Plan do check act. What does this mean?

Organisations which are proactive in improving continually are seen to employ some variant of this method. The converse, reactive approach is ‘plan do, do, do, do and if the wheel comes off, firefight’.

In the medium sector where management teams are not large, the emphasis is on the day to day.  Most managers have a significant involvement in the front line tasks sales, or production/operations or finance such as getting the customers in getting the orders fulfilled and the cash in. This ‘daytime job’ often accounts for the great majority of their time. Busy MDs often delight in the feeling that they are flexible and responsive to customers’ need and that they don’t waste time on meetings unless they have a problem.

Unfortunately this focus on action can sometimes wipe out the thinking and improvement process.  Almost everybody even senior management reporting to the MD is too busy doing the daytime job to work out how to do it better.  This is almost completely reactive.  Whilst being flexible and responsive to customers and other daily demands is admirable, the organisation needs to put its own needs first for some of the time. You don’t have to have a problem in order to have a solution.

Those businesses that have the competitive advantage do not gain it by luck.  They gain it because they make sure that thinking, learning and improvement are at the heart of the culture and this governs their behaviour.  Perhaps even more importantly, the whole management team is involved in this process.  Effectively this multiplies the size and the power of the management effort making growth, advancement and increased shareholder value a certainty.

This article is concerned with ‘changing reactive to pro-active’. Not only is pro-activity certain to improve business performance, which is the stated aim, it will make the daytime tasks run more smoothly.  A pro-active and therefore a learning culture follows the cycle below:-

‘Plan’…. Workout (and record) how the process should run

‘Do’ …. Run the process

‘Check’…. Monitor whether all parts of the process are working right

‘Act’ …. Adjust and improve the process where opportunities show themselves up

The people who work in the process are conscious of and involved in all parts of the above cycle.  The alternative, purely reactive process can be described by the alternative cycle shown below:-

‘Plan’ …. Tell people how to operate the process

‘Do’ …. Keep operating

‘Do’ …. Keep operating

‘Do’ …. Keep operating (it’s still going so everything must be OK and we’ve got to get it out)

but… if the wheel happens to come off….


The obvious difference in the second cycle is the absence of the learning mechanisms,  ‘check’ and ‘act’.  Additionally in the second scenario the ‘plan’ will be less stringent and in less detail.  As a result improvement is not a permanent part of the management process.

Important characteristics of the proactive culture compared to the reactive culture:-

  • There are probably quite challenging targets, the organisation thrives on them.
  • Front line managers know that part of their job is to improve the processes which they operate, not merely to operate it.
  • The structure, roles and responsibilities are more clear because more pressure is put on people to change things. This makes them clarify their areas of responsibility in order to work together on change. If they merely needed to come into work and deal with the day’s tasks in the same way as they always had, there would be no structure issues, because no sanctioned would be required for change.
  • People are more able to try things out, innovate and take risks in what they suggest, because attempts to change are rewarded and do not break the organisation’s rules of authority and bossism.
  • People all the way across the business are aware of where successes have been achieved (at least the very least in their area).
  • Top management spend a higher proportion of their time looking further ahead, identifying changes in product offerings, market trends and facilities and resources.
  • The organisation is able to place a greater emphasis on appearances, image, human resource development and training environmental issues.
  • It communicates better within.
  • Although the management looks longer term it can also place greater emphasis on control in shorter intervals, being able to gather and display statistics at hourly intervals. It is as if it can see things further away and closer up.
  • (Probably the most important feature) There is a regularity, routine and rhythm about the ‘check’ and ‘act’ parts of the cycle. Meetings to discuss the business performance and the processes and how they are working are a permanent part of life.  These meetings, their focus and the attendees may change from time to time.
  • Managers think more about management skills and about what a good manager does.  They become less task oriented, more balanced.  They are more conscious of the broader picture and tend to be more consistent in how they deal with problems.  There is more of a house style and a common approach to management.
  • Time management is a particular issue in this culture.  Because they have to control their time in order to find spare time to get on the attack, they are aware of the need to be disciplined and organized in how they spend their time.  They respect each others’ deadlines and commitments far more.
  • They use measurement, key performance indicators, dashboards and scorecards (or whatever are the internal buzz words) more confidently and positively.
  • There is no disagreement about facts and figures.  The process for collecting and displaying the numbers is routine and nowadays very often automatic once the data is initially captured.
  • Attitudes to errors and failure (which is temporary in their eyes) is positive and professional with the emphasis on what’s wrong rather than who’s wrong.
  • There is a striving for ways to understand how to stop problems arising and a discontent with things that go wrong. It is natural to respond every time with ‘how can we stop that happening again’.
  • They take more time out to work on the process rather than in the process.  As a result the management team is much better informed and has a healthy overview.
  • Top management can be very strong and determined but not didactic nor autocratic because they have placed much more reliance (and demands) on all layers of management.
  • (Another really important feature) Management and in fact most people take responsibility, readily recognizing that the onus is on them to be involved in much more than merely overseeing a day’s work.
  • Because management is more heads up across the business, cross-functional, inter-departmental interaction is more common on a voluntary basis.  It is not natural for an organisation to work very well across departmental barriers, but a proactive continuous philosophy cannot be optimized without good horizontals.

The above may sound idealistic. From a standing start it may take years to implement fully. It is dependent on passion and drive from the top, then it can be started within three months by setting up a small number of simple mechanisms to deal with the two separate aspects. One is the question of roles responsibilities and behaviours. The other is to do with information and review mechanisms.