Plan, Do, Measure, Learn

The addition of Learning to a Deming-like cycle may help integrate KM and continual improvement.

The Deming cycle is at the heart of continuous improvement.
Based on 4 steps of “Plan-Do-Check-Act” (PDCA) it is a cycle of action, or a cycle of mindfulness, that drives and continuous improvement.

Learning is implicit in PDCA, but not explicit. It is assumed that through this cycle, practices and products are continuously improved, and that the organisation thereby “learns” to improve. The Acting as a result of Checking should involve a learning step – we learn from the results of the check, and decide which action to take. The planning should be based on Learning from others.

However as Knowledge managers, we know that you cannot assume learning will take place naturally, and that there is value in making learning steps explicit lest they be skipped.  There is a variant of PDCA which makes the learning step explicit. This is the “Plan-Do-Measure-Learn” cycle (PDML). You plan your work, you do your work, you measure the results, and you learn from them; making appropriate improvements as a result (improvements to practice, product, behaviours, structures etc).

The picture above is taken from the 2006 publication, “Implementing a Framework for Knowledge Management“, written by me, Peter Gibby, Walt Palen, and Sarah Hensley. It shows how Knowledge Management is an expansion of the “Learn” component of the PDML cycle. In fact, it is hard to see how you can operate the PDML cycle as an organisation, without KM.

Here we break out the KM element into “Learning Before, During and After” – that well-known basic model of activity focused KM. The link here between the PDML cycle and the “Learning Before, During and After” cycle emphasises three things.

  1. Learning comes after doing. You need experience from which to learn, and that needs to be either your Doing, or someone else’s.
  2. Learning comes after measurement. It is through measurement (of whatever indicators you use to determine success) that you know whether the Doing was successful, and you know what needs to be improved or repeated in future.
  3. Learning comes before planning. Although the PDML cycle is usually described as “Plan-Do-Measure-Learn”, it can equally well be described as “Learn-Plan-Do-Measure.”  In fact, “Learn-Plan-Do-Measure” is a great way to look at the cycle, because, to be honest, all planning should be based on learning.

PDML may be a good way to integrate KM and continuous improvement

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Adopt, adapt, improve

Adopt, adapt, improve could be seen as a mantra for KM – but is it always the right approach?

“Adopt, Adapt, Improve” is the maxim of the British “Round Table” club – a non-political, non-sectarian association for young professional men, for social and professional ends. The maxim comes from a 1927 speech by Edward, Prince of Wales “The young business and professional men of this country must get together round the table, adopt methods that have proved so sound in the past, adapt them to the changing needs of the times and wherever possible, improve them.”

The phrase was even mentioned in a Monty Python sketch.

Adopt, Adapt, Improve also works in KM terms, and is in some ways as good and as simple a KM mantra as “Learn Before, During and After”, or “Ask Learn Share”. You can look at Prince Edward’s vision of the Round Table as a community of practice, developing and discussing best practices. In any task of undertaking we should adopt ideas and knowledge that have worked before elsewhere, adapt them to our current situation, and improve them by learning on the job; making sure we broadcast them to others for their adoption. This way, knowledge is used, improved and shared, and the collective knowledge grows in effectiveness and value.

But is this 3-word mantra always applicable?

  • There are times when adaptation is a risk (see the innovation spectrum, and where adaptation becomes tinkering or meddling) and where a better approach is “copy exactly” as in the Intel case study. People like to adapt – it gives them more ownership of the outcome, but where a context is unchanging, and a solution works and always works (and especially if we don’t quite know why it works) then Adaptation may do more harm than good. In such a case, the Mantra would just be “Adopt”.
  • There are times when there is nothing to Adopt; where no current solution meets your needs. In this case, the Matra is “innovate, test, improve”.

 But in most other cases – where knowledge is evolving, and where knowledge exists that will help you in your work but may not quite fit your current context, then you could do a lot worse than to adopt these three words as your KM strapline:

Adopt, Adapt, Improve 

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The ongoing state of learning

Companies that succeed are those that learn all the time, even when the going is good

This is an insight that came to me from 2 directions this week, one from an article in Forbes magazine, and one from a discussion on Toyota

The Forbes magazine article is called “finding the secret to success requires embracing an ingoing state of learning”, written by Daniela Pineda, who makes the following point;

The secret to success is to not be content with succeeding as an outcome. That is not enough. You have to continually cycle through learning, applying and adapting to ever-changing conditions in order to be an effective organisation.

Daniela describes a cycle of learning from experience and knowledge sharing which will be familiar to most Knowledge Managers but the point about “not being content with succeeding” also echoed comments in the Toyota discussion. As we can read in this HBR article,

over the past 40 years, (Toyota) has recorded steady sales and market-share growth. Despite this enviable stability, senior executives constantly hammer home messages such as “Never be satisfied” and “There’s got to be a better way.” A favourite saying of former chairperson Hiroshi Okuda is “Reform business when business is good,” and Watanabe is fond of pointing out that “No change is bad.”

This is a tough discipline and one that requires a strong will, but if an organisation can learn and improve all the time, even when things  are going well, then it will be ready for anything.

Success is not good enough. Continuous improvement is the goal.

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Learning before, during and after; how it works in Sport

“Learning before, during and after” is a common principle applied to knowledge management in project-based organisations.  But what does it really mean?


We may have read about the principle of learning before, during and after in projects, but if you want to see how it really works in practice, take a look at sport. 
A sports team – a football team, or a rugby team or a cricket team – has built this learning rhythm into their working week.
The team do their Learning Before on a Friday. 
They study video recordings of their forthcoming opponents, they identify the other team’s weaknesses and patterns of play, and they discuss the tactics and strategy they might use on the Saturday.  They look back on occasions when these opponents have been beaten, and analyse how best to beat them this weekend.
The team do their Learning After on a Monday.  They review and analyse, often in great detail and with the aid of computer analysis, the video footage of the weekend’s match.  They identify the things that have gone well, and analyse why they went well.  They analyse things which did not go to plan, look at the root causes behind this, and identify anything they need to work on during the week, and do differently in future matches.
What about Learning During?  Learning during takes place during the match, partly through messages sent on to the field from the management team, and partly through self analysis during the half time break. The purpose of Learning During is to identify and change things that are not working, and identify and repeat things that are. Often the team that learns and adapts the best on the pitch, wins the match. 
This is just the same way that a project can learn.  The team can analyse, before work starts, and challenges and problems they will face, and seek to learn from previous examples where those challenges have been overcome, through mechanisms such as Knowledge Management planning and Peer Assist.
They can learn after the project; they identify the things that have gone well, and analyse why they went well.  They analyse things which did not go to plan, look at the root causes behind this, and identify anything that needs to be done differently on future projects, through processes such as Retrospect.  Then during the project itself, they should be open to learnings both from the project team themselves, and from external observers. They can  identify and change things that are not working, and identify and repeat things that are.

That’s how winning teams learn.

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