Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA)

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The PDCA process lies at the core of all the mainstream ISO standards. Developed by Dr William Edwards Deming in the 1950s (and sometimes also called the ‘Deming Loop’) is aims to solve problems and implement solutions in a rigorous, methodical way and to drive continual, incremental improvement of a process over time.

The four steps in the cycle are as follows:

  1. Plan: Identify and understand the challenge or opportunity that you wish to address. In the sustainability context, it might be to identify which aspects of ESG are the most important to your firm and to improve these over time. Explore the information available in full. Generate and screen ideas, and develop a robust implementation plan. Be sure to state your criteria and measures of success criteria and make them as quantifiable as possible. You’ll return to them later in the Check stage.
  2. Do: Once you’ve identified a potential solution, test it safely with a small-scale pilot project. This will show whether your proposed changes achieve the desired outcome – with minimal disruption to the rest of your operation if they don’t. For example, you could organise a trial within a department, in a limited geographical area, or with a particular demographic. As you run the pilot project, gather data to show whether the change has worked or not. You’ll use this in the next stage.
  3. Check: Next, analyze your pilot project’s results against the criteria that you defined in Step 1, to assess whether your idea was a success. If it wasn’t, return to Step 1. If it was, advance to Step 4. You may decide to try out more changes, and repeat the Do and Check phases. But if your original plan definitely isn’t working, you’ll need to return to Step 1.
  4. Act: This is where you implement your solution. But remember that PDCA/PDSA is a loop, not a process with a beginning and end. Your improved process or product becomes the new baseline, but you continue to look for ways to make it even better.

The PDCA/PDSA framework works well in all types of organisations. It can be used to improve any process or product, by breaking them down into smaller steps or development stages and exploring ways to improve each one. It’s particularly helpful for implementing Total Quality Management or Six Sigma initiatives and for improving business processes generally.

The PDCA cycle is less useful when going through the PDCA/PDSA cycle as it can be much slower than a straightforward implementation, so it might not be the appropriate approach for dealing with an urgent problem. It also requires significant buy-in from team members, and offers fewer opportunities for radical innovation – which may be what your organisation needs instead.


Lean Enterprise Institute: PCDA