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9 Steps to Higher Quality

Structured use of PDCA-FOCUS can produce amazing results, writes ITSM Watch columnist Hank Marquis of itSM Solutions.
Jan 5, 2007

Hank Marquis

ITIL indicates that systematic process improvement requires a quality management system (QMS). As usual, ITIL is sketchy about the QMS, but does mention one in particular — the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) of the Deming cycle.

PDCA is a cyclic improvement/problem resolution tool documented by Bell Laboratories scientist Walter Shewhart, the statistician who also developed statistical process control, in the 1930’s.

Other Articles by Hank Marquis

Fault Tree Analysis in 6 Steps

Seven Steps to Improved Incident Handling

CFIA in 4 Easy Pieces

6 Steps to Service Outage Analysis

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In the 1950’s Dr. W. Edwards Deming, friend and student of Shewhart, popularized PDCA. PDCA became associated with him and became known as the Deming Wheel even though he always referred it as the Shewhart Cycle. Six Sigma derives its Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control (DMAIC) cycle from PDCA.

Later in Deming’s career, he modified PDCA to Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) to describe more precisely his recommendations. (In this article PDCA and PDSA are used interchangeably.)

The power of PDCA lies in its simplicity. While easy to understand, it is often difficult to accomplish on an on-going basis due to complacency, distractions, loss of focus, lack of commitment, re-assigned priorities, lack of resources, etc. Most executives claim they use PDCA or one of its derivatives, such as Six Sigma DMAIC, but few actually practice on a consistent basis.

Cycles of Improvement

Many times there truly is no quick fix for a problem but PDCA provides a method for improving any process systematically. Practitioners use PDCA as a guide to analyze processes. The goal is to identify errors or omissions that cause the output of the process to fall short of expectations. PDCA is useful anywhere the objective is improved performance:

  • As a model for continuous improvement.
  • When starting a new improvement project.
  • When developing a new or improved design of a process, product or service.
  • When defining a repetitive work process.
  • When planning data collection and analysis in order to verify and prioritize problems or root causes.
  • When implementing any change.

    Of course, adopting ITIL spans all the above areas, so it makes sense to use PDCA for ITIL adoption as well.

    PDCA is a four-step model for carrying out change. The four steps of PDCA are:

    Plan: Recognize an opportunity and plan a change. Establish the objectives and processes necessary to deliver results in accordance with the specifications. Use some form of brainstorming or cause and effect diagramming (i.e., Ishikawa) to determine the problem.

    Do: Implement the processes, test the change; often with a small-scale study.

    Check or Study: Monitor and evaluate the processes and results against objectives and specifications and report the outcome. Review the test, analyze results, and identify what you have learned.

    Act: Take action based on what you learned in the Check step. Apply actions to the outcome for necessary improvement. Review all steps the (Plan-Do-Check-Act) and modify the process to improve it.

    If the change did not work, go through the cycle again with a different plan. If successful, incorporate what you learned into wider changes. Use what you learned to plan new improvements, beginning the cycle again.

    An example helps make this clearer. In this example, the practitioner desires to improve their incident classification via use of diagnostics scripts.

    Plan: In this step, the practitioner examines and analyzes existing incident classification by examining previous incidents. Because PDCA does not specify how to analyze data, a separate data analysis process may be used.

    Do: This example has two Do steps. The first Do seeks to match classification with a diagnostic script. The practitioner plans the scripts by comparing what currently occurs with the desired state.

    The second Do trials the changed process. Within set parameters, staff varies the usage of the script based on each calls unique requirements.

    Check or Study: The Check or Study step includes formal and informal assessments taking place continually. If assessments show the scripts are not performing as expected, the practitioner can make changes such as re-instruction, changing the script or more direct staff mentoring. Assessment data becomes the input for the next step in the cycle.

    Act: The Act step has the goal of standardizing the change. When staff meets the goals, the diagnostic script design and usage are standardized. Staff shares best practices in formal and informal settings. Results from this cycle become input for the “analyze” phase of the next cycle.

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