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Article: the PDCA cycle is alive and well!

Photo Leo Kerklaan
Author: Leo Kerklaan
Senior PDCA Consultant

“I am a real fan of the PDCA. If applied in conjunction with policy, you can not only structurally improve your business processes but also create the ideal conditions for much-needed innovation,” states Leo Kerklaan, an international quality and KPI expert, in a noteworthy article. In this opinion piece, Kerklaan responds to Everard van Kemenade, who wrote a scathing article critiquing the PDCA cycle. Van Kemenade claims that PDCA is a myth, but Kerklaan dismisses this claim, advocating for the structural use of the PDCA cycle. On this page, we will give a summary of the arguments made in the article, but we recommend that you read the full article by downloading it here.

Definitely not a myth

Kerklaan: “The PDCA cycle is absolutely not a myth in the sense that Van Kemenade argues. He throws the baby (PDCA) out with the bathwater. He uses the word myth in the sense of a ‘made up story’, i.e. fiction. That is not correct. A myth is par excellence a story that shows us reality in a compelling way. That is why myths are handed down again and again to subsequent generations and live on. The same should be done with the PDCA cycle.”

The article in less than 50 words

The opinion article discusses a number of current issues. We summarize them briefly below:

  • The quality world is confused: what is the focus of the field again?
  • Is quality management a hobby or not?
  • Why do we keep getting bogged down in academic discussions?
  • How can organizations optimize the continuous improvement process with PDCA?
  • How can quality managers create a safe learning environment?

The quality manager as ‘PDCA champion’

Kerklaan would like the new generation of quality experts to become the great champions of the PDCA cycle. As ‘true gladiators’, champions, they must, much more often than is currently the case, set up learning environments and form so-called quality communities. That requires the same courage that the Roman gladiators had to muster at the time. But in this way, quality managers can be at the forefront of continuous improvements and innovation based on practical experiences. If you also want to develop into a ‘PDCA champion’, avoid the 5 PDCA pitfalls and benefit from the tips given in this article. Download now.

About the author: Leo Kerklaan

Leo KerklaanLeo Kerklaan has an impressive track record as an (online) improvement coach and organizational consultant. He teaches at numerous universities at home and abroad. Leo writes many white papers and books about continuous improvement, quality management, and strategic performance management. His latest book ‘The Agile Organization‘ is his crowning achievement, building on all of his previous work.

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Introduction

Indeed, I am a great fan of the PDCA cycle. Thanks to the PDCA, organizations can quickly adapt to a changing environment. Applied smartly and wisely, this learning cycle ensures that the organization innovates and thus adapts to the rapidly changing environment. I therefore see PDCA and continuous improvement as the beating heart of quality management.

The PDCA cycle is absolutely not a myth in the sense that Van Kemenade argues (Sigma 5, 2013). He uses the word myth in the sense of ‘made-up story, fiction’. That is not correct. A myth is a story par excellence that shows us reality in a compelling way. That is why myths are always handed down to subsequent generations. The same must also happen with the PDCA cycle.

I would like the new generation of quality experts to become champions of ‘PDCA’. More than is currently the case, they must set up learning environments and form quality communities in order to continually generate improvements based on practical case studies.

Quality experts are eagerly looking for legitimacy

Unfortunately, the article ‘Quality management in practice’ (De Vaal, Pijl and Van Schijndel, Sigma 1, 2014) does not stand alone. It fits in with contributions previously published in Sigma. Those articles show – in my opinion – that the quality world is in confusion. Let me explain myself further.

Quality experts are on a quest: what is the focus of our field? And how can we best classify the field? After the initial ‘fitness for use’ they developed a new ambition. Quality experts looked for the highest quality: excellence. They thought they had found excellence in universal standards (such as ISO-9000) and success models (such as INK). They were promoted for years. In the current circumstances, such traditional approaches are starting to lose their appeal or even become counterproductive. How to respond to this?

Van Kemenade throws the baby (PDCA) out with the bathwater. You definitely shouldn’t do that. Quality experts such as De Vaal et al. are looking to legitimize their work. Fine, but they should not make quality management and PDCA too complex.

Principles for legitimization

De Vaal et al. base their conclusions on the connection of system technical aspects and social-dynamic aspects in quality management practice. Indeed: the balance between system and behavior is often lost. But I still doubt whether this is the right starting point for a search for legitimization. System technology exudes a classic, strongly internal orientation to the production system. Social-dynamic, on the other hand, sounds modern but borrows from the now classical change management. This focuses on motivating employees by wanting to change them through interventions. But this is also internally focused.

We may sometimes ask ourselves how effective those change agents and their interventions actually are. I just think that people can only change themselves. In my opinion, the search for legitimization starts at the roots of quality discipline: what was the intention again?

Quality management: why again?

Quality experts must encourage people to commit themselves to delivering good quality and to investigate how that quality can be further improved. Wijvekate argues that contributing to improvement is everyone’s task. But what is good quality? And which quality problems require improvement?

Organizations produce products and/or services so that they can survive. That is to say: if those products and/or services are purchased. Due to system dynamics, this process – if not adjusted – will show increasing deterioration over time. The business is struggling with the big question of how the organization should adapt to the turbulent environment. Because adjustment is constantly necessary: adapting to customer wishes, competition, innovative developments, new technology, new legislation, etc.

The external factors are all constantly changing and thus give rise to system dynamic effects. Only a continuous stream of reactions (adjustments) can cope with the creeping ‘deterioration’ of the organization. Organization members must be able and willing to make these necessary adjustments themselves. This will not be possible without setting up a social learning structure that effectively invites people to develop and then apply these adjustments.

Quality management can play a wonderful role here by improving emotional quality (read: involvement). Quality experts can install ‘quality communities’ that encourage problem exploration, vision formation, collaboration, experimentation , and knowledge sharing at all levels.

Limitation of possibilities

The socio-technical structure is formed, among other things, by hierarchy, coordination between echelons, horizontal coordination mechanisms, and degree of decentralization. This structure determines and limits the organization’s ability to respond quickly to ‘events’ in the environment. After all, the mentioned factors also affect the control capacity vs. determines the regulatory needs of employees. This in turn has a major influence on the learning capacity of organizations. Regulation needs and regulation capacity must be balanced. That is the socio-technical side.

Quality experts must create safe learning environments in which PDCA cycles can thrive and scale.

On this basis, I formulate my starting point. Quality assurance connects the system-dynamic aspects and socio-technical aspects of an organization. I use the same words as De Vaal et al. but I deliberately changed the order. With this , I want to express that the organization must solve quality issues better and faster in the given turbulent circumstances (system dynamics) through delegation of control capacity (social-technical). The PDCA cycle nourishes the learning process in which this becomes possible. Quality experts must create safe learning environments in which these cycles can thrive and scale.

Pitfalls in the application of PDCA

A supporter of the reflective school wrote in Sigma that quality assurance is not a hands-on profession. A sentence like that reveals something. Quality assurance is elevated to an academic discipline (‘finally a field’). However, our search for typical quality models and schools is in danger of becoming too academic. We lose sight of empiricism and casuistry. Before you know it, PDCA is seen as an outgrowth of the empirical school with its damned managerial tendencies. Moreover, the ideas of Shewart and Deming are already half a century old. How can that still be useful?

Van Kemenade mentions another objection. He states plainly that PDCA cannot respond flexibly to changes in the environment. The opposite is true. That is exactly what PDCA is intended for. How do he and others arrive at such an assessment? I cannot rule out that they have fallen into a pitfall.

Quality is about ‘survival of the fittest’

The five pitfalls obscure the potential of the PDCA methodology. If you fall into one of the pitfalls mentioned, no learning environment will be created. Then the organization cannot develop agility, adaptivity , and flexibility. Moreover, the root causes of problems are not discovered. In many Dutch organizations, internal processes are run on autopilot. Then you obviously don’t learn much.

The PDCA improvement methodology works precisely by discovering the automatisms in behavior and redesigning these ‘automatically’ controlled processes. An improvement process without PDCA anchoring will not achieve lasting better results.

In many Dutch organizations, internal processes are run on autopilot.

The charm of PDCA is its simplicity. If it is applied wisely and smartly, it provides guidance to searching managers to shape cyclical learning in their organization. In short: PDCA is an effective thinking tool for learning to improve production processes with a low threshold.

Four tips for an effective PDCA cycle

The more the following four aspects are taken into account, the more effective the PDCA cycle.

  1. Use the talents available, don’t try to change people. Around 1980, Deming declared the PDCA cycle applicable not only to improving production (as Shewhart did ) but to improving the entire organization. That is a (completely) different approach than choosing the change management route that is popular today. That route is based on interventions. Managers and consultants try to solve the unfair question: ‘how do I get them to do this?’. De Vaal et al. give an example of this (in this case, color theory). Apparently looking for control, they use the PDCA cycle to manage this change process (2nd and 3rd pitfall). That is precisely not the intention. PDCA is (I repeat) used to optimize production processes so that the results improve. But why is it necessary for people to be changed for that? Who has the right to decide this? The criterion is simple. Every organizational member must perform his task well and contribute to the daily improvement of his own work. PDCA offers the technology and opportunity for the latter in all simplicity.
  2. Give employees the space to develop insights together, test them, and learn from experiences. In 1993, Deming had converted the Shewhart cycle to such an extent that there was a ‘cycle for learning and improvement’. In this version, Deming speaks of Plan as a change to be tested. About Do as a small-scale experiment. About Study instead of Check, and about Act as the process changes that must be applied from now on. This is the PDCA cycle as it should now be known. Learning and improvement are aimed at ‘problem -solving in the line’. So together we investigate the practical problems that we encounter and actively experiment with them. This creates learning by doing, or experiential learning. So not classroom learning, but instead we have an immediate link with practice.
  3. Ensure PDCA is acceptable to management. The efficacy and effectiveness of PDCA lies in the repetition of the cycle. Repetition is the similarity to other experiential learning cycles such as the Kolb and Boyd cycles. But experimenting by definition involves uncertainty. Many managers don’t like that. The refinement that has taken place over time is to incorporate ‘trial and error’ into experiential learning in a way that is acceptable to management.

    Experimentation by definition involves uncertainty and many managers do not like that.

    Hypothesis formation, controlled and small-scale conduct of experiments, systematic data collection, the study step that leads to insight, and the accompanying forms (for example the A3 form) provide a structure that gives managers sufficient certainty.

  4. Give PDCA a structural embedding. Deming believed that everyone in the organization should use the cycle. The effect could be greater if PDCA were embedded in a more robust social knowledge structure. A social knowledge structure is realized, for example, when a PDCA is embedded as a community of practice. It is about a permanent group of practitioners being consciously facilitated by management to study and solve certain topics. Quite a mouthful. But a five-minute morning meeting attended by the manager and his or her employees at the supermarket is a good example. This requires delegation of responsibilities and the availability of the correct information. Then decision-making and learning can be linked. The group members help each other and share information on certain topics. They learn what works and what doesn’t, and guided value patterns develop.

Five pitfalls of PDCA

In the box below I briefly review five pitfalls of PDCA:

  1. The pattern of Plan-Do-Plan-Do keeps repeating itself. There is no time for Check and Act. The mistake here is that PDCA is not applied consistently. The learning cycle is not closed and the desired improvement does not occur.
  2. PDCA without Try and Test. That is PDCA in the hands of managers with an excessive management attitude. Then PDCA quickly becomes an approach that hinders. Experimenting is not allowed because it is seen as risky. But Try and Test is the essence of the Do step. Furthermore, the ability to experiment allows for the development of solutions for event-based problems.
  3. Applying PDCA without a specific improvement intention but as an aid in the execution of the normal process. This involves identifying ‘what is missing’ in a process and then adding it correctively so that the process can once again do what it was designed to do. All very useful, but it does not contribute to continuous improvement.
  4. Using PDCA to implement a plan. A Plan starts without much analysis or ‘wisdom’, but has already been worked out in considerable detail. Everything is then done to implement this plan (see also the 3rd pitfall), even though it gradually turns out that this plan is based on incorrect assumptions.
  5. A combination of the 3rd and 4th pitfall in an environment of professionals. They often have to implement plans of higher management and staff. They have direct contact with the customer and have ‘execution wisdom’. They have to use all kinds of ‘tricks’ to realize the plan (optically). In the meantime, in practice they try to continue to do as much as possible that is useful. This is tiring and annoying. And of course bad for the results of the organization.

Conclusions

The following conclusions follow logically from my argument and I (of course) draw them in a personal capacity:

  1. Fortunately, the PDCA is still alive and well. PDCA should not be dismissed because it focuses on control or does not support change.
  2. PDCA enables products and services to continuously meet customer expectations. This way, the strategic positioning of an organization can be used for longer.
  3. PDCA is process optimization through problem-solving in the line. Solving problems where they arise requires cooperation from those directly involved.
  4. The keys to cooperation are delegation of decision-making and participation in a learning process that is nourished by experiments and observations in one’s own control area.
  5. Quality managers can set up PDCA learning environments for teams. A PDCA learning environment is designed as a community of practice: a defined research field, facilitated by management and access to the right information.

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