Looking for Evidence of PDCA

By Jon Miller Updated on May 20th, 2017

Magnifying glass reveals the word truth amongst a jumble of letters. Isolated on white with shadow.

Lately I’ve been more mindful about looking for evidence of PDCA. The Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle is the essence of continuous improvement and about half of what makes a lean management system possible. The other part has something to do with people. During lean journey progress checks, lean assessments or when visiting new customers there is generally a lot to see and take in at once. The more advance down the lean path and better organized a company is, the more this is true. It’s easy to get lost in the details of what and how the company is implementing lean in the factory or office. Deliberately following the PDCA cycle is important because whether you do or don’t separates those who succeed by design or by chance, those who learn from their mistakes and thos who don’t.

Persistent evidence of PDCA within an organization is one of the best indicators of long-term sustainability and success. While PDCA thinking is coming into vogue as “A3 thinking” we need to be careful not to confuse the form with the content, the tool with the principle. Don’t be fooled by A3 documents, kaizen event charters, or posters of PDCA wheels. These are not necessarily evidence of PDCA. We need to look for evidence of PDCA as a living cycle that doesn’t depend on any of these forms. It can be easier to look for what is NOT there. There are four places to look.

Look for Plan. Does the organization have a strategic plan? Is there a vision, mission and values that are cohesive and more than wall paper? Are these aligned between the customer and the entire workforce? if the question is yes, is there a process of policy deployment (hoshin kanri) that governs this planning? Strictly focusing on the lean implementation, is there a plan? Is there a road map to the deployment of lean training and tools, or is it tactical, ever-changing by the whims of the leader or whoever is heading the KPO? At the most tactical level of problem solving and value stream kaizen or even point kaizen, is there a plan with a clear problem statement and thorough root cause analysis, or just evidence of solution-jumping? I used to think poor planning is better than no planning, but I’ve learned that this depends on how poor. You can’t really separate the P from the PDCA since it’s part of a continuous learning loop.

Look for Do. This can be seen in action, as a result of the action, or as the absence of action. Since by nature Do happens over time it requires looking at two or more points in time to see the change, or evidence of Do. In a lean organization there should be constant evidence of action, changes to the status quo and improvement work being done. However small the portion of the organization actually working on making improvements at any given time, there should be clear evidence that today once again we are changing something for the better.

Look for Check. Check is harder to see, and therefore specific artifacts and tools of visual management are needed to be sure this is happening. Plans should be posted, both at the hoshin or company annual plan level and the local problem solving level.

The plan document should have an explicit check action, date and responsible person with a red-yellow-green indicator. Following up is it part of the Plan, asking whether both result and the process to get to results were measured. On the level of daily management we expect to see hour by hour boards for production performance, project status boards for non-routine work, and kamishibai boards that aid leaders in periodic audits of standard work. Look for evidence of checks on the check itself. There are few things more lonely than a check document on a communication board that has fallen out of use due to lack of checking that it is being used.

Look for Act.
Finding evidence is the hardest. One favorite place to look is whether standard work been amended, and if so how recently, and base don what Plan, Do, and Check activity preceding it. Then ask what was learned as a result of the improvement, whether that learning has been made explicit, how it has been shared, and how this has affected other plans or actions in progress. Clear evidence of Act would be examples of yokoten (copying best practices) or a plan to do yokoten.

Recently I found PDCA in a surprising place. Actually my wife pointed it out, and I learned that I need to pay better attention to what I am watching on the Food Network. There is a show called Dinner: Impossible in which a near impossible task is given to a team to cook X within Y minutes for Z people. It’s fast-paced, drama-filled and entertaining. Once the mission is given, the head chef Robert Irvine starts with a Plan.

Then comes the Doing, generally in a kitchen that is makeshift and less than ideal. Periodically Robert will Check, keeping everyone on track and adjusting when needed to catch up. The Act phase is the part I have not seen, the standardization of best practices and carrying forward to future challenges and missions. No doubt this happens off-screen, since the Kitchen Impossible team never seems to fail at their mission. Look, and you may or may not find PDCA, but you are sure to become more aware.

  1. John Santomer

    November 22, 2009 - 7:56 am

    Dear Jon,
    Talking about tv shows and PDCA…you may want to see the Amazing Race and check the various approaches of each group to a goal or task.
    I have been reading a lot of your articles on lean and “Kaizen”, continuous improvement and sustainability. It has always been a question to me why “foresight” was never mentioned in any of the planning stages in adapting the Toyota Way. Does this not make the difference between poor planning and sound planning? In any case “genchi genbutsu” will always prove the actual facts and direct us in the root causes that need to be addressed, find counter measures and draw up the new procedure to be later checked for sustainability?
    I found this to be the lacking factor driving change to “kaizen” levels simply because the last procedure or countermeasure applied was thought to be sustainable.

  2. Jon Miller

    November 22, 2009 - 11:47 pm

    Hi John
    Insightful comment on the need for e foresight as part of the planning process. I think it does exist within the PDCA cycle, whether it is proactive long-term strategic business planning or reactive problem solving on the shop floor.
    In strategic planning the management team considers social, economic, environmental, technological, political and other factors to “look ahead” and anticipate problems and plan countermeasures. In here-and-how problem solving we set hypotheses about countermeasures that will address root causes, in effect “looking ahead” and attempting to predict the future.
    I think both of these are forms of foresight that you mention, and very much part of how we do kaizen.

  3. John Santomer

    November 24, 2009 - 1:25 am

    Dear Jon,
    It just struck me reading this article and remembering a top executive in our company who brushed on the fact that even TMC expects that any countermeasure aimed at continuous improvement would pose some other gap in the future requiring more lean and kaizen applications. Hence, Toyota Way prefers to call its kaizen approach as countermeasures. With this in mind, why do you think Toyota Way is still considered a conservative approach and took all these time to manifest as a superior organizational management style? I know that even kaizen improvements were meant to be incremental and not a “big bang” approach but if foresight has shown probable advantages which greatly outweighs and closes the gaps more quickly and efficiently as proven by genchi genbutsu and re-confirmed by poka-yoke-considering we were to aim at long term strategic approaches, why limit at a conservative/immediate/safe countermeasure? Why not push the envelope one level up to see results “outside the box”?

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