How My Garden Illustrates Two Key Improvement Tools: Part 1 – PDCA

The last time I made a significant effort to raise my own vegetables was years ago in Texas in a beautiful, rock-walled garden nurtured by the previous owner with purposeful annual soil amendments using local goat manure, considering the caviar of fertilizer back then. I was passionate about the prospect of self-sufficiency and looking forward to the 20×60 bed supplying all the vegetables I would need that year.

In addition to the rock work and perfect soil conditions, the owner left me a huge bundle of light-weight netting, purportedly for draping over the garden and supported by a network of four-foot-high steel posts with perimeter chicken wire. Other than explaining the mechanics of the netting, she never gave me the “why” of the netting.

One day, far into the effort when the vegetables had grown amazingly fast and tall, I discovered the “why.”

That evening, while enjoying a cold cerveza on the patio, I wandered over to admire my lush veggie-buffet-to-be. To my shock, five white-tail deer stood INSIDE my garden grazing at what they thought was their own all-you-can-eat buffet. And if you’ve ever had deer in your yard munching away, you know it doesn’t take long before nothing’s left.

They didn’t eat the cucumbers or okra, but the next evening a colony of leaf-cutting ants took care of the okra! The remaining sole survivor, the cucumbers, grew to overwhelming quantities, and friends would lock their doors and pull the blinds when I came around once too often with my grocery sacks of cucumbers. My Year of the Garden did not have a happy ending, but they were tasty cucumbers.

Fast forward to this year and Northwest Ohio…

Even though the first half of the growing season is over and I’ve planted a few varieties for fall yield, I’m pausing to reflect on the experience now and sharing my insights early. And as you might expect from someone who looks at the process in everything, I’m drawing comparisons between the garden process and business mechanisms.

A common and highly effective tool in business is Demming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) model. This simple, four-part improvement cycle theoretically never ends and if followed, helps you keep a process, initiative, or program healthy and functioning well. And while the steps may seem obvious, let’s do a quick overview of some key aspects of each part of the cycle before I connect it back to my garden.

  • PDCAPlan – more than just the What, Plan needs to have Why and Who elements. Later cycle steps will be more effectual if you take time to understand the task-goals-audience connections.
  • Do – execution phase, or where typically everyone wants to be and quickly. Enthusiasm is great, but the Do phase needs to follow a well-devised Plan phase and document when it doesn’t.
  • Check – reflection time: how did the Do go? Critically assess progress, outcome, what went well, what did not go well, etc., and consider about adding fresh eyes and ears in this step to not bias any discoveries.
  • Act – based on the documented Check step, identify any necessary adjustments to Plan or Do that can resolve anything surfaced during Check, then implement them.

How long does the cycle run? Initially it’s a continuous cycle but as the process matures, the Check/Act steps can occur at less frequent intervals, yet still remain active until the process no longer exists.

From mid-Winter until now, my activities around my backyard garden aligned with the PDCA steps:

  • Plan – During the winter, I read over seed catalogs, played with a list of what to plant, worked out the steps to get the garden ready, and loosely decided on a time table.
  • Do – When the last frost date was several weeks away, I did the hardscaping work, tilled the soli, and prepared my new rain barrels for the season. In late May, I planted and began the three Ws: watering, weeding, and watching the seeds magically transform into plants then into delicious fruits of my labors.
  • Check – Several times during the growing period I examined the health of the plants, noting what positions did well, what did not do well. With a garden, it’s pretty simple equation related to sunshine, but there are other factors. Additionally, I noted which varieties needed more room than I gave them, which soil areas worked well, which might be better served for flowers versus veggies, etc. Out of this analyis effort came the beginnings of a list of things I’d do differently next year.
  • Act – While most of what is on the Act list is aimed at next spring and plans for how to do things different from the get-go, there were some steps I took to adjust during the process, such as pruning my agressive squashes (they do like to take over the whole garden it seems), and pruning my tomatoes to yield better fruit.

The PDCA is a natural, logical progression of thought through a process, regardless of what the process is, but the challenge is typically to maintain the same effort and focus throughout the cycle. I often see most of the effort in Do, some in Plan, a little in Check, but unforatunately, not many get through Act and repeat the cycle. In the long run they’re causing more time and effort, instead of treating the cycle like a perpetual motion machine that exhibits consistent energy and effort through all steps of the cycle.

Try the process on something you’re working on, whether for business or personal projects, and I expect you’ll see improvements in your outcomes.

Next in Part 2: Observations, Insights, and Conclusions: The OIC Exercise