PDSA Problem Solving

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With a gentle introduction to double-loop learning, program theory, and causal graphs 

Figure 1: Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) Cycle

PDSA stands for Plan-Do-Study-Act (Figure 1). PDSA is the scientific method and we have been using it all of our lives. PDSA thinking and problem solving is part of human nature:  it is how we try things, learn, and adapt.  Unfortunately, many believe, mistakenly, that the scientific method is only for scientists. By recognizing that we are already scientific thinkers we can improve our daily decision-making,
problem-solving, innovation, and performance.

PDSA is both simple and profound. In practice, PDSA is a learning cycle based on experiments. PDSA supports need and problem finding and solving, exploiting opportunities, and conducting research. PDSA has two distinct, but related, purposes:
  • knowledge deployment: experiments to test and spread a new practice
  • knowledge discovery: experiments to test and spread a new theory
theory is a explanatory schema (cause-effect model) which may be explicit, invisible (e.g., cultural norm), or unconscious (e.g., implicit racial bias).  In knowledge deployment we experiment to test a new practice idea without challenging or testing the underlying theory. We hypothesize the new practice is better than the old.  Our intent is to improve practice.  In knowledge discovery we experiment to test a new theory. We hypothesize the new theory is valid (or invalid). Our intent is to improve theory. Linking the concepts of knowledge discovery and deployment promotes translation research and double-loop learning.

PDSA can be used "as is": just plan, do, study results, and act on what your learned. The secret to PDSA is prediction: "People learn better when they predict. Making a prediction forces us to think ahead about the outcomes. Making a prediction also causes us to examine more deeply the system, question or theory we have in mind."  "We will learn much more if we write down our prediction. Otherwise we often just think (after the fact), 'yeah that is pretty much what I expected' (even if it wasn't)." We learn by experimenting to close the knowledge gap between prediction and results. We improve by using what we learn to close the performance gap between current and desired results.

We can improve PDSA by understanding its core activities which are not always obvious:
  1. define the need, problem, or opportunity, and set objectives;
  2. design processes (a) to discover and prioritize root causes; and (b) to discover and prioritize possible solutions;
  3. decide on options for testing (experiments): test need, problem, or opportunity; test root causes; and test solutions;
  4. predict the results (outputs, outcomes), and conduct experiments
  5. learn by observing results with mindfulness (total focus, free of bias and prejudgment); by reasoning using sound logic; and by reflection (looking for deeper meaning); and 
  6. improve by adopting, adapting, or abandoning the option for the next iteration.
To read full story download PDF tutorial.


  1. Great article!

    The illusion of knowledge can be very dangerous. Understanding the core activities of the PDSA scientific method as outlined above is critical.


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