycle, the Deming wheel, and Deming’s quality cycle are used interchangeably. Just to clarify right away: there is no essential difference and all concepts are visualized almost in the same way: as a circle or a wheel. In other words, they are all synonyms for the same concept, the concept that is all about continuous improvement, controlled process optimization, and data-driven work.

Discover the two basic forms of PDCA

Looking at the positioning of PDCA within a business or work process to achieve improvements, there are two basic forms of PDCA, or two routes to success:

Two basics forms of PDCAFigure 6: The two basic forms of PDCA visualized

  • The PDCA as a regular improvement cycle. This PDCA cycle keeps pace with regular work processes and the classic planning & control cycle. This PDCA cycle is characterized by standards and targets, monitoring, the use of data and steering, changing and improving through key performance indicators (KPI examples) and other indicators. Corrections take place directly in the existing line organization. With the existing means or ways of working, you already lift the organization to a higher level and reach the planned performance more easily.
  • The PDCA as a space for experimentation. In addition to the regular PDCA, this PDCA cycle is intended as a safe experimentation space. This helps to practice improvements “on dry land” first. Here, employees can try out new things in a kind of “sandbox” environment. This then has no immediate impact on day-to-day operations. This PDCA cycle starts with questions like, “what problem do we need to solve?” but also, “how might we develop a completely different approach?” Often new resources, competencies, or completely different ways of working are needed to get this done. Continuous improvement is now reaching the realm of innovation.

If you encounter problems or a challenge in the regular business processes that are too risky or disruptive to fix directly in the line, then start up a PDCA as an experimentation space through a sideline. From the Actualize phase of the regular PDCA cycle, you start trying to fix the problem with a loose PDCA. The idea is not to turn regular operations upside down and still get started with innovations.

KPIs can perfectly link the different steps of the PDCA. Read our guide to find the right KPIs for your company. As a result, the PDCA cycle gains tremendous relevance, power and usability.

Want to know more or need practical advice?

Do you want to know how to improve your organization’s performance with the Plan Do Check Act cycle? Do you want a clear explanation of the PDCA cycle? Are you curious about how you can make your company or teamwork smarter and also more data-driven with the PDCA method? Do you want to know how to draw up a practical PDCA form? Or do you need an improvement consultant or change specialist? Then contact us now for an exploratory meeting with one of our PDCA experts or improvement coaches.

About Passionned Group

Logo Passionned Group, the expert in Plan Do Check ActPassionned Group is a leading specialist in implementing the PDCA cycle and data-driven PDCA cycles. Our experienced and passionate consultants help larger and smaller organizations in making teams and the entire organization data-driven. Every other year we organize the independent election of the 'Smartest organization in the Netherlands'.

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Photo Rick Van der Linden - Business Partnerir. RICK VAN DER LINDENBusiness Partner
Photo Daan van Beek - Business PartnerDAAN VAN BEEK MScBusiness Partner

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