If life feels a bit too chaotic and it’s threatening to overwhelm you, perhaps the PDCA Cycle can help.
It’s so easy to look at our lives and think of something to improve. I looked at my muffin tops this morning and thought, “jeez, I need to sort that out”, because nobody is perfect.
The difficulty is transforming the thought into an action. We need to move the static thought, one trapped in our mind that serves no purpose than to keep us up at night, into a moving project. As we know from Newton’s first Law – ‘An object will remain at rest or in uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force’.
Engineers in a production plant must move these static thoughts into movable projects all the time. But even the pros find it hard every once in a while. This is why we invented techniques to make it easy for ourselves.
Take the iterative system called ‘Plan, Do, Check, Action’, or the ‘PDCA cycle’ for short. All credits fall, once again, to Toyota.
The PDCA Cycle is a technique that anyone can use right away. Whether it’s looking at your daily routine, analyzing your bank finances or looking at your retirement plans with your partner. It’s a method that sets up structure around tasks that could cause chaos, or end up neglected if not properly maintained – both of which, waste energy.
For most things we do in life, whether it’s consciously or subconsciously, we plan. To get to work, to wash your hair or to make a cup of tea. A plan is just a series of individual events laid out and linked together.
Put the water in the kettle, turn the kettle on, get a cup, get a tea bag, get some milk. . . You get the jist right.
Alex Honholt, a professional American climber, climbs “Free Solo”. This is a way of climbing without safety ropes. With climbing ‘free solo’, one false move, or one misjudged step and that is most likely the end.
He climbed up an impressive rock face called El Capitan in Yosemite, USA, in 2017. Seen as a major feat of accomplishment in the adventure sports world and in the documentary that followed his progress, you could certainly see why.
The rock face is shear granite with sections that look simply impossible to hold onto. Yet this man climbed up without any ropes, thousands of feet in a matter of hours.
To complete his mission he did not just start one day, climbing without a rope. First, he completed many ‘roped climbs’ to create the perfect plan to make the ascent successfully. He split the whole climb into smaller and smaller sections and constantly practiced each of these sections until they were perfect. On those climbs he would often fall, but with falling, he would learn how to not fall again.
When he was confident his plan would work, then and only then, he removed the ropes and climbed successfully to the top.
Therefore to look at a plan for a major event in your life, all we need to do is think of a series of singular events, write them down and see how we can link them all together. Imagine your dream is to sail around the world one day, a very high level plan could be . . .
Create a budget to release £500 per month for savings, keep a job, work for ten years whilst saving £500 per month, at the end of year ten, buy a boat and sail around the world.
A big major life-changing plan, but one which still comprises ‘simple’ singular events.
Doing is so hard, there is an entire section of the self-improvement book market dedicated to helping people to start ‘doing’. There’s Mel Robbins with her ‘5-Second Rule’ and ‘Think Less, Do More’ by Shaa Wasmund amongst some of the world’s best-sellers.
We know from the ‘Water Principle’ that to move from one path to another, we need to input energy. Then we need to continue inputting energy until the change is complete.
As Newton said, an object will remain at rest or constant motion unless we apply an external force to it. Again, nothing will change, everything stays the same, unless we do something about it.
Checking how your plan is actually performing is the most vital part in any Continuous Improvement Process. It starts the feedback loop, which is so often missing in our personal lives. Without feedback; without stopping and analysing what we are doing and seeing if this matches what we set out to do. We simply do not know if what we are executing is going the way we want it to, or not.
Everywhere in business and engineering, there are checks. Financial results each quarter, sales targets each month or production targets each week. We are always checking on what is happening to provide information to those in control.
This is no different to ‘You.com’, the business of your life. You are in control – regardless of how much chaos there is, you’re the CEO, the chief engineer, the fat cat, the top dog..
How is your budget this month? How is your resting heart rate tracking for your exercise routine? How much milk have you put in that cup of tea?
Once you have ‘checked’ on the situation you have, then you can act. Action can be in the form of giving yourself a massive high five as you are on track and killing your targets. Otherwise, it can be simply carrying on working on the plan, or doing something to change it, some kind of course correction—just as you might behind the wheel of a car if you’re veering into another lane.
As life is so full of changes, your goals may adjust with the changes in your life. It’s your life, you can change the destination if you want to. Making a new plan, based on new information, is just as important as acting upon an existing one.
Maybe you had a vacation this week, had a few too many mojitos and you’re not really on plan anymore. OK, no problem, that’s why we take vacations. The action will be to either adjust your targets or to put some more effort in down the gym and have a week of cleansing eating to get back on track—perhaps you need to reassess how realistic your goals are. There’s nothing more demotivating than setting yourself superhuman objectives. You’re amazing, but you’re not superhuman. It’s important to recognise your limitations and expect realistic outcomes. Pushing yourself is different to overwhelming yourself; the former should bring about a feeling of excitement, the latter only brings stress.
The important point is that you start to change your way of working from a random way, into a structured way. Plan, Do, Check and Action.
I lived in a life full of chaos. I had no idea what was happening with my money, my dreams, my goals, I was lost. At work though, I was the complete opposite. I planned and I executed; I checked and I acted.
When I broke down (more on that here), I was forced to review my own life and to figure out the solutions, it was only natural to start planning.
I knew it was the most efficient way to work. Therefore, I took a spreadsheet and created pages for everything. I made a finance page, a fitness page, one for my dreams and goals and one for my career.
For each section I tried to get a clear overview of where I was. I inputted all my finances and set budgets for the future. I looked long and hard at where I was in ‘life’ and where I really wanted to go.
I needed to get fit, so I asked ‘What is a measure of fitness?’ I decided resting heart rate suited me. But it could be different for you; your weight, your waistline measurement, how well you sleep. I set a target for where I wanted it to be.
Each morning I would wake up and check my resting heart rate. Each day I was ‘checking in’ on my plan.
My resting heart rate would go down with regular exercise, but if I trained too much, was too stressed at work, or was starting to get sick it would go up, well-recognised in sports science. My Check would find a problem and my Action was to rest until it returned to a stable level again.
The spreadsheet I created, named ‘Plan of Attack’ is still something I use today. I open it almost every morning and check in on where I am and where I am going. I change bits, I modify goals, I make new plans and set new budgets. It’s an ever evolving document and with this, I created a life of structure. I increased my negentropy, by simply stopping, planning, doing, checking and acting on almost everything.
Now for me, it doesn’t matter how chaotic life can get. I have all the fundamental things written down and planned on a sheet. I can manage in whatever the weather and in all storms that come to shore. It’s an anchor point to keep me focused.
And it’s efficient. It takes energy to set up the process, but once it’s running, it takes little adjustments here and there to keep everything on track. Like spinning the plates which could fall to the floor. By planning how to keep them all a float and learning from the mistakes, soon you become the master.
If you need to gain some control of your life, why not try being like the engineers in Toyota?
If your life is a production facility with hundreds of components and processes running around inside your head. Sitting down and planning them out on paper or a spreadsheet could have some wonderful effects.
Take some control of your life. Plan, Do, Check, Action.
Don’t believe me, check out this speech by Matthew McConaughey and see how he continually checks on his life as a continual improvement process. The video starts at 11:25 for this, but the whole thing is worth a watch one day.
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Try and start with a super easy project and practice the PDCA cycle. See if you find it easy or not.
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