Igniting Innovation: Tips, Sparks and Ideas for Acting on Innovation

PDSA - What Does Plan Really Mean During An Innovation Project?

Posted by Lydia Carson on Nov 17, 2015 10:00:00 AM

Many people are familiar with the most basic version of the scientific Fail Fast Fail Cheap Cycles of Learningmethod, Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA), also known as the Shewhart or Deming Cycle.  Those of us who are engineers or scientists tend to use PDSA quite frequently, so you might think we’d have the process down pat.

Unfortunately, not so.  Even with the best of intentions, super-smart innovation project teams often skip over the most important part of Plan.  They interpret the word like the simple Merriam-Wester definition, when it should be more.

plan (noun): something that a person intends to do

PDSA should be used to address the current most significant issue that, if not resolved, could prevent our project from successfully moving to the next development phase.  Lets call these issues Death Threats and Milestones.

Think about it this way: 

PLAN:  What success looks like - the goal, metric, or desired outcome - when addressing this Death Threat (Milestone), at this point in time, for this specific project.
DO:  To achieve this, we will do the following work, activity, or experiment.
STUDY:  Did we reach our success standard?  THINK deeply, why we did or why we didn’t.
ACT:  Based on what we have learned, has this Death Threat (Milestone) been resolved?  What should we do next?

What teams often skip is getting a clear definition of success from leadership. 

What specific, numeric result is needed to get a “yes” to resolve the Death Threat/Milestone in order to move to the next phase of development?

Without this direction from leadership, teams don’t really know what they need to do.  They feel like they’re shooting at a moving target.  Conversely, when this is done right, there is joy and pride in work.

This is reinforced in a reflection on learning I read recently, which was written by an innovation project leader who uses the Innovation Engineering Business Operating System:

“It is extremely important to have a clear definition for the problem and also the project goal. The previous Stage-Gate system lacked proper guidance for defining the project goal, which in fact was changed multiple times. The Innovation Engineering system provides all the right tools and resources for clearly defining the problem and project goals and also the proper guidance for achieving the goals. 

Fun moment was getting immediate reward for addressing the Death Threat.  It's a real motivation for our team.” 

 Learn More about Applying Cycles of Learning to Innovation

Topics: innovation, Dr. Deming, fail fast fail cheap

Lydia Carson

Written by Lydia Carson

As an engineer, Lydia loves nothing more than a good system. She’s an expert at applying systems for innovation inside any organization, but her true love is working with industrial companies - the more technical the better.

Welcome to the first blog from the Eureka! Ranch and Innovation Engineering Institute team.  Here you will find a diverse group of innovators dedicated to changing the world by transforming innovation from a random gamble to a reliable system that delivers increased innovation speed and decreased risk.


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