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Life is a Journey, so PDSA

W. Edwards Deming, industrial engineer and founder of the Total Quality Management movement, was a big believer in the PDSA: Plan, Do, Study, Act (originally Plan, Do, Check, Act, which he’d originally named the Shewart Cycle). He formulated the idea in the late 1940s, and practiced it throughout the 1950s and beyond—famously with Toyota in Japan. It was published in his 1993 book, The New Economics for Industry, Government, and Education. In a way, PDSA was a precursor for what, in 2001, became Agile software development.

PDSA is really simple, and it starts by acknowledging a couple of key points:

  • We can never know All The Things
  • We might as well do something with what we do know

What a lot of people don’t realize is that PDSA is incredibly applicable to our careers, as well as to software development or car manufacturing.

PDSA breaks down like this:

  • Plan: Make the best plan you can to accomplish whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish. Use what information you have at hand. Don’t necessarily try to do too much, because you know your information is always incomplete.
  • Do: Execute the plan.
  • Study: Examine the results.
  • Act: Also called Adjust, this step is where you take what you’ve learned, tweak your plan, and start over.

A PDSA is—as the name Shewart Cycle suggests—a cycle. It’s something you do over and over.

When I was running workshops based on my book, Be the Master, I used a GPS analogy to explain my approach to career management. Start by deciding what you need your life to look like, in terms of free time, money, and so on. Set that as your GPS destination. Then, given where you are in your career right now, start plotting a course to the destination.

The problem with the analogy is that it sets some folks down the path of trying to figure out the entire path to their success all at once, meaning they sometimes have to look decades down the road. That’s impossible to do with any accuracy, and pretty much impractical to do at all. I can’t even answer the stupid “where do you see yourself in five years” question during annual performance reviews!

Instead, I counseled folks to think only of the very next step. What one thing can you do, right now, that will at least move you in the direction of the destination, if not actually get you there? Look at that one thing: that’s your Plan.

Do it.

Study the results.



The idea here is that life is a journey, not a destination. We’re going to trip up along that journey—we’ll make mistakes, we’ll have successes, and above all we’ll learn as we go. Those learnings are what inform the next step.

But the big message here is to take those steps with purpose. Don’t just let your career happen to you: become an active controller of that career. Decide what the destination looks like for now—because, as you move along the journey, you may well want to change the destination—and take a step in that direction. Analyze what that step did for you, adjust, and take a next step.

From a career perspective, we’re all of us stumbling around in a darkened maze. None of us can see what’s ahead: we can’t predict what the economy will do, who’ll disrupt our industry next, or what technology will do to shift things. Occasionally, we’ll get flashes of light, enabling us to see a bit further ahead, but those always gutter and die. So we can make a choice: stand still and see what happens, or take a step.

Those who take that step do so with one hand held out in front of them—less likely to bang their noses, that way. They’re mitigating what risk they can. Maybe they shuffle their feet as well, to avoid tripping over anything—although there’s still plenty of risk from pitfalls, tripwires, and more. It’s a scary maze. But they take that step.

Sometimes, their hand hits a wall. Sometimes, they trip over something. Fine: theymace an adjustment, and take another step. When they get a flash of illumination, they try to make the most of it, quickly scanning ahead and memorizing what they’ve seen. That’ll let them take several quick steps forward, like seizing an unexpected career opportunity that presents itself. But then it’s back in the dark, taking one careful step at a time and adjusting as they go.

They might not ever get out of the maze, but they might. At least they’re moving. The others, the ones who are just standing still, afraid of the dark and afraid to even try, aren’t getting anywhere. Most likely, those folks are thinking about how impossible it is to even imagine where the maze’s exit might be. If they can’t completely visualize the destination, if they can’t see themselves making it, then they might as well stand still.

But they’ll never get out.

So look at your life. Define what you want it to be. Calculate the career necessary to create that life for you.

And take a first step. P, D, S, A.

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