What is the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle?

Julia Martins contributor headshotJulia MartinsJuly 28th, 20213 min read
facebooktwitterlinkedin
What is the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle? article banner image

The PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle is an interactive problem-solving strategy to improve processes and implement change. The PDCA cycle is a method for continuous improvement. Rather than representing a one-and-done process, the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle is an ongoing feedback loop for iterations and process improvements. By following the PDCA cycle, teams develop hypotheses, test those ideas, and improve upon them in a continuous improvement cycle. 

The PDCA cycle is a useful technique for addressing, analyzing, and solving business problems. Because the PDCA cycle is built on the process of continuous improvement, it offers a level of flexibility and iterative improvement. 

The origins of the PDCA cycle

The PDCA cycle was first introduced by Walter Shewhart, the father of statistical quality control. In his book, Economic control of quality manufactured product, Shewhart applied the scientific method to economic quality control. 

Shewhart’s thesis was further developed by W. Edwards Deming, who championed Shewhart’s work. Deming expanded on Shewhart’s idea and used the scientific method not only for quality control but also process improvement.

Deming went on to teach the method—which he called the Shewhart cycle—to Japanese engineers. There, the Shewhart cycle mixed with Kaizen (the Japanese principle of continuous improvement, which was developed by Kaoru Ishikawa), the Toyota production system, and lean manufacturing to become what we now call the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle. 

Nowadays, the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle is commonly used as part of lean project management.

This methodology has many names, including:

  • Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, or PDCA cycle

  • Deming cycle or Deming wheel

  • Shewhart cycle

  • Control cycle

  • Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle or PDSA cycle 

When to use the PDCA cycle

The PDCA cycle is a framework for how to approach and resolve project management and process improvement problems. As a result, it can be implemented for a wide variety of projects. Teams that use the PDCA cycle effectively embrace the element of continuous improvement—rather than using the cycle for an end-to-end process, the PDCA cycle is a way to ensure continuous improvement and implement the iterative process

The Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle is particularly useful when you want to:

  • Streamline and improve a repetitive work process

  • Develop a new business process

  • Get started with continuous improvement

  • Rapidly iterate on change and see immediate results

  • Minimize errors and maximize outcomes

  • Test multiple solutions quickly

4 steps to implement the PDCA cycle

The four steps of the PDCA process are in the name: planning, doing, checking, and actioning. Notably, this process is a cycle, so as soon as you reach the end, you can start over from the beginning again. 

1. Plan

The first step to any process improvement or project planning is to figure out what you need to do. Like any project plan, this includes a variety of information, including:

You can use the PDCA cycle for a wide variety of projects. Whether you’re building a new project from scratch or using the PDCA as a quality improvement project, investing in a robust planning phase is a great way to set the project on the right track. 

Keep in mind that PDCA is a cycle. It’s okay if you don’t have all of the answers the first time around, since you’ll probably run this cycle multiple times. Each time you re-run the PDCA cycle, evaluate your project plan to ensure it’s up-to-date and accurate towards your project goals. 

Read: How to create a project plan that works to keep you on track

2. Do

Once you’ve ironed out your project plan, the next step is to try it out. Like most types of lean project management, PDCA embraces small, incremental changes. During the Do phase of the PDCA cycle, implement the project plan on a small scale to ensure it works. 

Read: Understanding the iterative process, with examples

3. Check

Review the test you ran during the Do phase of the PDCA cycle to ensure everything went according to plan. More likely than not, you will identify things to improve on during the Do phase. After all, it isn’t called continuous improvement for nothing! The Check phase is critical to finding these small things before they get too big and problematic. 

If necessary, revisit your project plan to ensure your project is still hitting your project objectives. Alternatively, if you realized you need to make a change to the project plan, you can also do so now. 

4. Act

After the check, move to the Act phase, which includes rolling out the full project or process improvement. Don’t forget that the PDCA cycle is a cycle. If you need to, return to the Plan phase to continuously improve your project or processes. 

The pros and cons of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle

The PDCA cycle is a powerful tool to continuously improve, but there are also some disadvantages to using this system as well. Take a look at the pros and cons of the PDCA cycle: 

Pros: 

  • Helpful for teams looking to get started with continuous improvement

  • Flexible methodology for virtually any project

  • Quickly implement change and see results

  • Use the PDCA as your standard operating procedure to increase org-wide standardization without the use of a project management office (PMO)

  • Proven continuous improvement methodology

Cons:

  • You need support from senior management in order for the PDCA cycle to be particularly effective

  • Value comes from running the cycle over and over again. Not an effective methodology if you only plan on doing it once. 

  • Requires time to implement and learn

  • Isn’t a great solution for urgent projects, since you typically expect to run the cycle multiple times

Planned-Done-Checked-Actioned

The PDCA cycle is an effective way to implement continuous improvement and problem solving. To get the most out of the PDCA cycle, set your projects up for success with project planning tools. Plan, manage, and track your team’s projects to hit your deliverables on time. 

Try project planning in Asana

Related resources

Article

The beginner's guide to Agile methodologies