Tools to make you THINK differently about your business

Have you ever thought about the extensive amount of time and effort that companies put into changing things but despite this, nothing much seems to actually improve?

Time and time again we come across people and companies that invest a tremendous amount of effort in changing processes, practices, procedures… and even people, in order to seek elusive improvements. The question we usually ask, which often stumps them, is “How do you know…for sure, that the change has actually led to an improvement?”

The structure of learning

Fortunately, there is a deceptively simple structure for learning, it’s been around about a hundred years or so and from time to time gets re-invented but I like the original model. Interestingly, and intriguingly, people (including myself) think that they understand it in minutes, and they do, and they can apply it to make real significant and lasting change, but, also after using the model for years, they also, like me, think they might understand it fully some day!

The diagram above shows the Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) model for learning which provides the foundation for the systematic and continual improvement of processes. It is an improvement process that involves an ongoing cycle of activities. After Act, it begins anew: Plan again, Do again, Study again, Act again – an unending cycle of learning, evaluating, and working on processes and capturing benefits.

In more detail, the PDSA cycle comprises:


The process is first studied to obtain a detailed understanding of the current ‘As Is’ situation. Then, based on an understanding of the organisation’s purpose, its customers’ requirements and current and past data and process measures an improvement plan is formulated.


The changes are made as detailed in the improvement plan. A pilot programme on a small scale is recommended as a first step, if possible. (Large, unstudied changes can lead to large consequences – good and bad!)


The results obtained are compared with the desired results in order to learn from them. This is where we need data; data provides the proof that a change is an improvement. And for this we rely on the Process Prediction Chart


Take advantage of what you have learned. Decide what you will try next. The question at this point is: Do you continue to improve this particular process? If so, go around the cycle again. If not, standardise the new process, for instance, by locking the gain into any documented operating procedures or Book of Best Practice. Then plan again, but for a different improvement project.

As can be seen from the diagram, sitting behind the PDSA wheel is a wedge, essentially the organisation’s documented management system; the organisation’s standing orders, operating instructions or perhaps an ISO registered system. Regardless, training, in the new improved processes needs to be provided and communicated and the documented management system, or Book of Best Practice (LINK), must be updated to reflect these new processes and hold the gains made.

The benefits of the model are that it is:

• Simple and flexible
• Can be adapted to pretty much any situation.

PDSA is the essence of management; making sure the work gets done today AND developing better ways to undertake the same work tomorrow.

How does it work in practice?

So below is real data taken from a real £6m turnover engineering company and we were looking at a specific process percentage (for the purposes of the article it’s not important what) the long-term average was bang on 10%, but data revealed that the range of expectation varied between 43% and -23%. Knowing this we could predict the future – as shown in the dotted green lines extending into the then future.

However, as is their want, the leaders and managers were not happy with the average of 10% …they wanted a higher percentage.

An improvement team was assembled and an improvement plan developed. As part of the training process, knowing that changes could be made that DID NOT lead to improvement we established with the team what failure looked like and this is represented in the graph below.

This drove the team to make changes that were actually improvements the result of which can be seen in the chart below. The average is up from 10% to 19.1% and the range of variation has narrowed.


The PDSA cycle represents a robust and scientific approach to learning; it drives interdependence through a team work approach; it drives teams to innovate, generate new ideas on how projects and processes should work and it provides a formalised structure for learning and for knowing that a change has led to an improvement. Change and improvement are not the same thing.

The PDSA framework is a lever to drive performance improvement; for staff to formulate theories, test them on a small scale and then assess them; PDSA can be a trigger for structured creativity. As noted in Brian Joiners book 4th Generation Management “It is by intuition that we discover and but logic and data that we prove”.

PDSA provides that framework.

These ideas to can be employed to transform our thinking and the way in which we manage our organisational processes and deliver real, sustainable and properly quantifiable improvement.

  • Purpose
  • Managing variation
  • Dragon Slaying: a better way to manage by Mark Woods; email to receive your free copy 
  • Fourth Generation Management. Brian Joiner 

Downloadable resources

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• Better strategies
• Better systems
• Better measurement and 
• Engaged people delivering 
• Better results

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