Plan Do Check Act (PDCA): the First Competitive Intelligence Cycle

What is it about processes that so attract us and yet so aggravate us? Just how are processes born? One explanation is that people always try to find the least path to resistance and once they find it they want to repeat it—hence a process is born. I am not sure I totally buy into that, but who wants to reinvent the wheel each time they do routine tasks? I think people want to be successful so we seek ways to do things that are fruitful and repeatable. Consistency is an important element after all aren’t we are creatures of habit? Processes provide consistency. We also like doing things we are comfortable with so processes provide us that safety net. Just try to move our cheese and see what happens. I also have a hunch that we are generally systems thinkers and we like to do things in steps, so we break down projects into small chunks that we can digest and that’s how some processes are born. Once we have it down the way we like it, we seek to do it better and faster until we can do it in our sleep. Easy is better. Simplify. Until you get the government involved, your process remains simple to execute.

Now take the flip side, you are new to an office and someone unveils “the process” for doing things and immediately our hair stiffens. Is it that we did not invent the process? Perhaps we want to learn how things work first before we buy into an unknown process. Maybe it’s just pride or ego, regardless, having a new process thrust upon is not always easy. I generally find the simpler the process the easier it is to accept, understand and implement.

We have a process for competitive intelligence that I have yet to find anyone seriously challenge or reject. Its simple and has built in feedback. I  find it universally accepted and in use across different industries and even in the military. There are slightly different versions out there, but they all seem to embody the same five elements: planning and direction, collection, analysis, dissemination and feedback as shown below. Feedback, that’s the continuous improvement step that would make Edward Deming smile.

CI Cycle

So who invented this process? Who was the first person that said, here is the Competitive Intelligence cycle for all ages to use? I never see any footnotes attributing this construct to someone. I did find a SCIP article by Kristan Wheaton, Assistant Professor Intelligence Studies Department, Mercyhurst College where he thinks it came from two Army military intelligence authors, LTC Phillip Davidson and LTC Robert Glass, instructors at the Command and General Staff College, where they outline a simplified intelligence cycle in their 1948 book Intelligence is for Commanders. The figure below is from their book that includes four simple steps: Use of intelligence; Direction of the Collection Effort; Collection of Information and Processing of Information all driven by mission needs.

Early CI cycle

I think it’s easy to imply that their intelligence cycle is driven by the mission since they are using gears for each process. I have looked at this for some time and I think that the two intelligence officers were heavily influenced by a remarkably similar process created twenty years earlier by a statistical mathematician named Walter Shewhart. Walter Shewhart was born in New Canton, Illinois on 18 March 1891. He received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Illinois, then attended the University of California at Berkeley from which he was awarded a Doctorate in physics in 1917. He taught at both universities and went on to head the department of physics at Wisconsin Normal School at LaCrosse for a short period of time. Shewhart worked at Western Electric Company from 1918-1925 then went on to work at Bell Telephone Research until his retirement in 1956. Shewart is probably best known for his work in statistical process control, control charts and focus on variation. He heavily influenced Edward Deming, the father of the modern day quality movement and Shewart’s methods are what the “Six Sigma” processes are based. It’s his other work in management thinking that I think has been a major influence across systems processes since the late 1920s. What Shewart came us with as a simple cross of management process and statistical analysis, almost too simple, but it has had a major impact on Japanese and American manufacturing for decades. Simply called the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle or sometimes the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle, this became the heart of many industrial improvement processes since the 50s.   The Shewhart cycle has the following four stages (Often called the Deming cycle as Ed Deming promoted this cycle everywhere):

  • Plan: identify what can be improved and what change is needed
  • Do: implement the design change
  • Study: measure and analyze the process or outcome
  • Act: if the results are not as hoped for


The resulting process looks like this:


As I mentioned before this may be too simplistic to take seriously, but if you are like me, you see this pattern all the time in systems processes. It’s intuitive. It’s what we do when we are not thinking about a process but thinking about how to solve a problem or approach a project. This is what systems engineers do for nearly every one of their engineering challenges, it’s what program managers do to approach a project and it it’s what competitive intelligence professionals do when they approach a new market. In short its ready, aim, fire, then check the target to see where you hit, adjust the scope and do it again. While I can’t prove it, I think this is what influenced LTC Phillip Davidson and LTC Robert Glass in the building of their process. For sure both had to have been through the military education by the time they were assigned as instructors at the Command and General Staff College and could have easily have studied Shewhart’s work, the scientific methods and most probably the Hawthorne studies based on Shewhart’s work. These were important academic works at the time of LTC Davidson and LTC Glass.

So here is my supposition; nearly all systems thinkers are born with the PDCA cycle imprinted on their brains. It’s what we do, it’s logical, it’s sequential, and it has built in improvement. It’s ready, aim, fire and it’s remarkably similar to the present CI cycle. This is why systems thinkers and systems engineers become very good CI analysts, its second nature to us. In a nutshell, I think we can look to Walter Shewhart as one of the potential early creators of our CI process and thank him for the simplicity that makes it so acceptable. Now for those that are fire, ready, aim type thinkers, this is a process you can learn as well, it just might take a bit longer to overcome those habits.

(C) Copywrite Caldgargan and Associates


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