Let’s Plan, Do, Check and Adjust It!

Most of us realize that no plan remains intact as written following its first introduction to reality. Those who do not know that are not paying attention. So what do we do about that? 

Edward Deming articulated a process now referred to as plan-do-check-adjust (PDCA). The following explanation of Mr. Deming’s cycle would probably cause him to blanch. PDCA is based on the same rational approach as the scientific method: observe, gather data, hypothesize, and test then repeat until you cannot disprove your hypothesis. 

Dwight Eisenhower was quoted as saying, Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. i  President Eisenhower recognized that the process had ascendancy over the plan it produced. The PDCA cycle is particularly valuable when the plan we are trying to implement is novel. If we do the same thing multiple times we can reduce our work into deliverables, systems and processes. We should remember however that doing routine things in combinations we have not before done can create a complexity that in total is a novel endeavor. 

So how does PDCA work? PDCA recognizes that we are the most ignorant when we initiate a change. Many of us who thought we had it all figured out at the beginning have been humbled to find we indeed had not had it figured well at all. That does not mean we should not study things out. However the landscape, that is reality, is subject to change. As a result we cannot plan for everything. We can plan for what we know. We can plan to learn what we know we do not know. The thing that is tough is planning for what we do not know that we do not know. 

Using PDCA we plan based on what we know. We start executing the plan. Execution is the do in PDCA. Executives may have a tendency to want to conduct the planning for the team and hand them a relatively detailed plan.  

In his book “Inside Delta” Eric Haney describes a situation where a pair of the elite special forces team were tasked with making a delivery to the Beirut embassy. This was during a time of unrest in Beirut and the State Department official handed the operators a plan that had them parachuting into the ocean and taking an inflatable boat into Beirut. Delta completed the mission with a revision to the plan. Instead of the high risk insertion imagined by the bureaucrat, they bought tickets on a commercial airline, flew into commercial airport and drove to the embassy. The point is that executives should consider setting objectives and let the team plan. 

During the planning process, executives must decide how much time should pass before there is a check on progress. This should be thoughtfully considered. Checking too soon may not allow enough time for the team to work through execution issues (there are always issues). Frequently looking for updates and progress reports can become burdensome for the team and have the effect of increasing the risk that the objectives will not be met. Waiting too long risks a project that is off course and will require significant resource to correct.  

Adjusting is a decision making process. If the team is on track, on time and in budget executives should consider letting the team move forward. It is tempting when checking and adjusting to add constraints. These constraints may be in the way of advice, suggestions or outright direction from senior leaders. Leaders who feel a need to “get in the weeds” with the team may communicate a lack of confidence in the team.  

In making adjustments executives should consider whether they need to change deliverables, timing or resources. These are what define the projectThe best situation is where the team recommends the adjustments. Executives need to determine how far they want to go into the details in adjusting how the work is done. If the executives have expertise that would help the team it may be best if that were offered in a coaching session outside the check and adjust meeting. Although the executives may feel comfortable in being with executive team, the project team representatives may not feel the same level of comfort. 

Coming full cycle the team should take the adjustments requested by their leaders back to the planning group in the team. The team can modify the plan and continue execution. 

How does your executive team handle the planning process? Is your behavior enabling or encumbering your execution teams? Are you burdening your teams with constraints or empowering to grow into their challenges? 


Joe Thompson

© 2016 Differentiating Strategies, LLC