There comes a point in a person's early encounter with lean principles—I aim for this to occur no more than fifteen minutes in—when the question becomes:
"This crapola. This thing about continuous improvement in service of customer value through respect for people. It all sounds good. But a lot of things sound good. What's the point? What the actual fuck are we doing?"1
WTF we are doing is this: we are doing PDCA.
Which is to say that, when we encounter problems…
- We make a plan.
- We do what was in the plan.
- We check how things went.
- We act on what we learned.
Cue the peanut gallery:
- "We already do this!"
- "No shit, Sherlock—that’s the scientific method!"
- "My kid could come up with this stuff."
Sure, PDCA sounds easy. But I want you to think about this. Have you ever noticed anything similar to any of these four steps happening?
- We make a generic, slapdash plan.2
- We start according to the plan, but abandon it at first opportunity.
- We don't take time and energy to measure, reflect, and learn.
- Last but not least, we rush on to the next pressing problem—which is likely to be an expression of the same problem we just failed to remove—or to beat the line over at the hot dog stand.
Here's a hard truth. People suck at planning, at doing, and checking.
What about act? Finally, some good news. People are pretty great at acting on what they've learned. It's the getting there that's hard.
Sidebar: PDCA/PDSA/PDCA Deming/Shewhart Cycle/Wheel/Circle
Is it Plan-Do-Check-Act, Plan-Do-Study-Act, Plan-Do-Check-Adjust?
Or, as it was stated by Serge Chermayeff in my first introduction to the idea, Need-Tool-Experiment-Research-Refinement?
You can have it however you like, and are invited to the PDCA page on Wikipedia for history and your choice of liberally-licensed grotesque illustrations of the cycle.
Key points for PDCA
When I help folks practice PDCA, these are key points I want them to understand and internalize:
- Your plan starts with a problem or gap that exists in the universe.
- The problem or gap is stated in a way that makes it clear why it's a problem, and why it's important.3
- Make sure you know where the problem occurs.
- Make sure you know why the problem occurs.
- Figure out what you can do to remove the problem with the authority and resources you already have.4
- Only then, make a plan for something to do in order to (try to) remove the problem or close the gap. The plan should be impossibly overly specific. Who will do each of the things that need to happen? Who will do the things that need to happen so those people can make it happen? When? Where?
- Put time and space for checking how things are going directly into your plan. If you'll need to collect measurements or gather data as part of doing the plan, build that into the plan.
- Do the plan.
- Check on how things went: What did you notice? Did doing the plan move you closer to where you want to be? (Is the problem gone? Is the gap any smaller? Did doing any of this further develop your understanding of the problem?)
- OK, now what? What’s next? Who needs to hear about this?
One must imagine Sisyphus happy
PDCA is a cycle. It's one that's worth getting good at. It's something you can grapple with at any scale. You can build systems, environments, and displays that support PDCA. You can make this as complicated as you want. But you know what?
Start simple. Start soon. And don't do it alone. Think of something that isn't right and that bugs you at least twice a week. Make a plan. Work through those key points up there. I challenge you to fit it all onto a single sheet of paper. Big old sheet is fine. Share it with somebody. Ask them what they think. Did you get it right? What might make this plan better?
GOD GIVES NO MORE
Believe me, people think it. Maybe they won't say it. But I can hear 'em thinking it. ↩
"Step 4: Establish Workgroup" ↩
How does this problem decrease the value we’re creating for customers? Does the problem cause us to spend time creating waste and errors rather than something anybody on god’s green earth might possibly want? Are people disrespected or held back because this problem exists? ↩
If the answer is "nothing", that's fine, except that the answer is never "nothing". Keep thinking. ↩