1660317500127 Demingcycleplandocheckact

Applying the Deming Cycle: What can you learn from failure?

Oct. 7, 2021
Doc Palmer says continuous improvement in any arena requires trying things that might not work the first time.

Almost a year ago I compared the raging COVID-19 pandemic to plant maintenance. I claimed that we didn’t know for sure if we were doing the right thing or not. Always looking for a better way is the whole point of the Deming Cycle and my three most recent Plant Services articles. Let’s chat about the Deming Cycle and maintenance, and then make application to the COVID-19 virus.

In the 1950s, Dr. W. Edwards Deming proclaimed to American companies that if they would admit they were not perfect, they could improve. American companies laughed at Dr. Deming, so he sailed for Japan and helped Toyota. You know the rest. Toyota grew to become one of the greatest manufacturing companies by never resting on its laurels, always seeking to tweak its practices. Thirty years later in the 1980s, America “discovered” Dr. Deming, and many companies improved through his principles. Yet even today, companies have great difficulty fully embracing them.

One of the main concepts is that of continuous improvement, the PDCA (Plan Do Check Act) chart we often see on our walls. Also called the Deming Cycle, PDCA requires expecting failure. You see, it requires that we conscientiously put something into play that might not work as well as we thought. Maybe it will fail miserably and be counter-productive to our objective.

In the PLAN stage, we launch an idea into the DO stage. We compare the results of our execution to what we desired in the CHECK stage and make adjustments to the original plan in the ACT stage. “Let’s try something else next time.” We do this adjusting and tweaking forever.

But what about “Do it right the first time?” Good question! “Do it right the first time” means not taking shortcuts in the DO phase. Don’t blindly follow the job plan. Don’t take short cuts. Do the best you can in the thick of the implementation DO stage. But give feedback to help the CHECK phase! “Do it right the first time” does not mean starting out perfectly the first time. That was America’s problem: “What do you mean we are not already perfect?”

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Great management maturity is required to run the Deming Cycle to lead a company to greatness. Our current companies became good companies by learning from blunders and surviving. Over the years, we introduced rules that locked in current practices to avoid any more blunders. But these rules now inhibit further tweaks and new behaviors. When our environment changes (gradually or suddenly), we find we do not have the entrepreneurial muscles to adapt. Further inhibiting changes is the concept of the “learning curve.” If we start a better behavior, we might do it initially in such a poor fashion that we have worse performance than if we had not changed our behavior at all. We should acknowledge that sometimes we must take one step backwards to take two steps forward. Accept mistakes. Learn fast. Don’t shoot the messenger. Invite critique.

Did you know that a bloody edge often precedes the cutting edge of new technology? Improvements don’t come without trial and error. Bows and arrows were a great improvement over swords. Then came muskets and blunderbusses. I wonder if more than a few persons knew of at least one story of someone having a musket misfire or blow up in their hands and said, “I’ll just stay with my trusty bow.”

In maintenance, generally we know that doing proactive maintenance to head off asset failure is a good idea. But we also know we cannot live in two universes of doing or not doing certain maintenance. We only know the results of what we actually did. We cannot know for sure what would have happened if we had done something different. We also know that if we do anything, especially something new, there is chance of failure.

Consider the maintenance concept of not being able to live in two universes. If we had not spent all that money greasing an asset, would the asset have continued to function without failure anyway? We could have saved the cost of greasing every month, maybe quarterly, maybe semi-annually, maybe yearly? We do not know for sure what would have happened if we had done different maintenance on different assets. We do know that doing proactive maintenance to keep assets from failing is a good idea from overall past industry experience. But we never know with certainty what would have happened if we had done something else on any particular asset.

Consider the maintenance concept of “infant maturity.” When we first install an asset, there is an initial phase where the asset has a higher chance of failure than for the rest of its life. Maybe we installed it incorrectly, maybe we did not yet know how to grease it correctly, maybe we did not yet know how to operate it correctly, or maybe the asset had been incorrectly selected, designed, or manufactured for the application. After learning what to do better, we eventually get past this phase and enjoy a time of having a properly functioning asset. We might ask, “Why didn’t we know better and select it, design it, manufacture it, operate it, and maintain it right the first time?”

Ha-ha. Welcome to the real world. I didn’t say it would always fail during infant mortality, but that there is a higher chance. Infant mortality applies the Deming Cycle concept of expecting to learn instead of expecting perfection.

Let’s briefly talk COVID, which has become both political and religious (two of the things you aren’t supposed to talk about among friends). We “generally know that in general” vaccines help fight viruses. Some might expect to see problems with the rapid development of new vaccines and therapeutics. We also have heard stories of persons who had done this or that, and it did or did not work out so well for them. It’s unfortunate we have not had more time to slowly PDCA test and improve what we are doing. We still don’t know, and will never know for sure, what would have happened if we had done other things than those things we did. Nonetheless, even as we speak, data is still arriving to be acted upon, PDCA.

The Deming Cycle is a life skill. I’d like to call for grace that we all allow each other to continue to learn and do better. Poet Robert Burns: “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.” Even so, God bless America.

This story originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Plant Services. Subscribe to Plant Services here.

About the Author: Doc Palmer
About the Author

Doc Palmer | PE, MBA, CMRP

Doc Palmer, PE, MBA, CMRP is the author of McGraw-Hill’s Maintenance Planning and Scheduling Handbook and as managing partner of Richard Palmer and Associates helps companies worldwide with planning and scheduling success. For more information including online help and currently scheduled public workshops, visit www.palmerplanning.com or email Doc at [email protected]. Also visit and subscribe to www.YouTube.com/@docpalmerplanning.

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