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Keep Improving With Fewer Yo-Yo Results

One of the cornerstones of Lean production is the concept of the PDCA cycle.

Plan | Do | Check | Act

The impact of following the PDCA cycle is great and far-ranging — affecting KPIs from customer satisfaction to profits — which is why this concept is one of the cornerstones of Lean production. Rather than go through each part of the cycle individually, I’m going to touch on various concepts and ideas that are either the result of or which illustrate the PDCA cycle in practice.

Incremental Improvement

These two graphs visually represent improvement over time. The graph on the left depicts improvement under PDCA. On the right is nonstandardized, non-PDCA improvement.

Choose the BAD approach to put forth more effort and make a big, short-lived impact fast

The graph on the right shows large improvements followed by almost immediate drops in improvement. Over time, the improvement is incremental, even though at the curve’s peak, the level may be very high. These highs and lows are due to a lack of follow-through by the organization, team, department or entity this chart hypothetically represents, and the jumps in improvement are not sustainable in the long run.

An example of this kind of improvement — also known as the “Bad” kind — is a fad diet, such as the Atkins or grapefruit diet. These diets, when followed, might lead to large drops in weight in a short period. However, they are so restrictive and out of balance that most people can’t follow them for long. After losing weight quickly, they return to their normal habits for a week or two before realizing that they’ve gained it all back, at which point they start the diet again.

This process continues repetitively, and, if the dieter is lucky, it might result in a small net weight loss over time, but with a disproportionately large cost of effort.

In a company, this ineffective, inefficient approach can inoculate a company to continuous improvement in the future.

Take the GOOD approach to ensure many small steps lead to greater long-term impact

Contrast this with the “Good” PDCA improvement cycle on the left. The PDCA improvement curve features small increases in improvement followed by short periods of follow-through. This cycle repeats with no drops in improvement until the peak improvement is reached — a peak is the endpoint of the line, unlike the non-PDCA line.

In the “Good” graph, the flat sections represent the planning, doing and checking stages. If we were to zoom in on the flat sections of the graph, we might see tiny peaks and valleys describing the planning phase, the first attempt at improvement following planning. The improvement curve would then return to the initial level of improvement in the checking stage, when the gains in the doing stage are standardized or the losses incurred are remedied.

Zoom in on the flat sections of the GOOD graph, and you might see tiny peaks and valleys describing the planning phase, the first attempt at improvement following planning.

If we zoom out from the flat sections, we see that each flat section (Plan, Do, Check) is followed by a small, quick jump in improvement. This is the action (Act) stage. In the PDC stage, we may not see visible improvement, but this phase ensures the stable, incremental improvement we see in the action stage. And this improvement does not drop.

The PDC part of the cycle also ensures that new improvements are sustainable, which is why they are small. This all adds up to small, incremental steps up, which, over time, add up to a large amount of improvement overall.

To illustrate PDCA, let’s consider the treatment of a bacterial infection. When you have an infection and take a 10-day course of antibiotics, the doctor tells you to finish your entire course of medicine even if you appear to improve dramatically during the first five days. The second half of the treatment is the follow-through, which ensures the bacteria will not reappear, and you won’t make the bacteria resistant to your medicine in the future. This is with the PDCA process.

If we follow the analogy from above of losing weight, while non-PDCA plans might include highly restrictive diets, PDCA-like plans could include small improvements such as:

  • Walk 1 mile every day.

  • Slowly decrease the levels of sugar and cream in your coffee.

  • Take the stairs over the elevator.

  • Gradually cut back the overall calories consumed.

These steps are easy to follow. They don’t include massive sacrifices like eating grapefruit for every meal. They are simply little things to be done every day which, on a long enough timeline, will result in weight loss.

When I managed a pharmacy, we focused on completing just one RIP (Rapid Improvement Process) per week, sometimes two. By the end of nine years, we were a much better business because of it, in virtually every aspect of the business, including customer satisfaction, profit and culture. This is the idea of PDCA at work.

If your organization is struggling to adopt a healthy diet of continuous improvement, contact us. Please use the form on our homepage or connect with Erik Young on LinkedIn.


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