As we explored in the previous section, the Lean process uses the PDCA cycle (Plan, Do, Check Act) to improve processes and eliminate identified waste. The PDCA cycle is an improvement cycle based on the scientific method of proposing a change in a process, implementing the change, measuring the results, and taking appropriate action. It is one of the most widely used tools for implementing continuous improvement.
A variation of this model is the OPDCA cycle which adds the Observe stage at the beginning. Observation is part of the planning process in the original model, but it's helpful to split observation (i.e. problem identification) and planning (how you're going to solve the problem) into two distinct phases.
Although the PDCA (or OPDCA cycle) is used in Lean to improve processes and eliminate waste, the cycle is equally applicable when implementing product and service improvements and/or innovations.
The OPDCA cycle
Phase 1: Observe
The ‘observe’ phase of this cycle is about watching what is going on, gathering information from various stakeholders and identifying areas that require improvement.
- Talk to your employees - get out of the office and talk to your employees about what is going on. The people who work with the processes everyday are usually in a pretty good space to recommend improvements. You may even want to set up regular suggestion meetings.
- Talk to your customers - find out what your customers think about your delivery of products and services. What do they think could be improved?
- Talk to your suppliers - is there anything from your end that might be hindering efficiency e.g. slow approval processes, multiple points of contact?
Phase 2: Plan
The ‘plan’ phase is where the objectives of the improvement are outlined, the potential root causes of the problem are explored and an action plan for a small-scale test is created.
- Define the problem - you need to define exactly what the problem is that requires improvement. You should have a good idea about this from the ‘observe’ phase. At this stage you are not looking at underlying causes, just the visible issue or symptom.
- Determine the root cause - this is the underlying cause(s) of the problem. If you want to fix the problem permanently, you need to address the root cause. To identify the root cause there are a number of tools that you can use. See below for more details.
- Establish the objectives - clarify exactly what you need to achieve from the improvements. These objectives will be used as a measure of success in later stages. If the improvements achieve the objectives they will be considered successful and will be implemented on a larger scale.
- Develop an action plan - the action plan contains all of the steps required to successfully carry out the testing in the 'do' phase.
Determining the root cause
There are a number of tools that you can use to get to the root cause of an issue, including 'The 5 Whys' and 'Cause and Effect Analysis' (also called an Ishikawa or fishbone chart).
The 5 Whys
Cause and Effect Analysis
Phase 3: Do
The ‘do’ phase is where the plan gets put into action in a pilot program, to test if it can deliver the intended benefits. It is not full-scale implementation at this stage, just a small-scale test.
Testing ideas is immensely important. You are never going to get it perfect first time, even with the most rigorous planning, so you need to be able to test your improvements in an environment where it is safe to fail. This will help you determine;
- What the impact of the changes are.
- Whether the changes live up to the intended benefits.
- If there are any unintended consequences of the changes.
The lessons learned from tests will then inform future developments.
Phase 4: Check
The ‘check’ phase, or ‘study’ phase as it is also known, is where the data from the pilot program is analysed to see whether or not the improvements achieved the objectives, and what lessons can be learned from the tests.
This phase is vitally important because it provides the data for the decisions in the 'act' phase. If the data is not analysed carefully, decisions may be made based on incorrect information.
- Collect the data - collect the data from the ‘do’ phase. This may be feedback from participants, or some other metrics that you have in place e.g. units produced, defects detected, incident rates, cycle times etc.
- Compare against objectives - now look at the objectives that were set in the ‘plan’ phase and see whether or not the data indicates that these objectives have been met.
- Identify the lessons learned - see what can be learned from the test and use this information to inform your actions in the next phase.
Phase 5: Act
The ‘act’ phase is where you take action based on the information gathered during the ‘check’ phase.
The actions taken at this stage can have a huge impact on the business. If ideas are pushed through before they are properly tested they may have serious consequences. However, if ideas sit in the testing phase too long and are repeatedly tested and analysed, it can result in 'analysis paralysis'. This is where nothing moves forward and the organisation cannot realise the benefits of the ideas.
- The objectives were achieved - if the objectives were achieved to an acceptable level (this will depend on what you determine as success) then the improvements can be rolled out on a larger scale and embedded in the organisation. Depending on the scale of the changes, this may range from a small change management exercise to a full-scale project in its own right.
- The objectives were not achieved - if the objectives were not achieved, use the lessons learned and repeat the process again starting from the 'plan' phase.
Overall, let the data guide your decisions - you collect data for a reason. If you are diligent with your planning, testing and data collection, the end result will be data that you can count on to guide your decisions.