An Introduction to the Plan-Do-Study-Act

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It can feel overwhelming when you’re faced with a persistent problem of practice in your school. It can feel as though everything is working against you and no matter what you do the problem only seems to grow. When you’re struggling to resolve a persistent problem, its time to stop looking for silver bullets and focus instead on incremental continuous improvement. One great way to begin this process is through the plan-do-study-act or PDSA process.

The PDSA is a thoughtful and intentional way to help you address a problem. It is a short term process that asks you to plan a small scale action to attempt to solve your problem, collect data, analyze the data, and make a decision. One of the great things about PDSA is that it can be run in cycles. This allows you to take multiple incremental steps. Remember, multiple incremental steps eventually become giant, systemic changes! Let’s take a closer look at each of the steps in the PDSA process.


The first step in the PDSA process is to create a plan. During this phase, your team should consider the specific steps it will take to try to resolve the problem of practice. Its important to keep in mind that your PDSA process should focus on only one solution at a time. An overly complicated planning process with multiple solutions running simultaneously will almost certainly fail.

As you draft your plan, take care to make it as detailed as possible. Consider each of the steps you will need to take to implement your proposed solution. As you craft your steps, make sure that each step is assigned to a clear deadline and identify the person responsible for ensuring the completion of that step. Document your plan and post it somewhere where it can be easily accessed and monitored.


The next step in the PDSA process is to implement your plan. Follow the plan that you made to the letter by scheduling regular check-ins with your team. If you miss a deadline or a new issue comes up, adjust your timeline and keep going. One of the most common causes of a failed PDSA cycle is the feeling that once you get off your timeline you might as well abandon the project. This is a thinking error; don’t fall for it! Your plan should be a flexible and living document that grows along with your organization.

As you implement your plan, make sure that you document your progress and collect relevant data so that you can understand the impact of your plan later. This documentation may take the form of meeting minutes, observation logs, assessment scores, journal entries, or any other work products produced through your plan implementation.


Once you have run your timeline, its time to take a look at your progress. Pull all the data and work products that you have collected and consider the progress that you have made. Did you resolve your problem of practice? If not, which parts are better and which parts still need work? If you need help with this, consider uploading your data into one of my free auto-analysis tools available in The Repository.

As you review your data, it is also important to consider any unintended consequences of your solution. While it may have solved your problem, it could have created additional problems. For example, maybe behavior incidents are down but teacher paperwork is up or maybe attendance rates are up but parental engagement has fallen. Consider how your solution impacted not on your problem of practice but the whole of your institution.


The final step of the PDSA process is to act on what you have learned during your study period. Now that you have tested a solution, what are your next steps? Maybe you solved your problem and you decide to begin working on another one. It could be that your solution had no impact on your problem, indicating that you need to try a new solution. The most likely scenario is that your problem of practice is marginally better, and you need to focus on refining your solution for greater impact.

Rinse and Repeat

The PDSA process works best when it is run as a cycle of continuous improvement. Once you complete your Act phase, it is time to start anew with a fresh planning cycle. By running PDSA processes cyclically, you will continue to improve your processes. When I think of PDSAs, I often think of Taiichi Ohno who said “Something is wrong if workers do not look around each day, find things that are tedious or boring, and then rewrite the procedures. Even last month’s manual should be out of date.” The PDSA process is a great way to ensure that your processes and procedures are always running as tight as possible.

If you’re ready to get started with continuous improvement processes in your institution, consider visiting The Repository and downloading my free eBook, “Tools that Drive Continuous Improvement.” The eBook contains templates and step-by-step instructions for completing the PDSA process and a variety of other incredibly useful tools. Good luck on your journey friends, and let me know how I can help.