Never-ending improvement is the heart of any continuous improvement effort.  The Deming Cycle, or PDCA, is one of the first formalized approaches to utilize an iterative approach to improving processes, and it still serves as a fundamental tool today for continuous improvement. 

This article will describe the stages of the Deming Cycle, the benefits of using the PDCA approach to improvement, an example of how it can be applied, and some best practices for successful use of the method for improving your processes.

Overview: What is the Deming Cycle (or PDCA)? 

The Deming Cycle (or Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA)) is a four-step iterative technique used to solve problems and to improve organizational processes. Dr. Walter A. Shewhart, the renowned physicist and statistician from Western Electric and Bell Labs, developed the original concept during the 1920s. His approach was a three-step linear problem-solving method. 

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the famous quality-control pioneer and author of Deming’s 14 Points, popularized the technique in the 1950s and took Shewhart’s linear three-step process and revised it to be the iterative four-step circle and cycle we know today. This then became known as the Deming Cycle. 

So, what is PDCA and the Deming Cycle?

  • Plan: In this step, you investigate the current situation in order to fully understand the nature of the problem being solved.​ Be sure that you develop a plan and a framework to work from, and specify the desired outcomes and results.
  • Do: To identify the real problem by analyzing the data and defining and implementing a solution plan. The PDCA cycle focuses on smaller, incremental changes that help improve processes with minimal disruption. You should start with a small-scale pilot so as not to disrupt the organization should the solution not work as expected.
  • Check: To monitor the effect of the implementation plan and find countermeasures if necessary to further improve the solution. You should do a check during implementation to make sure that the project’s objectives are being met. Do a second check upon completion to allow for successes and failures to be addressed, and for future adjustments to be made based on lessons learned.
  • Act: Implement your solutions and recommendations. Decide if the solution is effective, and either integrate it into standard work practices or abandon it. If you abandon it, you should ask what you’ve learned from the process and restart the cycle.


3 benefits of the Deming Cycle

PDCA has been used for many decades because of its many benefits. Some of those are:

  1. Facilitates continuous improvement: The fact that PDCA is an iterative cycle encourages users to pursue ongoing and continuous improvement. The key is that it requires a commitment from leadership because the Deming Cycle is not a one-time event.
  2. Flexibility: The Deming Cycle can be used for a wide array of organizational processes regardless of the function.
  3. Simple yet powerful: The concept and the steps are easy to understand. The tools needed are basic. Yet, the outcomes and solutions coming from PDCA can have a significant impact on the organization.

Why is the Deming Cycle important to understand? 

Not only are the Deming Cycle and PDCA important to understand, they are also important to implement and deploy in an organization.

  1. Organizations and leaders must understand that all processes can be improved. PDCA is a great tool for starting on the journey to continuous improvement.
  2. The Deming Cycle is a well documented and proven methodology. There is no need to start from scratch and reinvent the wheel when an effective solution already exists.
  3. With this method, change can be quick and solutions implemented in a timely fashion so that your organization can see benefits right away.

An industry example of the Deming Cycle

One of the benefits of the Deming Cycle is the versatility of the process. It can be used in any number of functional areas. For example, a large manufacturing company started to experience an increase in reported eye injuries by forklift operators in their warehouse operation. They used PDCA to identify potential root causes, and the obvious recommendations to wear appropriate eye protection were the first implemented solutions.  

Unfortunately, eye injuries continued despite better compliance. The company completed a second round of PDCA with the conclusion that the standard eye protection didn’t properly fit everyone. A third go at the Deming Cycle found that debris was being dislodged from the racks when the forklift operators pulled off pallets of product. It was recommended that plastic shields be placed on the top of the forklift to catch the debris.  

Finally, a fourth round of the Deming Cycle concluded that an ongoing cleaning operation to remove and prevent debris from accumulating on the rack shelves was the only way to remove the true root cause. The problem was solved, and eye injuries disappeared.

4 best practices when thinking about the Deming Cycle

Even though the use of the Deming Cycle seems simple at first glance, there are a number of things you should be aware of to increase the probability of success of your PDCA effort. 

  1. Be sure you have the support of not only senior leadership but the local leadership and process owner. While PDCA can be used at the local level, the synergy of having participation and support across the entire organization will result in a more efficient and effective process.
  2. Identify and recruit the best members you can for participation in the project.
  3. Stay focused and on task.
  4. Try to gather as much data as is practical, and use the data to help drive your recommendations rather than just pure subjective hunches. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about the Deming Cycle

What is the Deming Cycle?

The Deming Cycle, otherwise known as PDCA, is a four-step iterative process for solving problems and improving processes.

Who developed the PDCA methodology? 

Dr. Walter A. Shewhart developed the original concept of an improvement process based on Scientific Management. Dr. W. Edwards Deming popularized the concept of an improvement method but added the all-important need for an iterative approach and coined the term PDCA, which stands for Plan – Do – Check – Act

What is the difference between PDCA and PDSA?

Dr. W. Edwards Deming revised the original term PDCA to PDSA because he felt that the use of Check was too closely aligned with the concept of inspection and success/failure. He felt that using the letter S for Study would put more emphasis on data and learning rather than just success and failure. 


Wrapping it up: Deming Cycle and PDCA

The Deming Cycle (or PDCA) is a simple, four-step iterative process that any organization can use to solve problems and improve business processes. By following the sequence of Plan – Do – Check – Act, your company can enjoy the benefits of creating a continuous improvement mindset while producing better products, delivering better service and providing a way for employees to engage and participate in making the organization a better place to work.

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