The Deming Cycle (or PDCA Cycle) is a four-stage method used in business for the control and continuous improvement of processes and products. It is named after the US statistician and management guru J. Edwards Deming who originally developed it for improving manufacturing processes in the Japanese automotive industry. His aim was to improve quality and efficiency through problem-solving and critical thinking.
The steps in the Deming Cycle are:
1) Plan – recognize an opportunity and plan a change.
2) Do – test the change. Carry out a small-scale study.
3) Check – review the test, analyze the results and identify what you’ve learned.
4) Act – take action based on what you learned in the study step.
The cycle should be repeated again and again for continuous improvement, in what Deming referred to as ‘spirals of increasing knowledge of the system that converge on the ultimate goal, each cycle closer than the previous’. PDCA allows for major jumps in performance (breakthroughs), as well as frequent small improvements.
This diagram of the Deming Cycle is very similar to the four-stage TBL cycle which is also a method for continuous improvement in language learning. An introductory input phase leads on to a task, which is followed by feedback and evaluation, and then a follow-up activity which could involve a degree of repetition and consolidation. When working with groups, this might well include reshuffling the interlocutors so that they feel that they have been dealt a fresh hand. It is important that this repeating of language tasks has a logical sequence and is not perceived as ‘just doing it all over again’.
I was recently able to facilitate and observe this process of continuous improvement while working with a group of (B1-B2 level) German business students who were doing the StartUp Enterprise simulation. They were in the ‘Finance’ phase of the activity which involves the new start-up companies visiting banks and trying to negotiate a loan.
On this occasion there were four groups, and each group had been split to create four companies and four banks. During the task each company and each bank would be required to do the same negotiation three times, as none of the companies would negotiate with the (now) bank that comprised their own former colleagues. In order to avoid this happening, the meetings between companies and banks were organised thus:
If the tables in the room can be arranged in this way, companies can rotate from one bank to the next without any bottlenecks happening. Each negotiation will last twenty minutes, so after that time is up (we sometimes use a clapperboard to keep changeovers snappy) they have to move on to the next bank. Another key classroom management point – in order to set up an information gap, companies should prepare for the negotiations in another room, so that when they are ready to start they will be ‘visiting’ the banks.
So the four companies were ready, they had copies of their neatly-typed business plans which they had prepared during a previous writing task, they had reviewed the key language for negotiating by going through a handout of selected phrases, and they had decided amongst themselves who was going to say what. (The four start-up companies wanted bank loans to develop: a smart iFridge, a scooter suitcase, a robot dust extractor, and an app for ordering fast food). Meanwhile, in the main training room, the banks were prepared and had organised their tables so that they would be sitting facing the companies. They had copies of a credit assessment form on which to make notes about the suitability of each company’s application, and each had placed a card on their table with the name of their bank.
The first round of negotiations, when the companies came into the room and met their first bank, involved critical moments and were therefore a little slow off the mark as students tried to remember chunks such as ‘Pleased to meet you’ and ‘Have a seat’ and ‘Let me introduce myself’. However, by the time they had practised these opening exchanges for a second and third time they were noticeably more fluent and natural-sounding. Indeed this was also true of their use of other key lexical items such as target market, USP, prototype, break-even point, business premises, and so on.
While the negotiations were under way we (I was tandem teaching with a colleague) were watching, moving between the tables, sitting in on the discussions, taking language notes and occasionally helping if things got sticky. I try not to intervene while a task is running, but at one point there was a misunderstanding when one of the banks asked a company: ‘Are you really going to pay yourself an income of €20,000 per month? That’s not possible!’ It turned out there was a mistake on the business plan (even though the English had been checked) and one of the monthly expenditures was ‘Personal income: €20,000 per month’, but this actually referred to ‘Employees wages’ (personnel).
Most of the spoken errors that found there way into the language notes were minor things (‘Five hundred dollars are too much’ – ‘Just a minute, I’ll make a notice of the details’ – ‘We should meet us again next month’) which were rounded up and then given as feedback after the task. After the three negotiations, which were limited to a strict twenty minutes each, the students felt tired as they had been speaking English quite intensively for an hour without a break. However, the companies had enjoyed the ‘buzz’ of negotiating a loan with three different banks, and equally the banks had enjoyed negotiating with three different companies. Indeed, some of them were still negotiating furiously after the time limit, even switching into German to argue some fine point at issue! They needed a few minutes to come out of the simulation and have time to reflect on the outcome of the task.
So before moving on to the language feedback phase, they were asked to give their comments on how the negotiations went, which parts were the most challenging, and which banks offered the best deal/which companies made the best pitch. They agreed, without being prompted, that there was a real value in ‘changing the players’ and then repeating the task. They noticed that each time, as they moved through the stages of the negotiation, they felt more confident. Better able to find their words; better able to organise their message; better able to communicate effectively.
Whether they would recognise this as the cycle of continuous improvement in action, or indeed spirals of increasing knowledge, or not, doesn’t really matter. What is important is that by completing the task, and gaining confidence, and having another go, and seeing the improvement in performance for themselves, they appreciate the value of task-based learning and develop an appetite for broadening their English to match an ever-increasing range of contexts and degrees of challenge. What seems difficult, and even unsettling, at the outset will surely become easier (measurably so) with practice. A good motto for repetition in task-based learning could be: ‘Practice makes perfect’. Or perhaps (at the risk of sounding a bit Nietzschean) something like: ‘It won’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger.’