The one business-improvement process all companies need

How to Improve Process
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The economy has no room for lethargic business owners and executives. Innovation, competition and expectations are increasing exponentially. There is no viable steady state business model. Every business must improve constantly — or atrophy to a point of extinction.

Plan-Do-Check-Act/Adjust (PDCA) is the one business process that all companies need. It is reliable, tested and trusted. Like most habits, it is easy to live with after sufficient reinforcement.

The scientific method was popularized in the 1600’s with Francis Bacon as a leader of the movement. Skip forward to the 20th century. Walter Shewhart and Ed Deming leveraged the scientific method into a simple repeating cycle of learning and improvement — the PDCA process.

Here are the four steps of implementation for your company:

  • Plan: To improve any aspect of your business, start by clearly establishing the meaningful near-term goal — and the exact actions you believe will achieve that goal. The assumption is: If we do A, we expect B as the result.
  • Do: Execute the plan as you defined it. Off-course implementation limits the learning potential and future success.
  • Check: Compare expected results with experienced results and work to understand the gap.

This is where learning happens! It will be rare to obtain exactly result B, (usually B+, B- or C will happen). This difference from expected to experienced shines a light on what is not well understood. Joyfully grab that opportunity.

  • Act/Adjust: Incorporate what you recently discovered into organizational knowledge and the next iteration of your plan.
  • Repeat (relentlessly): The topic may change, but the process does not.

Pitfalls and how to avoid them

This simple concept has several barriers to implementation. You can overcome them by being aware of the most common mistakes.

  • Confusing motion with results: All too frequently, I see companies busy with Do, a loosely defined Plan that doesn’t clearly articulate the underlying assumptions, and virtually no Check. In those businesses Act/Adjust is just react – often with poor results and little knowledge gained.
  • Lack of discipline in follow up: Just because you believe it’s true doesn’t mean it is. Similarly, just because you assigned someone a task doesn’t mean they executed it when, where, and how you expected. Fight the urge to check actions off a list and move on. Schedule the Check step when the Plan is defined, and then follow up at that appointed time.
  • Aversion to details: Yes, they can be messy, but in that muck is where learning occurs. Generic targets like “improve” have no meaning. “Reducing the scrap rate at Machine #1 from 50 parts per day to 10 parts per day within 2 weeks after implementing our plan” does have meaning. You either did or you didn’t. Assuming you didn’t, let’s figure out which assumption was wrong.
  • Reluctance to admit ignorance: If you or your employees are too smart to learn, your business will never be better than it is today.

Why should every business integrate PDCA into its management process?

  • It facilitates learning.
  • It keeps you moving forward.

What makes it hard?

  • It takes discipline at every step.
  • It requires clearly articulating assumptions and asking good questions.

Pick any challenge you are working on, and follow this process. It will work well — if you let it.