The problem with problem solving, using the PDCA cycle

I love a quick and simple fix, who doesn’t? The key to this is the PDCA cycle.


The Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle

Quick fix problem solving, like an up-cycling an old welly is great, but only, and I really can’t stress this enough, if it solves the problem permanently and doesn’t just put it off for another day. Getting to the root of a problem and finding the actual cause and preventing it reoccurring can be difficult. Sometimes the solution may seem obvious but the fix is either temporary or pushes the problem elsewhere. Other times, several people have their own pet theories on the causes and how it should be fixed. Amongst the noise of competing ideas or the apparent complexity of the problem it is easy to miss the real root cause and implement wrong solutions. What is needed, is a structured way to solve problems, and there are quite a few on offer. Due to the simplicity, i like to use the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle or PDCA cycle. This approach is a practical, simple and highly effective method used for solving problems and carrying out continuous improvement activities.

Over the years I have witnessed many different approaches to problem solving. At the ends of the spectrum there are those who constantly firefight day in day out just to keep things moving and there are times when elaborate and gargantuan sized teams assemble for deep discussion on the topic, more often than not resulting in increased bewilderment and confusion with no agreement on how or who will fix it. Consequently little or no actions are made and no follow up to make sure the problem was resolved.

Any of this sound familiar?

It is true, solving problems can be a problem itself!

By far the most common reaction is the tendency to jump straight to a solution, a quick fix, making assumptions about what actually caused it in the first place. This frequently results in the problem resurfacing at a later date and the sticking plaster solution re-implemented,  and repeated time after time after time! Sometimes, the problem may seem too large or unmanageable and offered solutions are either overly complicated, difficult to implement or too costly to be of benefit and so we end up accepting the problem or firefighting on a daily basis.

The Plan DCheck Act cycle is a structured model used for continuous improvement arguably deriving from the works of W. Edwards Demming and Walter Shewhart, two key proponents of statistical quality control. They helped cultivate Lean Continuous Improvement and Six sigma Quality control, a collection of methods and philosophies commonly used across most industries today. It’s called a cycle because its rests on the idea of continuous improvement, an ongoing strategy of incremental change which builds on previous improvements, one step at a time. This makes the improvement process more practical, sustainable and easier to manage.

Before we head on into what PDCA cycle is and how it helps to solve problems, its definitely worth mentioning that when it comes to problem solving, the importance of communication cannot be emphasised enough. It is vital that you speak with those who are directly affected by the problem. They have key insight and experience of the problem and so often have the best ideas for solutions. Supervisory staff and management involvement is also key, they have an alternative perspective which provides understanding on how the problem is affecting the business as a whole. They help to build a business case for change, approve any required spend and provide leadership to drive the solution. That is to say that not ‘every person and his dog’ need to be present, but a choice selection of those who have first hand experience and knowledge of the problem and those that can act and implement solutions.

Once you have identified those who can contribute to solving the problem, it’s simply a matter of following the four steps of the PDCA cycle.


  • Describe the problem? Be specific and concise in your description, go see the problem for yourself.
  • If the problem is larger than originally thought break it down into sections and deal with each one separately. It makes it easier to find solutions for each later on.
  • Identify what are you aiming to achieve? Find out what ‘normal is’ when it’s working fine.
  • Identify the root cause, the true underlying reason why this is happening. There are some great Lean tools you can use such as the 5WHYS or Ishikawa diagrams which help to uncover the true underlying causes of problems and are great for team working a problem. I will talk more about these Lean tools  another time.


  • Implement the solution.
  • If there is more than one solution, test several but be mindful about constraints like cost, practicality for testing, time and availability. After all we all have our day jobs to do!


  • Has it worked? Compare the results against what you are trying to achieve.
  • Did the solution actually solve the problem? If the problem reoccurs then you haven’t found the true cause and so return to the plan stage!


  • Make the solution permanent.
  • Make it the new standard so all can follow it. Where possible standardise formally with written instruction or visual cues, photographs are much more effective, nobody wants to read lengthy procedures.


Using the PDCA cycle is a great way to solve problems especially when the solution isn’t obvious, the problem keeps occurring or if there are competing ideas on what should be done. There are however occasions when a formal process like this isn’t needed and you just cut the toe off a wellington boot and attach it to the drainpipe.

Remember folks it’s the simple solutions which are always the best!

To find out more about the PDCA cycle, problem solving or Process Improvement, get in touch with the team at Production Support 56.