PDSA – A Scalable Method for Learning and Improvement In Sales and Marketing

PDSA – A Scalable Method
for Learning and Improvement
In Sales and Marketing

Michael J. Webb


Systems thinking aligns work around a common purpose. In sales and marketing this sets up a framework for improving productivity.

The purpose, of course, is to create value for customers (and for our own company). The method (or the work) is that which makes it easier for the prospect or customer to:

  • Realize their problems/goals
  • Prioritize the right approach, and
  • Solve the problem or achieve the goal (with our help).

Unfortunately, when individuals on a team improve, the team’s results don’t always improve. There needs to be a cohesive structure. The Deming Management System provides that structure (Plan, Do, Study, Act, or PDSA[i]):

  • Plan:
    Articulate what you (or the team) want to do, what change might create improvement, and how you’ll know you improved
  • Do:
    Execute the work according to the plan, while observing what happens
  • Study:
    Identify the situation or context you created and what you observed
  • Act:
    Understand what worked and what didn’t – that is, improve your theory of causes for the results

PDSA is the recipe for observing reality and integrating new observations into your frame of reference.

This normally requires iterations. People need to standardize their language, theory of causes, and plans for improving. The work can be visualized as a cyclical pattern, in which knowledge amounts to:

  • Retained, accessible awareness
  • Stored by means of concepts and terms defined through respectful agreement and recorded in a consistent manner.
  • Updated as reality unfolds

Predictions become propositions built on first-hand knowledge. That allows updating them as learning occurs. Figure 11-3 from page 251 of Sales Process Excellence presents a useful way of viewing this model.[ii]


Iterative Nature of Learning and Improvement

Why is PDSA So Important

To some people, PDSA appears too simple or intuitive to be necessary. This assumption is deceptive and dangerous for three crucial reasons.

First, individuals can only undertake the work of learning for themselves. They must develop language characterizing their experience. This consists of concepts, observations of facts, and theories.  PDSA’s structure helps individuals “remember their place” in the thinking process.

Second, individuals characterize what they learn in unique ways. Without a shared method of coordinating what they learn, they use different terms. PDSA enables teams to coordinate “respectful agreement” about how to do the work.

Finally, the value add of sales and marketing is intangible. That’s because observations, thoughts, motivations, and emotions are intangible. A method for holding the context is critical when groups need to share that context. And such a method is a necessity if the context is  vastly complex and also invisible. PDSA is scalable from the deliberations of a single mind to those of the most complex organizations.

How PDSA Improves Sales and Marketing Results

A profound change occurs when an organization migrates from “everybody go sell” to using standard work and PDSA. Everyone develop a more precise vocabulary and better understanding of their responsibilities. Their skills and strengths become visible, as do their problems and weaknesses. They can get specific about what is or isn’t working and what problems they are encountering.

They learn to say, “I made this mistake; how can I fix it?” or “…I know how to fix it!” They see that if their work isn’t done properly, customers, money, and livelihoods are at stake. They invest in making the system work, instead of promoting themselves. They realize they must learn from every customer interaction and every sales call.

Meetings can become open, honest discussions where no one hides from negative repercussions. They end on a positive note: people are glad to be there. The question moves from who is right to what is right. That’s because the Study and Act steps integrate individual contributions to improvement.

When managed in this way, people get credit for their value. They appreciate being accountable for what is within their control. But that happens only when the things outside their control earn equal respect.


Adapted from Sales Performance Excellence, Chapter 11.

[i] In Sales Process Excellence I referred to this as PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act), unaware that Deming preferred the PDSA terminology. Technically, PDCA technically has a slightly different meaning which is not relevant for our purposes.

[ii] Adapted from “The Improvement Guide — A Practical Approach to Enhancing Organizational Performance” Second Edition; Langley, Moen, Nolan, Nolan, Norman, Provost (Jossey Bass, 2009) p. 82.

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