1.2 - Plan – Do – Check – Act: four cyclical steps for quality control and improvement
The PDCA Cycle is an iterative quality improvement model that you can apply to any aspect of the functioning of your VET institution. It consists of a logical sequence of four steps:
Plan: define a problem and hypothesize possible causes and solutions;
Do: implement a solution;
Check: evaluate the results;
Act: return to the Plan step if the results are unsatisfactory, or standardise the solution if the results are satisfactory.
Why is this important for you as QM?
To develop a systematic approach to quality management;
To approach quality management from a perspective of continuous improvement.
Please note that the PDCA cycle is sometimes known as PDSA cycle (plan - do - study - act). The Check phase of the PDCA cycles focuses on the success or failure of a Plan (followed by corrective action), while the Study phase puts greater emphasis on the need to develop a theoretical prediction of the results of an improvement action, and then assess its validity. The two versions of the cycle stem from the studies of the same researcher, Dr. W. Edwards Deming; head over here to learn more about the developments of the cycle in the 20th century.
How should I implement the action?
- Identifying an area of improvement
- Setting out a strategy to enact the improvement
- Planning quality in a VET institution inevitably implies strategic planning: the development of a coherent plan to achieve the institution’s self-defined objectives with appropriately defined resources and by systematic alignment of activities towards these objectives.
- In order to be able to assess whether an objective has been accomplished, it is crucial to define indicators (a value that provides information of whether and to what degree agreed quality objectives have been achieved) and to set SMART goals:
Specific (Who? What? Where? How?)
Measurable (How much? How many?)
Achievable (Is it realistically in your power to accomplish it?)
Relevant (Does it fit within the bigger picture?)
- Staff training (if necessary)
- Implementing the previously established strategy
- Continuous monitoring and measurements of results
- While the implementation phase is quite straightforward, the collection of monitoring data is crucial for achieving real quality improvement. The type and amount of data to be collected varies depending on which area of improvement has been identified in the Plan phase, as well as on what kind of improvement strategy is being implemented. The EQAVET framework provides a set of quality indicators which can be used as a basis for more detailed data collection (see Unit 1.3).
- The decision on how much and what kind of data to collect should be guided by clear and predefined quality objectives (which will be assessed during the Check phase). Excessive and/or incoherent collection of data will eventually discourage stakeholders from giving (valid) feedback.
- Analysis of the data collected during the Do phase
- Assessment of failures and successes of the quality improvement strategy just implemented
- Taking advantage of professional data processing tools is recommended, especially when dealing with a considerable volume of collected data. In some countries, data processing and analysis of results are undertaken externally by education authorities which provide VET institutions with their individual results ranked against national averages, allowing for benchmarking and common learning.
- Standardisation of the solution if results are satisfactory, or
- New strategic planning and goal-setting adapted to new development
- Once data processing has been completed and appropriate conclusions have been drawn, evaluation results need to be accompanied by a detailed quality improvement plan. An in-depth analysis of causal factors is recommended, as well as a determination of (or compromise among) the actions to be taken to effect change. Ishikawa or fishbone diagram and Pareto analysis are useful tools for this stage of the quality improvement process.
- Once areas for change and improvement have been identified and agreed upon, an improvement plan can be drafted including corrective actions (aimed at overcoming detected failures and deficits) and adaptive actions (aimed at making structural improvements in the VET institution and VET programmes).
- Once adopted by senior management, the improvement plan must be put into practice under the monitoring eye of the quality manager. Staff members’ readiness for change might get in the way of implementation, especially in the case of major adjustments; corrective measures may be taken, if necessary, in order to improve staff’s abilities or increase their acceptance of change.
The PDCA cycle yields good results when applied to entrepreneurship education by the institution’s Quality Manager, but even better results will be achieved if other members of staff are involved in the process (see Unit 2.6: Staff involvement). Here are a few ideas on how to introduce colleagues to the PDCA cycle:
How should I know if I have made an impact thus increasing the quality of the VET provision and to which extent?
A successful implementation of this action will result in quality improvements in the areas identified in the Plan phase, as measured by appropriate indicators. Successful completion of the PDCA cycle will also lead to an “advanced” version of the Plan phase, which expands beyond internal assessment and brings external factors affecting quality into the equation (evaluation which can be made through a SWOT analysis).
What makes the difference in the application of a PDCA-based system is its systematic, continuous and regular use. Each successful passage round the cycle should help to build a clearer picture of the empirical situation and of future trends, and thus optimise the development strategy.
Links & further readings
Cedefop (2015), Handbook for VET providers: https://www.cedefop.europa.eu/en/publications-and-resources/publications/3068
Moen R. D. and Norman C. L. (2010), History of the Deming (PDCA) cycle: variants and evolution over time:
The Deming cycle: PDCA v. PDSA https://deming.org/explore/pdsa/
IN-QUAL Common Reference Framework
Team exercises to learn how to apply the PDCA cycle (for staff members):
Coin spin exercise: http://www.dmwaustin.com/coin-spin-pdsa/
Mr Potato Head exercise: http://www.dmwaustin.com/mr-potato-head-pdsa/
PDCA application example: improving students’ engagement in class https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkEKu6cArBY