How Far Have We Gone?

Where We Are, What Remains to Be Done

Do not confuse coincidence with cause and effect. True: anyone could make a list of companies that are doing well, even though their management follows one or all of the above bad practices. These companies are saved by good luck, coincidence, having a great product or service that commands good market. Any of these companies might do much better were the management to learn some theory of management…

Likewise, one may find companies that are trying to do everything right, yet are having a hard time to survive. They would be still worse with bad management. How much worse, no one could know.

How far have we gone? Careful thought concerning the origin and effects of the prevailing system of management will come forth with this question: Does anybody care about long-term profit?

Why do we ask a question like this? Every manager supposes that he is doing his best. He is, and this is the problem. His best efforts, without knowledge from the outside merely dig deeper the pit we are in.

Deming, Dr. W.E. The New Economics, 3rd ed. (p. 26)

RECENTLY, I was having a conversation with a senior manager about reporting the state of their delivery teams’ progress to top-management that brought the above excerpt to my mind. They had asked for my advice on what metrics I thought critical for tracking the performance of their teams and how to show them to top-management. I made my recommendation and they averred that leadership doesn’t care to know anything more complicated than a traffic light status report. It’s either “on-track” or “in trouble” and with how many days to go.

The manager’s concern was that they didn’t want to present or challenge their bosses with anything they were unaccustomed to seeing, and in so doing maintain the status-quo. However, for the past year and change their department was undergoing an ostensible “agile” transformation, aided at various times by expensive consultants. Why wouldn’t leadership want to understand how their divisions are running?

The answer lies with the boundary line of what’s “in” and “out” of scope.

Theory for Leadership of the Transformation

In the second chapter of The New Economics that concerns the heavy losses we’re accruing due to disregarded faulty management practices, he makes the following observation alongside a table provided by Dr. Edward M. Baker that describes where outsized gains are to be found, yet ignored:

Somehow, the theory for transformation has been applied mostly on the shop floor. Everyone knows about the statistical control of quality. This is important, but the shop floor is only a small part of the total. Anyone could be 100 per cent successful with the 3 per cent, and find himself out of business. (p. 27)

It’s difficult to imagine, but we’re still at the starting line Dr. Deming laid out for us decades ago, pouring enormous amounts of time, energy, resources, and money into shifting the needle for a measly 3% gain while ignoring the 97% gains just waiting to be exploited. Of course, you can’t obtain what you cannot see and there’s no shortcuts to doing so, and its doubly-difficult when you are subsumed in the prevailing system of management and conditioned to seeing and managing by visible figures.

How far have we gone? Nowhere near far enough, and unlikely to get much further than choosing a new pair of runners and lacing up.

In the case of the manager above, the solution for them is ongoing but begins by learning more about the system performance metrics I provided and how to use and present them to exploit their leadership’s curiosity about better insights into how a solution is being managed and delivered. It will likely end up as a PDSA experiment in the New Year.

Reflection Questions

Consider the implications of the scenario I describe above in context of Dr. Deming’s thoughts on the impact of transformation that’s limited to “the shop floor”. A big part of why we ignore the gains from the 97% that come from shifting our thinking is fear of the unknown. Many small-scale transformations start off very localized working on the sphere of influence that’s immediately available and changeable. How can we communicate to leadership what’s going on and why we need not just their support but active participation to get at those unrealized, outsized gains? How can we radiate information about our progress that’s aligned with the type of work systems we’re transforming? How would you advise the manager I described?

I Have Done My Best

"What had Deming done? Exactly what he said in the five words with which he always concluded his seminars.

'I have done my best.'"

Walton, Mary. The Deming Management Method. (p. 249)

Best efforts not sufficient.

By everyone doing his best. (Wrong)

This is the answer that came forth in a meeting of management of a company in response to my question: "And how do you go about it to improve quality and productivity?"

Best efforts are essential. Unfortunately, best efforts, people charging this way and that way without guidance of principles, can do a lot of damage. Think of the chaos that would come if everyone did his best, not knowing what to do.

Deming, Dr. W.E. Out of the Crisis. (p. 18)

There is no substitute for knowledge. Hard work and best efforts will by themselves not produce quality nor a market. We shall soon come to suggestions for the missing ingredient, profound knowledge.

Deming, Dr. W.E. as quoted by Orsini, Dr. Joyce. The Essential Deming. (p. 11)

THERE ARE MANY PHRASES for which Dr. Deming is well-known from his writing, lectures, and seminars that have come to epitomize his inimitable style of dismantling the absurdities we’ve been conditioned to hold as articles of faith. So it is with one that appears quite often in The New Economics and Out of the Crisis, which is also known as Deming’s Theorem #2: We are being ruined by best efforts.

At first this seems so dissonant as to cause an immediate reaction among the uninitiated. How could hard work and best efforts, which we have been taught since childhood as an aim of good citizenship, be detrimental and ruinous? It’s common sense, is it not? Deming would retort:

They are our ruination. So, if all the faulty practices have come from common sense, we must beware of common sense… Best efforts are too often mere tampering, making things worse.

Dr. Deming as quoted by Neave, Dr. Henry. The Deming Dimension. (p. 256)


It is interesting to note that the prevailing system of management has been created by best efforts, without the knowledge that we shall learn in later chapters. [The System of Profound Knowledge]

We pause here to ask what is the effect of

Hard work?

Best efforts?

Answer: We thus only dig deeper the pit that we are in. Hard work and best efforts will not by themselves dig us out of the pit. In fact, it is only by illumination of outside knowledge that we may observe that we are in a pit.

Deming, Dr. W.E. The New Economics, 3rd ed. (pp. 17-18)

As a society, we’ve become content and complacent to affix a smiley-face emoji on the results of our poor practices and thinking everywhere, shrugging criticism off with office kitchen poster bromides like “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps!” and “What can you do?” or “It could always be worse!”

We can do better, and we have an obligation to do so: Ignorance is no longer an excuse, we’ve known better ways for too long. So, what holds us back from assuming the challenge of trying? It could be ourselves and our perceptions of risking a venture into the unknown.

In his 1961 paper, Risk, Ambiguity, and the Savage Axioms, Daniel Ellsberg posited a thought experiment, known as the Ellsberg Paradox, using two urns filled with marbles to demonstrate how we can sometimes disadvantage ourselves by biasing to a known quantity over an unknown one, even when there’s no rational reason to do so.

In the first urn Ellsberg places 100 marbles in a 50/50 distribution of red to black; in the second urn he places an unknown distribution, which could be anywhere from one red to 99 black, or the inverse. He then asks you to make a bet:

  • 1A: Get $1 for every red marble you draw from the first urn, $0 otherwise.

  • 2A: Get $1 for every black marble you draw from the first urn, $0 otherwise.

  • 1B: Get $1 for every red marble you draw from the second urn, $0 otherwise.

  • 2B: Get $1 for every black marble you draw from the second urn, $0 otherwise.

Pause here and consider: Which bet would you take? Why?

In his paper, Ellsberg observes that participants who’ve taken his bets quickly bias toward either 1A or 1B and away from 2A or 2B because they could not attach a quantifiable probability to the outcome. In other words, they fell into holding the old folkloric wisdom of a bird in hand being worth two in the bush. This is what some in the systems thinking community would call a “groove” or ingrained pattern of thought. Getting out of a groove requires diligent effort because it feels extremely uncomfortable to change - at least until a new “groove” in our thinking is formed to replace it.

Changing our thinking about our thinking isn’t something that happens overnight - our own beliefs and motivations need to shift, first. This comes from quiet contemplation and review of our own “best efforts” and the consequences that they have brought about. This is the “pit” Dr. Deming wants us to stop digging and exit.

Reflection Questions

What are your reasons for undertaking a transformation of your thinking? Whose theories and philosophies have had the most impact? What is your aim? What do you expect your transformation to accomplish? What does “success” look like? Is there a destination or waypoint you have in mind?

How have you considered “best efforts” of the individual in the past? As a measure of their worth or capability? Or of the system they are within? Why? What changed your thinking?

Cooperation and Standardization

Something That All of Us Take for Granted

I remember a story about cooperation. It could have been in 1903. There was a big fire in Baltimore. Fire departments in New York put their equipment and men on 28 flat cars to rush themselves by train to Baltimore to help put out the fire. When they arrived, they found their endeavour to be useless. The threads on the firehoses would not fit the hydrants in Baltimore.

There are two lessons here. The first lesson is cooperation: one fire department rushing to help another. The second lesson is cooperation in the form of standardization. We take standards for granted. The world was not made with standards. Standards must be made by man. Without standards, our life would be primitive. Examples are couplings for fire equipment. Other examples come readily to mind:

  • The time of day, based on Greenwich mean time, used the world over.

  • The date, fixed by the international date line, observed by everybody.

  • Red and green traffic lights, the red light above the green, the same the world over.

  • The metric system.

  • Sizes of batteries. If I need a AAA battery, I may buy it anywhere in this world, and it will fit.

  • The gauge of our railways. A car may move from Halifax to Montreal to Boston to Chicago to Miami to El Paso to Los Angeles to San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Duluth, Minneapolis, down to Chicago. All this is possible because of the standard English gauge (56½ inches) between cities, same air brake system, same coupling between cars.

  • Meetings of professional people, such as this meeting of the Fire Chiefs for interchange of aims and knowledge.

  • Journals of professional and scientific people, for exchange of new knowledge with the rest of the world, competitors and all.

From an address to the International Association of Fire Chiefs, Toronto, September 22, 1991.

- Deming, W. Edwards; Orsini , Joyce (edited by); Deming Cahill, Diana (edited by). The Essential Deming: Leadership Principles from the Father of Quality (pp. 91-92). McGraw-Hill Education. Kindle Edition.

WE HAVE PREVIOUSLY explored Dr. Deming’s thinking around cooperation and competition, learning about his preference for win/win competition and how erstwhile competitors can keep many more customers happy by working together than apart. Just the other day I came across a news release from a well-known craft brewer in Ottawa who is partnering with another in Toronto to combine their marketing and distribution teams to help each other get more product to market and sustain each other’s businesses. An example, though I imagine their leadership may be unaware, of constancy of purpose to remain in business and provide jobs.

In today’s post, we’re considering the other aspect of Deming’s view on cooperation as facilitated by voluntary standards that come from either industry working together or in conjunction with government. In The New Economics, Deming writes “standardization is something that all of us take for granted", providing customers with access to products that are useable and serviceable across the country along with better competition for price and quality:

We ship an electric washer across the country with our household goods with never a conscious thought but that it is sure to meet the same voltage and current wherever it is plugged in. Our incandescent lamp finds the same socket in Springfield, Vermont, and Springfield, Illinois. The 15/34 shirt we send as a present from Iowa will fit the neck and arms that grew up to size in Virginia. We drive an automobile from coast to coast under uniform traffic signals. In Chicago we buy a tire that was made in Akron, and it will fit the wheel (made in Pittsburgh) of the car (built in Detroit) that we bought in New York.

The ratio of focal length to diameter of a lens (e.g., 2.8) is understood everywhere. We may buy an AA battery anywhere in the world to replace the one that just became too weak for service (though the quality of battery may differ markedly from brand to brand). The convenience of 110 volts and uniform outlets everywhere in the northern hemisphere would be difficult to express in words.

Competition for price and quality is not stifled by standardization.

Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis (MIT Press) (p. 300). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

While he lauded the capabilities voluntary standards within industry could provide, Deming was not so keen on involving government as the sole arbiter, however, observing (in his usual way) “I do not want my talented, capable, and sincere friends in the federal agencies in Washington to write the industrial standards of this country. Too much is at stake.” It was his preference that standards bodies, like the American Standards Association provide the framework or “machinery” to enable concerned industry partners to arrive at a standard together to enable economic benefit for businesses and consumers.

Contribution from William G. Ouchi: In Order to Compete, Learn to Cooperate

Of course, business and industry in the modern frame of the prevailing style of management (win/lose) will often miss opportunities to collaborate, as Deming relates in both The New Economics and Out of the Crisis, with a story from William G. Ouchi’s 1984 book, The M-Form Society, about the difference in quality of cooperation on regulations by industry in Japan and the US drawn from an annual general meeting of the US Trade Association where Ouchi was a guest speaker. 300 industry leaders had gathered in Florida for talks punctuated by a round of golf at noon one day, and fishing the next. On the third day, Ouchi blasted them:

While you are out on the golf course this afternoon, waiting for your partner to tee up, I want you to think about something. Last month I was in Tokyo, where I visited your trade association counterpart. It represents the roughly two hundred Japanese companies who are your direct competitors. They are now holding meetings from eight each morning until nine each night, five days a week, for three months straight, so that one company’s oscilloscope will connect to another company’s analyzer, so that they can agree on product safety standards to recommend to the government (to speed up getting to the market place), so that they can agree on their needs for changes in regulation, export policy, and financing and then approach their government with one voice to ask for cooperation. Tell me who you think is going to be in better shape five years from now.

Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis (MIT Press) (p. 307). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.


Connect the Dots

Voluntary standards, when considered in the full context of Deming’s philosophy, are entirely consistent with his thinking about operational definitions, quality, cooperation of components, and teamwork which are based on a whole-system view. In The New Economics, he elaborates on his Production Viewed as a System diagram noting you could draw boundaries around it to define a “single company, or around an industry, or as in Japan in 1950, the whole country”. Ouchi’s story about Japanese companies, he observes is based on a view of industry as a whole system. We might imagine it as below, with each Japanese company who is providing input having their own system boundary describing the interactions of components to fulfill developing a standard or policy change to enable compatibility or interoperation, for example.

Reflection Questions

How does your organization or business benefit from standards? What economic activities do they enable? How have you observed standards being avoided for advantage over competitors or to stifle innovation? How would the intervention of government redress or exacerbate this situation? How feasible would it be to see the level of cooperation William Ouchi described in our industries today? In what ways has it already occurred? In what ways has it not?

The First Step

Learning How to Change

The first step is transformation of the individual. This transformation is discontinuous. It comes from understanding the system of profound knowledge. The individual, transformed, will perceive new meaning to his life, to events, to numbers, to interactions between people.

Once the individual understands the system of profound knowledge, he will apply its principles in every kind of relationship with other people. He will have a basis for judgment of his own decisions and for transformation of the organizations that he belongs to. The individual, once transformed, will:

Set an example
Be a good listener
Continually teach other people
Help people to pull away from their current practice and beliefs and move into the new philosophy without a feeling of guilt about the past.

The New Economics, 3rd ed. (pp. 63-64)

Everyone doing his best is not the answer. It is first necessary that people know what to do. Drastic changes are required. The first step in the transformation is to learn how to change: that is, to understand and use the 14 points in Ch. 2, and to cure themselves of the diseases in Ch. 3. Long-term commitment to new learning and new philosophy is required of any management that seeks transformation. The timid and the fainthearted, and people that expect quick results, are doomed to disappointment.

Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis (MIT Press) (Preface) . The MIT Press.

The first step in any organization is to draw a flow diagram to show how each component depends on others. Then everyone may understand what his job is. If people do not see the process, they can not improve it. Anyone needs to see the process as a catwalk, a flow diagram— Paul Batalden, M.D., 13 November 1990.

The New Economics, 3rd. ed. (p. 22)

The secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organization. We cannot afford the destructive effect of competition…

The first step is clarification: everyone in the organization must understand the aim of the system, and how to direct his efforts toward it. Everyone must understand the danger and loss to the whole organization from a team that seeks to become a selfish, independent, profit-centre.

The New Economics, 3rd. ed. (p. 36)

Modern principles of leadership, explained and abundantly illustrated in this book, will replace the annual performance review. The first step in a company will be to provide education in leadership. The annual performance review may then be abolished. Leadership will take its place. This is what Western management should have been doing all along.

Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis (MIT Press) (pp. 116-117). The MIT Press.

OVER THE PAST FORTY-FOUR posts of this newsletter I have presented Dr. Deming’s philosophy for the transformation of Western management in discrete parts, with the aim to provoke curiosity on your part to learn more about them and discover for yourself how they comprise an interdependent system of thought. In the course of your reading you may have felt invigorated at times to do something with the knowledge you’ve gained, but may have hit a wall in knowing where to begin. Rest easy: You’ve already begun the first of several first steps.

Dr. Deming’s philosophy has innumerable entry points that depend upon the learner’s frame of reference and what is motivating them to learn. Sometimes, it’s an existential crisis, others a specific problem that’s dogged the conscience for years, while still others are just curious to learn for the sake of learning. Were you to sit down with Dr. Deming to explain your plight, after listening thoughtfully he might offer any of the above excerpts about the first step you need to take, and perhaps an offer to take one of his four day seminars to deconstruct the barriers in your present thinking. He’d be very curious to learn from you what’s holding you back.

However, let’s suppose you’re new to all of this, and have a desire to transform how your organization works because you want to find better ways of working. Your process could look like the idealized flow diagram below that begins with transforming yourself by learning and applying new theory:

(You might recall from our July 23rd post on Psychology how the process of learning new things transforms your brain through biochemical processes. Go back and read-up on it, or better still watch the linked 2012 Deming Institute talk by JW Wilson…)

Observe that there are loops within loops in this process flow diagram, and many more that I haven’t detailed that you may think of besides. There are also delays embedded in every box and line - time spent thinking or becoming preoccupied with other things. That’s ok - deep learning isn’t a bullet train.

Note that there’s no real reason to delay creating a map of your system as you go - it might actually be useful to advance your understanding of the interrelationships and interactions within your organization. You could use Dr. Deming’s Production Viewed as a System diagram as a template for your own organization, as educator John Dues illustrates in his book Rethinking Improvement:

Don’t be a perfectionist: Your map is likely wrong and won’t represent reality. Show it to others, get their input, and revise as you learn more.

Select a source of dissatisfaction to change. Plan a PDSA cycle to improve it, see what happens when you try. Record what you’ve learned; choose another target, or refine your current approach. Run the cycle again. And again.

These are all good first steps that lead to many subsequent ones as part of a longer journey.


Recently, I was asked by a senior manager how to begin improvement when you’re beholden to top-management who are either differently-motivated, disinterested or detached. I made the following suggestions:

  • The first step is to learn a new theory of management to give yourself and your peers a vocabulary to identify and explain the phenomena in your organization, and what to do differently and why.

  • Learn what and how to improve in your own immediate sphere of influence; yes, it will have a maximum reach with weaker leverage points, but you don’t have to wait for permission to start.

  • Discover your system’s AIM: How well does it align with the business’ stated strategic objectives?

  • Diagram your value streams and process flows: How do you provide value to your internal and external customers? How do your processes work today?

  • Incrementally build your case for system improvements with leadership by providing “optimizing options” that improve quality, boost productivity, and lower costs. Be prepared to coach and teach upward.

  • Find allies who can help build your case for expanding your sphere of influence for change. Teach them what you’ve learned.

Reflection Questions

What do you wish to could be improved in your organization? What would you like to do differently? What’s standing in your way? What could you do right now to effect a step towards that improvement?

Consider the idealized learning process flow diagram above: What would you add or remove for yourself?

The Shewhart Cycle

A Flow Diagram for Learning

The PDSA Cycle

This cycle (Fig. 13) is a flow diagram for learning, and for improvement of a product or of a process.

Step 1. PLAN. Somebody has an idea for improvement of a product or of a process. This is the 0-th stage, embedded in Step 1. It leads to a plan for a test, comparison, experiment. Step 1 is the foundation of the whole cycle. A hasty start may be ineffective, costly, and frustrating. People have a weakness to short-circuit this step. They cannot wait to get into motion, to be active, to look busy, move into Step 2…

Step 2. DO. Carry out the test, comparison, or experiment, preferably on a small scale, according to the layout decided in Step 1.

Step 3. STUDY. Study the results. Do they correspond with hopes and expectations? If not, what went wrong? Maybe we tricked ourselves in the first place, and should make a fresh start.

Step 4. ACT. Adopt the change, or abandon it, or run through the cycle again, possibly under different environmental conditions, different materials, different people, different rules.

The reader may note that to adopt the change, or to abandon it, requires prediction.

- Deming, Dr. W.E. The New Economics, 3rd ed. (pp. 91-92)

THE AIM of today’s post is to introduce the grandfather of all process improvement/learning loops that we take for granted today, The Shewhart Cycle, aka The Deming Cycle, or the PDSA Cycle. As with the Shewhart Chart, this model traces its conception to the original work of Dr. Walter Shewhart at Bell Labs in the late 1920s, who would introduce it to Dr. Deming, who in turn would use it in his early lectures with Japanese top-management and engineers:

The Shewhart Cycle was on the blackboard for top management for every conference beginning in 1950 in Japan. I taught it to engineers—hundreds of them—that first hot summer. More the next summer, six months later, and more six months after that. And the year after that, again and again.

- Dr. W.E. Deming as quoted by: Walton, Mary. The Deming Management Method. (p. 86)

Dr. Shewhart’s model began as a simple outline of three steps for quality control that he published on the first page of the first chapter of his 1939 book, Statistical Method from the Viewpoint of Quality Control:

Introduction. Three steps in quality control. Three senses of statistical control. Broadly speaking, there are three steps in a quality control process: the specification of what is wanted, the production of things to satisfy the specification, and the inspection of the things produced to see if they satisfy the specification. Corresponding to these three steps there are three senses in which statistical control may play an important part in attaining uniformity in the quality of a manufactured product: (a) as a concept of a statistical state constituting a limit to which one may hope to go in improving the uniformity of quality; (b) as an operation or technique of attaining uniformity; and (c) as a judgment.

Shewhart, Walter A.. Statistical Method from the Viewpoint of Quality Control (Dover Books on Mathematics) (p. 1). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.

He presents this model graphically in two modes later in the chapter, with the first separating each stage into independent components (“old” in 1939!) and transformed as reinforcing loop of dependent components that constitute a “dynamic scientific process of acquiring knowledge”

He explains the contrast of the two models as the difference in thinking of the process as an “exact science” and as a means of “acquiring knowledge”, in other words acknowledging the presence of variation in the process which makes it very much a non-exact science:

On the older concept of an exact science these three steps (call them I, II, and III) would be independent. One could specify what he wanted, someone else could take this specification as a guide and make the thing, and an inspector or quality judge could measure the thing to see if it met specifications. A beautifully simple picture! …

I think it is particularly important to note that the third step can not be taken by simply inspecting the quality of the objects as objects, but instead must be taken by inspecting the objects in a sequence ordered in relation to the production process. In fact these three steps must go in a circle instead of in a straight line, as shown schematically in fig. 10. It may be helpful to think of the three steps in the mass production process as steps in the scientific method. In this sense, specification, production, and inspection correspond respectively to making a hypothesis, carrying out an experiment, and testing the hypothesis. The three steps constitute a dynamic scientific process of acquiring knowledge.

Shewhart, Walter A.. Statistical Method from the Viewpoint of Quality Control (Dover Books on Mathematics) (pp. 44-45). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.

In the software world, we forgot all about these distinctions when we misinterpreted Winston Royce’s staged software delivery model as being like Shewhart’s linear, “old” one-shot and not a continuous loop. For over forty years we forgot to go back to the first stage, and even now in the second decade of official “agile software development practices” we still see development as an “exact science” without inherent variation.

Subsequently, over the intervening decades between 1950 and 1982 Dr. Deming would evolve the Shewhart Cycle by adding a fourth stage, “Act” along with provisos that he would later publish in The New Economics for small-scale tests and a decision point in the fourth stage on whether to continue with the cycle.


Like much of Deming’s philosophy on management, using PDSA cycle for guiding improvement is both trivial and difficult, owing to how simply it can be explained yet dependent on sweat equity to pay any worthwhile dividend. As he often said, there’s no “instant pudding”.

In their 2009 book, The Improvement Guide, Ron Moen, Cliff Norman, and associates observe that “not all improvements require PDSA cycles; some just happen”, but more purposeful ones in complex environments benefit from running several loops. We have a tendency here in Canada and the United States to sub-optimize learning cycles by rushing through the stages and giving, as Latzko and Saunders note in Four Days with Dr. Deming, “the short-shrift"“ to the most important stage, “Plan”, opting to “test first and design later”.

Moen and Norman suggest asking three questions to help frame the planned change you want to make, and results of a successful “turn”:

  1. What are we trying to accomplish? (A written statement of what the aim of the change effort is supposed to effect.)

  2. How will we know that a change is an improvement? (What measures will change as a result of our experiment?)

  3. What changes can we make that will result in improvement?

Note how using the PDSA model requires us to make a prediction about the future using our present knowledge and data by proposing a hypothesis for improvement. If we change this aspect of the process, we expect this outcome as evidenced by our measurement changing in this direction or trajectory.

As Moen and Norman explain:

The PDSA cycle is a vehicle for learning and action. The three most common ways for using the cycle as part of an improvement effort are:

  1. To build knowledge to help answer any one of the three questions

  2. To test a change

  3. To implement a change

(Kindle Edition loc 2057)

Other Applications

A more prescriptive application for using PDSA cycles can be found in Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata method which embeds them into a framework for promoting scientific thinking and learning in complex environments. In the diagram below, PDSAs are used to structure the experiments to achieve a target condition.

This method enjoys some popularity in many organizations, although few actually understand how to apply it properly in their context. One potential trip-up is how to structure a hypothesis for the Target Condition so as to avoid falling into a confirmation-bias loop, ie. trying to “prove the hypothesis” to prove ourselves correct, which can lead to false-learning curves. Not a good situation! ProTip: Use falsifiable hypotheses, instead: Seek to learn by disproving your assumptions, as Chanticleer the Rooster discovered when he slept in and found his crowing did not in fact cause the sun to rise.

One added benefit to Rother’s model is the partnering of “Learners” with “Coaches” who ask a series of structured questions to help guide improvement efforts. However, again, be cautious about falling into an “expectations loop”, here:

You can learn more about Toyota Kata by checking out the resources on Mike Rother’s U of Michigan site, here.

Evidence of the influence of Dr. Shewhart’s cycle can also be found in Eric Ries’ famous Build-Measure-Learn entrepreneurial innovation cycle first published in his influential and groundbreaking 2011 book, The Lean Startup. Similar to Deming’s model, Ries famously proposed that after running through his cycle and landing on “Learn”, entrepreneurs are faced with a choice: Pivot to a new model or application or Persevere?

Reflection Questions

You can begin using a PDSA loop almost immediately, however you want to think about the change you want to make, first. Is it significant enough to warrant a PDSA loop for capturing learning, or is it something we can do quickly to see what happens? As Deming said at one of his seminars:

Do the experiments under different conditions. We want to be able to predict conditions. We want to be able to predict but we can’t be sure. If I let go of this pen, I have a high degree of belief it will fall. It has always been the case!

- Latzko & Saunders. Four Days with Dr. Deming. (p. 65)

In selecting your change, think about the three questions proposed by Ron Moen and Cliff Norman above, and what you hope to gain by creating an experiment. What data do you need to gather to know if you’ve been successful? What do you understand about the current state of the process or procedure you want to change? Do you have a process flow map to indicate where the change will occur and where you anticipate the resulting improvement? What will be your plan for carrying it out? Using what steps?

In answering these questions during planning, you may discover that the change or “move” as the Institute for Quality and Innovation’s Eric Budd would call them, is too big and needs to be scaled back. That’s ok and perfectly expected - don’t let that get in your way. Try it out for yourself, involve colleagues. Learn, have fun, make a difference!

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