Continuous Improvement Cycle

Continuous Improvement Cycle

By: Ronette Kersting

Everyone wants to improve but change is hard.  Implementing changes is even more difficult…many fall short.  Bureaucracy, organizational structure, and even culture can block progress and stall innovation.  The Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle (PDCA) helps break companies out of stagnancy and transition to a system of continuous improvement.

The PDCA cycle was made popular by Dr. W. Edwards Deming.  It is an iterative four-step approach for managing and improving products and business processes.  To be successful, the PDCA cycle requires a commitment to continuous improvement.  As the names suggest, the PDCA cycle is a loop rather than an end-to-end process. The goal is to improve on each improvement.  It is an ongoing process of learning and growth.  It can be utilized for many different applications across different industries and organization types including Healthcare, Quality Management, Manufacturing, etc.



The Plan Phase begins with an understanding of the desired output of the process – what are the intended results. After the desired output is known, plans are made to improve the performance to deliver the intended result.  Here are some common questions to answer during this phase:

  • What is the problem we are trying to solve?
  • What needs to be produced?
  • What resources do we have vs. need?
  • What are the goals or measures of success?



Now it is time to put the plan into action.  It’s important to know that even with the best plans, there may be unplanned problems.  Consider breaking the plan down into smaller segments and implementing segments of the plan to minimize risk.  It is important for everyone to understand roles and responsibilities.



In the Check Phase, gather data and results from the Do Phase.  Compare the actual results to the desired results.  This is your process audit.  If you find defects in your process, consider what steps should be taken to eliminate the defect.



In the Act Phase, if the team achieved the goals using the plan, move on to another process.  This is now the new standard process. However, further adjustments to the plan may be necessary to improve the output of the process to deliver the intended goals and objectives.


Most businesses rely on lagging indicators of performance.  Often, reports are generated monthly showing the performance from the past month.  If adjustments are needed, they are then made for the following month.  In this example, the length of the PDCA cycle is one month.


Sports teams however operate much differently.  Not many sports allow lagging indicators and lengthy PDCA cycles (ie – waiting until the game is over) prior to making adjustments.  Consider a football team.  Before each game, the coach and teamwork together to learn and prepare for their next opponent.  Together they plan to defend against the strengths of the other team and exploit their weaknesses.  The team practices executing the plan.  The Do Please is ongoing as the game is being played.  The coaches monitor the score minute-by-minute.  The staff also monitors player data such as tackles, interceptions, rushing yards, pass completion %, touchdowns, passing yards, etc – all in real-time.  This is the Check and Act Phase.  When any of these leading indicators are not meeting expectations, adjustments are made. The coach and staff are involved minute-by-minute to ensure that the outcome of the process meets expectations.  The PDCA Cycle repeats over and over during a game.  Contrast this to a business manager who looks at results once a month…at the end of the month.


In sports, the best teams are the ones who work together to best understand how to make adjustments as the game progresses.  Look for leading indicators, ones that will predict performance, and work closely with the team on a continuous basis in real-time to improve performance.

To learn more about our Human Resources courses, click here.