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How to implement the PDCA cycle in the automotive industry according to IATF 16949

When considering the tools or approaches for improvement of your Quality Management System based on IATF 16949, or dynamic growth and profitability, “plan,” “do,” “check,” and “act” (PDCA) is a one of the most obvious options. The PDCA cycle was originally developed by Walter A. Shewhart in the 1920s, and during the ‘80s of the last century, W. Edwards Deming made it famous, even though he transformed the PDCA cycle to PDSA (plan, do, study, and act). Today, PDCA has become a cornerstone of quality management. All the emphasis on process thinking is based on the PDCA cycle, be it ISO 9001, Six Sigma, TQM, or any other management system standard. PDCA is a closed-loop engineering application, or a feedback diagram for the quality process.

PDCA stands for “improvement”

Each step of the quality evolution strives toward improvement of performances. The higher the quality, the higher customer expectations become, and the increase in customer expectations fuels further product and process improvement. Faster and better communication, along with methodologies like Six Sigma, have evolved over time to further accelerate improvement.

On each step of the quality evolution, leading experts left their contributions. Shewhart developed control charts, Joseph M. Juran emphasized execution or project management, Genichi Taguchi strived for performance on target, and Deming targeted variability reduction. Directly or indirectly, all of these men have improved various elements of PDCA.

The PDCA cycle, being a closed loop, provides a feedback mechanism for continual quality improvement, which is similar to an engineering feedback model. The four elements of PDCA represent the four states of a process. Deming changed the PDCA model by replacing the “check” step with “study.” The “study” step implies understanding the nature of variation in the process output. But the “act” step has led to different interpretations. For some people, “act” implies standardization, whereas for others, it means improvement. Currently, “act” is best known as the correction of the process through corrective action and prevention from recurrence through standardization.

Where does PDCA fit in IATF 16949?

If you have had a chance to read ISO 9001, IATF 16949, or any other Quality Management System standard like ISO 13485 or AS9100, you’ve probably noticed that the PDCA is mentioned even at the very introduction of the standard, emphasizing its importance for the QMS.

Numerous graphics are provided in the standards to depict the relations of the clauses or requirements to different parts of the PDCA, but even with all of this information, people often have problems with understanding how it relates to the QMS and whether they really applied it. So, let’s start from the beginning:

Plan – Planning represents the most important step in the process, given that half of the standard is dedicated to it, from clause 4 to clause 7. Establishing the QMS and later operating it require defining the context of the organization, assigning roles and responsibilities, demonstrating leadership, establishing a Quality Policy and objectives, addressing risks and opportunities, and providing resources. Once all of these pieces are put together, the organization can start putting the plans into realization.

Do – Unless carried out, the plan will be just an illusion rather than part of the vision. This phase requires all processes to be carried out as planned, provided there are sufficient competency and resources for them. Clause 8 of the standard is completely dedicated to operation and conducting the processes, from design and development to release of products and services.

Check – This phase is the moment of truth. It should demonstrate whether the plans provided the organization with the intended results. The first kind of check is to show whether all processes and activities are being carried out as planned, and this is where the internal audit comes into play. Then, you need to check the effectiveness of the processes: if the processes are being carried out as planned, do they deliver what we expected? This is done through a performance evaluation of the processes, and the ultimate check is the level of customer satisfaction. Finally, the management review should put all of this information in one place, enabling the top management to make decisions for the next phase.

Act – The Check phase provides input for decision making by the top management regarding improvement. The corrective and preventive actions have long been the weapons of choice for this occasion, and the new version of the standard added actions to address risks and opportunities to the arsenal. During the Act phase, the organization needs to enforce actions that will improve the QMS performance and lead the organization toward overall improvement.

Is there a QMS without improvement?

The very purpose of the QMS is to drive the company toward improvement, because only through improvement will a company be able to compete in highly competitive space like the automotive industry. By using the PDCA cycle, you will help to focus the processes and objectives of the QMS toward this desired improvement, leading to savings in time and money that can be used to improve further. With improvement as the goal of the QMS, the betterment and persistence of the business is more certain.

If you want to learn more about IATF 16949 implementation, check out this free IATF 16949 implementation diagram.

Advisera Strahinja Stojanovic
Strahinja Stojanovic

Strahinja Stojanovic is certified as a lead auditor for the ISO 13485, ISO 9001, ISO 14001, and OHSAS 18001 standards by RABQSA. He participated in the implementation of these standards in more than 100 SMEs, through the creation of documentation and performing in-house training for maintaining management systems, internal audits, and management reviews.