Revisiting the Deming Cycle

Deming’s approach to leadership and work came to have an enormous effect on the development of Lean thinking and specifically on Toyota’s production and development system. Building on top of Lean Deming’s PDSA cycle later also became foundational in creating the work processes of Scrum. From the minute focus on the “Done” criteria to the list of Events encouraged (Review and Retrospective being the Study, Act elements) the PDSA cycle permeates Scrum. The Sprint is in its essence the PDSA cycle turned into a repetitive workflow. 

It is very important having concrete reminders – in your calendar, in your work processes – prompting you to stop up and reflect on the quality of the work that has been done (review) and whether or not it was carried out in the most appropriate way (retrospective). If we do not concretely set aside time to carry out these practises, these are the parts of the PDSA cycle that are inescapably neglected. 

Sometimes, however, even having a fixed work process to rely on isn’t entirely enough. We might all relate to meetings that have been set in place to Review or Reflect (retrospect) on work, but where the process seems stilted, mechanical and forced. Setting off the time to do something isn’t enough in itself. There is also work to be done in terms of building up trust among team members and reviewers and there might be an inner tension and resistance that needs to be faced as well.

Truly incorporating learning into ones work, begins with setting the expectation that parts of the learning process are in fact difficult. Something every five year old learning to ride a bike will attest to. It is of course also rewarding, once on the other side where you reap the benefits, but being in the tension field of having to rethink former actions, having a reflective, critical look at one’s own work – that is not comfortable and we sometimes naturally resist it. It is, however, also the only bridge to get to the other side. The rewards of making changes to the content and processes of our work (the Act part) will not only turn out to be extremely gratifying but also wholly necessary. We all know that there is no actual progress without learning. To succeed to any extent in a complex world we have to challenge ourselves to embrace the learning process and experience and come out on the other side with new insight and new skills.

We have now established the natural tension and resistance that we might feel in the thick of learning; the difficulty inherent in the Study part of the cycle. Next, I would like to have a closing look at the Act part of the PDSA cycle. Because although the study part is immanently the most difficult, sometimes we tend to alltogether forget the last Act part. Maybe this is just corporate forgetfulness, or maybe we tend to think we’ve already come so far having done the review and reflective work that we leave the last final essential acts of putting our improvements into action hanging. This is were concrete reminders and tools that keep us accountable to ourselves and our teams are important: written commitments and transparency of who does what. 

Incorporated learning is a lifelong training exercise. Making changes and gaining insight will still feel challenging even after years of practising it; likewise, reminders of taking action of what you have learned, will always be necessary. In our company, Agile Lean House, we use our online tool Agemba to support us in taking the Act-ion part of the cycle seriously, commitments are written down and transparency of who does what sets other ressources free. This can of course also be done with physical boards and post-its but if transparency is to be assured across the entire organization and in a remote scenario like we are all in at the moment, an online tool that provides overview and insight is extremely helpful.

Anne Broberg, AgileLeanHouse

We also advocate for remembering to incorporate the PDSA cycle into work practises of the whole organisation and not settle for it to be a practice for a team that works with development only. It is possible to scale the good practises of Scrum out into the whole organisation, thereby encouraging a learning approach to work for everyone involved – including top leadership. The framework we’ve developed for this purpose is called Agile Lean Leadership.

We would love to hear your thoughts on becoming a learning organisation.

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