PDCA Thinking and Sports Team Performance

The PDCA cycle (Plan-Do-Check-Act) is an iterative four-step approach for managing and improving products and business processes.   Today we will discuss how the PDCA approach is used by sports teams, with an eye toward how this same thinking can be applied to improving the performance of business processes and products.

The Plan Phase begins with an understanding of the desired output of the process – what results we are after.  We then make plans to improve our performance in delivering the desired output.  In the Check Phase we gather data and results from the Do Phase.  We compare the actual results to the desired results.  In the Act Phase we make adjustments that are intended to improve the output of the process.  We then loop back around to Plan, and the cycle continues.  The PDCA cycle was made popular by Dr. W. Edwards Deming; however, he always referred to it as the Shewhart Cycle.  Deming later modified the cycle to Plan-Do-Study-Act because he felt that Study was a better way to describe the third phase. 

The following graph illustrates the PDCA Cycle.  Graph by Karn G. Bulsuk (http://www.bulsuk.com).  

Most businesses rely on lagging indicators of performance.  A period such as a month goes by, and we generate a report at the end of the month that shows how we did for the past month.  We then adjust for the following month.  These adjustments are often based on opinions or assumptions about what caused performance issues in the past, because the causes of the problems were not observed in real time.  The length of the PDCA cycle in this case is a month.

Sports teams operate much differently out of necessity.  There are not too many sports that rely on lagging indicators to adjust performance, i.e. waiting until the game is over as an example.  Consider a basketball team.  Before each game the coach and the team work together to learn about their next opponent.  They Plan to defend against the strengths of the other team and exploit their weaknesses.  The team practices on executing the plan.  The Do phase is ongoing as the game is being played.  The coaches monitor the score minute by minute.  The staff keeps track of other data by player such as blocks, fouls, deflections, scoring, rebounds, shots missed, shots made and more – all in real time.  This is the Check or Study Phase.  When any of these leading indicators are not meeting expectations, adjustments are made.  These adjustments (the Act Phase) happen during time outs, stoppages in play and at halftime.  The coach and his or her staff are involved minute by minute in making sure that the outcome of the process meets expectations.  The PDCA cycle repeats over and over during the game.  Contrast this to the business manager who looks at results just once a month, and only after the end of the month.

In sports, the best teams are the ones that work together best and best understand how to adjust as the game progresses to win.  We need to think the same way in business.  Look for leading indicators – ones that will predict performance – and work closely with the team on a continuous basis in real time to improve performance.

Your comments or questions about this article are welcome, as are suggestions for future articles.  Feel free to contact me by email at roger@keyperformance.com.

About the author:  Mr. Roger C. Ellis is an industrial engineer by training and profession.  He is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt with over 50 years of business experience in a wide range of fields.  Mr. Ellis develops and instructs Six Sigma professional certification courses for Key Performance LLC.   For a more detailed biography, please refer to www.keyperformance.com