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Jim Benson


PDSA As a Lean Agile Lens

Don’t just set and forget KPIs or other metrics. Understand the true narrative of the work you do.

Published: Thursday, May 6, 2021 - 11:03

We want to grow as professionals. We want our products to be better, our know-how to be deeper, our impact to be known and recognized.

This is impossible without continuous improvement.

I have met many mediocre professionals who are mediocre only for one reason: They feel like they are done learning.

Well, Herbie Hancock practices every day. And he’s Herbie Hancock.

I’m not Herbie Hancock, and neither are you (if you are, give me a call).

For any of us to improve or grow, we need to pay attention to what we are doing. We need this attention to be serious. However, we must remember that we’re human beings. Joy is not simply a “nice to have”; it is part of the work. Inspiration is part of the work. And seeing results is part of the work.

Continuous improvement does not mean what you think it means

The act of continuous improvement isn’t “extra work,” as so many engineers and managers have whined to me over the years. The act of continuous improvement isn’t to shave seconds off a process, as so many lean sensei have preached to me. The act of continuous improvement is not to reduce waste or cut costs, as so many cost-accounting-minded leaders have openly wished in my presence.

Continuous improvement is one thing and one thing only: the embodiment of professionalism.

If you are not actively and consistently looking for ways to improve your product, your relationships, and yourself, you are not a professional.

The PDSA model is the way

We have a format from Walter A. Shewart and W. Edwards Deming called PDSA. The PDSA model consists of four repeatable steps: plan, do, study, adjust.

You will see this as the antiquated PDCA (plan, do, check, act), which has led to much metric-worship and director-level abuse. But that’s a rant for a different time.

The PDSA model is the final and most important lens in this lean agile lens series. It is the final lens because it can’t operate without the other four.

Plan. Understand what problem you are trying to solve, the means you are taking to solve it, and the general schedule of events those means require.

Do. Do what you planned. Stick to your plan. Take notes. Note what you learn, how your “do” differs from your “plan,” why those deviations happened. You know—pay attention to what you are doing.

Study. As you are writing things down, as you are paying attention, actually think about what you are doing. This is professionalism in action. When you are done, or at regular intervals, look at the results you are getting. Study them. (This is why this is “study” and not “check.” Check is looking at the metrics; study is thinking with your brain.) It is helpful to do this with other professionals. Because their brains work differently than yours.

Adjust. You adjust as needed. You don’t just make a plan and push that plan forward like you were Nostradamus looking into your pool of water. You start your plan, you do it, you study it as it is happening, and you adjust. You learn. You benefit from your learning. You improve. You make more money, work more humanely, increase the quality of both your product and work life.

The PDSA model as a lean agile lens is highly functional but requires the other lenses. Without communication, relationships, respect, and flow, the PDSA model will become just another wrench to beat workers with. The PDSA model must gain its focus by calibration with the other lenses to ensure we are optimizing for intelligent professionalism over routine cost accounting.

Our goal should never be to set and forget KPIs or other metrics, but to understand the true narrative of the work we are doing.

These concepts are core to our Lean Agile Visual Management Program. If you liked this, you should learn more about it. Explore the Lean Agile Visual Management Certification.

First published Nov. 30, 2020, on Modus Institute.


About The Author

Jim Benson’s picture

Jim Benson

Jim Benson is the creator and co-author (with Tonianne DeMaria) of the best seller Personal Kanban (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011) winner of the Shingo Research and Publication Award, 2013. His other books include Why Limit WIP (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), Why Plans Fail (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), and Beyond Agile (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2013). He is a winner of the Shingo Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking, and the Brickell Key Award. Benson and DeMaria teach online at Modus Institute and consult regularly, helping clients in all verticals create working systems. Benson regularly keynotes conferences, focusing on making work rewarding and humane.