Want water? Get a bucket. Want improvement? Get PDSA

Back to basics with the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle.

Want water? Get a bucket. Want improvement? Get PDSA
Photo by Amritanshu Sikdar / Unsplash

If you want water, you need a bucket.

If you want improvement, you need PDSA.

That’s Plan-Do-Study-Act. PDSA. Sometimes you’ll hear it called Plan-Do-Check-Act, or PDCA. Same thing; story for another time.

Conceptually, PDSA seems simple. In practice, it’s super difficult, especially as group sizes scale up and the work gets more complicated.

PDSA is easy

This is the whole thing:

  • Zero: Begin with sensemaking and understanding the problem.
  • One: Plan a small trial or test.
  • Two: Do what’s in the plan.
  • Three: Study—how did it go? Did we learn anything? Why or why not? What did we learn?
  • Four: Act on what we learned—standardizing on good ideas, spreading what works based on the evidence and narratives we produced by doing something.
  • Infinity: Begin again.

PDSA is hard

It’s hard because... We act without planning. We plan but then don’t do any god damn thing. We plan but do something different from the plan. We plan and will not deviate from plan even when the world changes. We overlearn. We underlearn. We do just fine, but flub the reflection and decision-making. We find awesome ideas but can’t find energy for transformation. Systems revert to mean, people fall back on old ways of doing things. We skip a step. Someone laments, “we already tried that and it didn’t work!” or “we’re already running behind!” We get distracted. We are managed by crisis and punished for experimentation.

PDSA is hard because you have to do 4 steps, in order, at scale, with attention, in community.

If you have a bucket, you can carry water

Take good care of that bucket.

And if you run PDSA, you can improve over time. Take good care of that PDSA system.

I am reminded of Chinoyo’s lament on a cold night 900 years ago:

“With this and that I tried to keep the bucket together,
and then the bottom fell out.
Where water does not collect,
the moon does not dwell.”