What Is the PDCA Cycle? (With Benefits and Examples)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published June 17, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Companies use several methods to increase efficiency, enhance productivity, and improve processes. An effective way to help ensure continuous improvement of a company's operations, products, or services is to apply the plan-do-check-act cycle. Understanding the stages of a plan-do-check-act cycle can help you contribute to optimizing a company's procedures. In this article, we define the PDCA cycle, outline the steps involved, discuss its benefits, differentiate it from PDSA, and share helpful examples.

What is the PDCA cycle?

The PDCA cycle is a four-step process for implementing change. Professionals consider it a project planning tool for continuous improvement of people and processes. The cycle is a systematic process that allows teams to measure results, analyze them, and find opportunities for improvement. Companies can use the cycle repeatedly to avoid recurring mistakes, improve processes, and enhance quality assurance.

Related: What Is Process Improvement and How Can You Utilize It?

Steps of a plan-do-check-act cycle

The design of the plan-do-check-act cycle encourages continual growth and advancement in process management. Here are the four steps of this cycle:

Plan

This is the first stage that involves planning all project activities and deliverables. The team can identify and evaluate potential challenges associated with a project and research opportunities to improve a product, service, or overall process. A specific project plan details the operational framework while reflecting the organization's mission and values. It outlines the project's goals with actionable steps and practical strategies to achieve them. You can define the project's expectations at this stage to compare them with the final solution once the project ends. Consider asking the following questions to address basic concerns at this stage:

  • What are the challenges to expect?

  • Is this a significant challenge to address?

  • What impact does the challenge have on the overall project?

  • What resources do you need?

  • What resources are available?

  • What's the best solution to resolve the challenge considering the available resources?

  • Who can be in charge of seeking possible solutions?

  • What are the project goals and expectations?

Do

After effective planning, you can test the most probable solution that can solve a problem. It may be best to test on a small scale and in a controlled environment and measure the effects on a project. For example, you can test the solution with a specific consumer demographic or geographical area. This stage also specifies the roles and responsibilities of all parties involved. Essential questions to ask at this stage include:

  • Who can conduct the solution tests?

  • How can you perform the test on a smaller scale?

  • How do you intend to collect the data?

Check

In this stage, you can analyze and audit your plan's implementation to evaluate its success rate. Consider measuring your solution's effectiveness to determine whether it supports your test results. It's common to repeat the check stage multiple times before proceeding to the final step. This way, you can help ensure optimal testing before selecting a final solution. If your results meet all expectations and solve the challenges, the team can proceed with its plans. Otherwise, you can repeat the previous stages to achieve desired results. Consider asking the following questions during this stage:

  • Did the solution tests provide the desired outcome?

  • What didn't go as planned?

  • Was there enough data available to properly test the solution?

  • Can the small-scale testing advance to a more extensive operation?

  • Are there better solutions available?

Act

This stage determines whether the solution is successful and implements it in the company's operations to improve its process, products, or services. After identifying, checking, and resolving issues, you can take corrective actions to adopt the entire plan. The entire plan-do-act cycle is a loop. Even after implementing a solution, you can begin the process again, from planning to identifying other improvement opportunities that can aid the company's growth and enhance customer satisfaction. The team can ask the following questions during the final stage:

  • How's it possible to implement this change in the organization effectively?

  • What resources do you need for a successful change implementation?

  • What training can you organize to enlighten users and company employees about this new solution?

  • Are there possible areas to improve?

  • What other company process needs improvement?

Benefits of the plan-do-check-act cycle

Companies seeking to enhance their processes often apply the plan-do-check-act cycle to minimize mistakes and maximize results. Here are more benefits of using the plan-do-check-act cycle in operations:

Maintains continuous improvement

One of the main benefits a plan-do-check-act cycle can offer an organization is its use in continuous improvement. Once an organization successfully solves one problem with the process, it can become the standard for improving business operations. The organization can resolve other organizational challenges or issues following the same approach. If a team implements a solution and encounters further challenges, they can revisit the cycle to improve the process again.

Helps to mitigate risks

The plan-do-check-act cycle enables teams to correct errors. The tool allows for effective problem analysis, testing of possible solutions, and process repetition to get productive results. You can mitigate risks and prevent serious problems that may affect an organization by testing changes on a smaller scale and analyzing potential risks.

Related: A Guide to Risk Management Process (With Practical Examples)

Increases productivity and efficiency

Having a standard-setting tool that all employees can use to address specific company problems or issues can improve the overall productivity of an organization. The design of the plan-do-check-act cycle enables employees to use it as many times as necessary to increase work efficiency. It can also allow every company official to understand their roles in resolving challenges and contributing to the company's success.

Related: 8 Job Training Methods to Improve Employee Productivity

PDCA vs. PDSA cycles

PDSA stands for plan, do, study, and act. Both cycles are progressive four-step models professionals use to improve business processes and produce positive changes. The main difference is the check stage in PDCA, which helps a team determine whether they achieved desired goals by comparing expected results with actual outcomes. In contrast, the study phase in the PDSA cycle enables a more considered approach that healthcare organizations often favour because of its analytical value.

Examples of a plan-do-check-act cycle

Here are examples of organizations using the plan-do-check-act cycle to improve work processes:

Example for a hospital

This is an example of a hospital implementing the plan-do-check-act cycle to improve their work conditions:

Green Life Hospitals is experiencing an increase in healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) among admitted patients. Upper hospital management forms a plan-do-check-act team to handle the issue and tasks them to achieve a 50% reduction in HAIs in the hospital. The team starts working by providing possible reasons for increasing HAIs, including a poor air filtration system, patients staying longer than necessary, and substandard employee training. The team concludes that employee training is a primary issue and figures that employees can prevent many hospital infections if they receive adequate training.

After planning and determining what caused the problem, the team can organize new training sessions with a group of nurses to test whether they follow the stated protocols and guidelines. They also determine whether the number of healthcare infections reduced significantly. If this solution works and meets the intended goal of a 50% reduction of HAIs, the cycle can end and start again later if there's a need to revisit the training procedure. If the employee training solution achieves different results, they can switch to other proposed solutions.

Example for a human resources team

This example shows how an organization's human resource team uses the plan-do-check-act cycle to improve the hiring process:

Buff-Gold Ltd's HR department reviews resumes for open positions, contacts qualified candidates, and schedules interviews. The department realizes that qualified candidates typically gain employment at the company's competitors before they send interview invites due to extended time reviewing resumes. This situation impacts the time it takes to fill open positions, which affects operations and project deliveries. The department plans and proposes solutions to the problem. They can install a new applicant tracking system (ATS) software that automatically searches for keywords in candidates' resumes, creates a new scheduling procedure, or hires a new HR administrator to filter applications.

The department explores the benefits and drawbacks of each proposed solution. Then, the HR manager decides to install a free ATS software program that scans candidate resumes. This way, the HR department can have adequate time to schedule interviews with the hiring manager. If the testing stage is successful and the ATS significantly improves the time constraints, they can approve and implement the solution and constantly track its performance. The team can revisit other proposed solutions if the ATS software doesn't provide the desired results.

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