Design Thinking and the PDCA Cycle

Design Thinking and the PDCA Cycle

By Discovery Lean Six Sigma

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By Pascal Dennis (bio)

To everything there is a season

In a world of tumultuous and endless technological change, Design Thinking has rightly become a core methodology.

In many industries, we can no longer confidently claim that we understand the customer’s problems. An thus, we can no longer define Value with any certainty.

A generation ago we rediscovered, seemingly, Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Adjust cycle.


Deming’s work, in turn, was heavily informed by Walter Shewhart and the idea that operational data comprised both a signal and noise.

And that through patient observation and statistical methods, we could separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff.

Before Shewhart, Deming and the other great pioneers of modern management, business processes were essentially unknown – unknowable.

(In a some sectors this is still the case, no? The ‘Noble Savage’ approach to management…)

Both Deming and Shewhart informed our Toyota senseis. Every day, a little up, Pascal-san!

Is Design Thinking entirely new? Or is our current expression of the timeless ideas that Shewhart and Deming conveyed in generations past?

Like PDCA, Design thinking entails a Diverge-Converge pattern. The 4 D’s are perhaps its most succinct expression:

Discover – (Diverge)

  • Develop empathy with the customer
  • Go see and experience for yourself
  • Seek thereby to understand their jobs/pains/gains in a direct way

Define – (Converge)

  • Define the customer’s jobs/pains/gains
  • Pick a focus and define the essence of problem

Develop – (Diverge)

  • Ideate possible countermeasures
  • Develop and test prototypes
  • Focus on the best solution

Deliver – (Converge)

  • Test and confirm your design choice
  • Once the design is confirmed, develop a deployment plan
  • Release and scale

Each of the 4 D’s finds unique expression in different industries. Develop, for example, entails very different activities in, say, web design vs car detailing products.

In the former, Develop entails developing, say, the web page’s content, and the front and back end – (translation to HTML, functionality, database, logic).

In the latter industry, Develop entails testing the various chemicals and application methods in the lab. This one works, that one does not…

Like PDCA, Design Thinking entails a journey up a staircase in the fog, during which we learn through rapid experimentation and iteration.

In my view, both are rooted in the same tradition but differ in that one is aimed at continuous improvement, the other at continuous innovation.

We need both arrows in the quiver, no?

Best regards,



Posted: January 28, 2019, 3:00 pm

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