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Scientific Approach to Problem Solving

Plan, Do, Study, Adjust (PDSA) is a scientific problem-solving technique and a foundation of continuous improvement.

Management concept with hand holding piece of jigsaw puzzle with problem and solution word

Have you ever wondered:

  • What does it take to truly solve a problem, so it doesn’t recur and cause new problems to surface?

  • How do you define or quantify a problem so people feel energized to solve it?

  • How do you help people push aside their biases and assumptions to search for the true root cause of a performance gap?

Effective problem solving requires critical thinking and appropriate action.

Plan-Do-Study-Adjust (PDSA) is a scientific and fact-based approach to problem-solving, where we ask specific questions during each PDSA phase that needs to be answered.

Working methodically, scientifically through the PDSA questions enables the problem solver to discover the true root cause of the problem and identify countermeasures (solutions) to close the performance gap.

Testing the Lego car against different obstacles and improving it until it becomes a capable climber is a good example of how the PDSA cycle is applied in real life to achieve continuous improvement.

How We Can Help

A key success factor in problem-solving is being intentional about what you seek to learn and then letting the facts lead you. 

To improve your team's effectiveness and help them move to fact-based problem solving, we coach and facilitate workshops that help the team ask and answer the right questions for each PDSA phase. 
Plan Phase
The goal of this phase is to form one or more hypotheses to test.
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To form a hypothesis, a problem solver must:

  • First, define and deeply understand the problem

  • Then, decide which aspects of the problem to focus on

  • Finally, determine the reasons, the root cause(s) for the problem

In the plan phase, we get answers to the following questions:

  • What’s the problem? How do we know it’s a problem? For whom is it a problem?

  • How significant is the problem?

  • What are the problem components? Which parts will we work on?

  • What’s the current reality of the situation? What’s the current state?

  • What’s the root cause? Which countermeasures might eliminate the root cause?

Do Phase
The goal of this phase is to run an experiment to test the hypothesis. 

The questions that help design, prepare for, and run an effective experiment are:

  • Who needs to know about the experiment?

  • Who needs to be involved in the experiment?

  • What knowledge, tools, and resources are needed by those running the experiment?

  • Will the experiment be run with real-time work or in a simulated fashion?

Chemistry Class
  • What indicators will signal that the experiment is being properly executed?

  • What indicators will signal that we need to stop the experiment?

  • How will we know that we have experimented enough to decide whether the countermeasure should be adopted, adjusted, or abandoned?

Study Phase
The goal of this phase is to study the experiment results to determine if the hypothesis was proved or disapproved and if the countermeasure should be adopted, adjusted, or abandoned.
Image by Annie Spratt

The primary question here is a simple one:

  • What did we learn?

  • Using facts and data help problem solvers avoid biased and assumption-based thinking, which leads to inaccurate conclusions

Adjust Phase
The goal of this phase is to Adopt, Adjust, or Abandon the countermeasure.
Image by Drew Patrick Miller

Finally, in this phase we:

  • Adopt the countermeasure,

  • Adjust the countermeasure, or

  • Abandon the countermeasure

Roll Out

Even when PDSA is carried out with great care, all the hard work that went into solving the problem can vaporize if it’s not rolled out properly. 

Primarily, there are four actions an organization needs to take to have a successful rollout and sustainability so the people doing the work don’t revert to the old way of operating.

  1. If the process for doing work needs to be changed, the new way of operating needs to be codified in form of written standard work

  2. All of the parties who contribute inputs to and perform the work, which is changing, need to receive training on the new standard work with real-time practice sessions built in.

  3. All the key stakeholders that have contributed to the problem-solving cycle and those who care about the improved performance, which will result from the new way of operating, need to know about it. Communication is key.

  4. A strong process management approach needs to be designed and implemented if it doesn’t exist already.

Refer here for further details on common points of failure for process improvement rollout.

Process Management Best Practice 

All processes need to be monitored on a regular basis or they will undergo entropy, a gradual decline into disorder.

Monitoring requires that two conditions are in place. 

  • A process owner who has full accountability for how well the process performs, and 

  • Metrics by which the process owner measures performance. 


All processes must also be continuously improved. 


Ideally, you want a period of stabilization before taking on another round of PDSA to improve performance further by closing another gap. However, if a rollout isn’t closing the gap as originally conceived or is causing harm of any sort, go immediately into another round of improvement. 

Well-executed experiments with well-executed rollouts rarely experience this outcome.

Continuous improvement should occur as frequently as needed. New conditions, as in:

  • New customer requirements, 

  • Changing work volumes, 

  • New equipment, 

  • New regulations… and so on


Do changing conditions always require a new PDSA cycle? No, it depends on the degree of disruption and risks the new conditions create and whether the deep analysis is needed to modify the way work is done.

Conditions for Successful Problem Solving

PDSA is a scientific method for solving a problem, but building technical capabilities don’t necessarily mean an organization will suddenly solve problems more effectively.

It’s a great start, but there’s more to it. Organizational Leadership and Culture are critical in determining the success an organization will have in solving problems.
Leadership Maturity
  • Appetite for seeking the truth

  • Courage to make changes

Businessman Thinking
Office Group Discussion
Organizational Culture
  • Conducive to surfacing problems

  • Ability to focus on what matters

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