When you think of Lean Six Sigma, what is the first thing that comes to mind? For most people, it is associated with manufacturing organizations. This was true in the past, but today organizations outside of manufacturing have adopted the Lean Six Sigma framework for continuous improvement. These organizations can be found in a diverse set of industries, including services, financial, healthcare and nonprofit.

Just about any organization that has processes can put Lean Six Sigma to work. You might ask, doesn’t every organization have processes? The answer is YES, and more importantly, every process has some form of waste.

In all honesty, adopting Lean Six Sigma is no small endeavor. But as the old joke goes: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Likewise, continuous improvement takes commitment.

I suggest that a reasonable place to start is by utilizing the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) approach for an underperforming process: one with which an internal or external customer has expressed dissatisfaction.

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What is the PDCA approach?

Unknown to many, PDCA was modeled after Francis Bacon’s scientific method. In fact, steps of PDCA directly correspond to the Hypothesis-Experiment-Evaluation scientific method. In the scientific method, when a hypothesis (or plan) is confirmed or negated, the cycle must be repeated to further our knowledge (or improve business quality). So we are certainly not talking about a radically new approach.

What does the PDCA approach look like?

The PDCA cycle is a simple and effective approach for defining and solving a problem, establishing an improvement goal, finding the root cause, and managing changes to ensure ideas are properly tested and monitored.

Below is the PDCA approach that really works:

PDCA cycle 12 steps

The critical success factors for PDCA:

Follow the above 12-step process every time. DO NOT skip a step—think of this as baking, not cooking. We all like to fix things. We also like to quickly reach a solution. But by moving fast, we may fix the wrong things or find the fix we apply doesn’t really change anything. I strongly recommend that you follow the PDCA framework, step by step. If you don’t, the outcome might not help you or your organization, or provide the expected results.

Empower a team of knowledgeable employees to work together to solve a defined problem. Like all quality improvement methods, it is only as good as the people who implement it, and the commitment from management to empower the team.

Set clear goals that stretch the team to think differently.

Don’t jump to conclusions. Find the root cause before you start to think about a solution. The solution is usually obvious once you find the root cause.

Establish a method of measurement so you can track progress and create accountability.

Adjust your solution as you continue to learn.

PDCA in Action

Let me give you a real-life example of one of my first PDCA improvements. As a Lean Six Sigma champion in an IT organization, I was charged with advancing our Lean Six Sigma journey. A key capability in moving the organization from a level 1 on our maturity model to level 2 was to identify and prioritize core business processes.

At this stage, quality improvement opportunities were ad hoc and random. This was in part due to the fact that there was no agreement at the senior management level on our core business processes, nor on and how improvement activities should be prioritized. Establishing a prioritized list of our core business process allowed the organization to focus improvements where they were most beneficial to customers.

In February, we established our objective: “Identify and prioritize core business processes by May, and gain a commitment from senior management to make meaningful processes improvements by September.”

We used the PDCA process improvement approach in order to move toward further process improvements. Very meta.

The results were:

  • Alignment among senior management on our core business processes.
  • Previous work was kept relevant and meaningful to all employees through use of an IT Infrastructure Library plus other core business process.
  • A clear path for major Lean Six Sigma work in the organization was established based on our prioritization.
  • Work was done first on projects of the greatest value to the organization.
  • The organization achieved a key element of its lean maturity model.

After the completion of this PDCA cycle, the organization had a roadmap and a commitment for future process improvement work. And, in true continuous improvement spirit, our core business processes were revisited and improved upon in the ensuing years.

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RelatedPDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act)