The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

What are We Trying to Accomplish?


In The Improvement Guide, the authors add 3 questions to the PDSA cycle:

What are we trying to accomplish?

How will we know that a change is an improvement?

What change can we make that will result in improvement?

As I stated in my previous post on The Improvement Guide I believe anyone using the PDSA cycle to learn and improve should be using The Improvement Guide as a reference.

From a Deming perspective we want to be focusing our efforts on continual improvement. Taking immediate counter-measures to cope with a potential problem is necessary in order to meet customer requirements of expectations. Those efforts are necessary but are not sufficient. Those types of countermeasures can be seen as fire-fighting or 1st order changes.

If we maintain a commitment to second order changes the 3 questions can help us stay on that path. The answers to those questions can indicate whether the effort is focused on a first order or second order change. Second order change require changing the system itself so that going forward there is new process. That change is what we want to iterate over using PDSA cycles to learn and validate the change prior to adopting the change on a wider scale.

Normally the answer to “what are we trying to accomplish?” can indicate if it is a first or second order change. And normally we wouldn’t use the PDSA for first order changes but if you are not careful you can find the focus of PDSA cycle efforts are too limited and amount to little more than discovering the band-aid that will prevent the recently painful problem from continuing. That is likely a necessary activity, it just usually isn’t something you need to use the PDSA process to accomplish. And if you see many of your PDSA efforts are such efforts it is worth trying to shift toward focusing PDSA efforts on second order change.

Answering (and documenting those answers) the 3 questions before starting any PDSA effort is a useful strategy to making the most of the efforts expended on using the PDSA cycle to improve the organization.

Related: Ron Moen and Cliff Norman Discuss the Evolution of Deming’s Management IdeasResources for Using the PDSA Cycle to Improve ResultsDeming’s Stage 0: By What Method?

Categorised as: continual improvement, process thinking


  1. Peter H Elias, MD says:

    This is nicely done, but I have an addition. My addition shouldn’t be necessary, but sadly, in my experience, there is a fourth questions that is too often forgotten:

    #4: Are all the necessary people/perspectives represented?

  2. Ron Kenett says:

    John – tx for posting this. We have been working on the concept of information quality (InfoQ) and the 7th InfoQ dimension, Operationalization of Findings is based on the three Deming questions.

    See our recent book on information quality and a Wikipedia entry on our framework.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *