What Monty Python and Business Performance Have in Common

Jeff Cole

What do Monty Python and guided missiles have to do with business performance improvement? asks columnist Jeff Cole. More than you might think.

Do you know John Cleese, the tall guy in the British comedy troupe? Did you know that since the 1970’s he has run a company that produces humorous business training videos? He stars in some of the videos and others he just directs.

In one of his videos, Cleese is addressing a group of corporate managers and his topic is "Gordon the Guided Missile". He goes on to explain that while a guided missile more often than not hits its target, it is actually off-course over 90% of its journey!

The reason it hits its target is that thousands of times a second it is performing a PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle. It’s programmed to hit a target (Plan). It launches (Do). It then monitors (Check) its performance – oops, if I stay on this trajectory, I’ll overshoot the target. It then adjusts its course (Acts). The missile cycles through this, adjusting many, many times on its journey, finally hitting the target and achieving its goal.

A rocket hits its target because of PDCA

Trivia note – I once had an honest-to-goodness rocket scientist verify this for me. It’s why if you ever see a slow-motion video of a missile and it seems to be wobbly while in flight – it’s doing all that checking and adjusting.

So what? Well, when it comes to performance and performance improvement, the models don’t get much simpler than the one Walter Shewhart gave us in 1925: Plan-Do-Check-Act. Sometimes called the Continual Improvement Cycle, PDCA involves planning the work you want to do, executing it, checking key performance measures, and as necessary, taking corrective actions to meet your goals. Corrective actions = change.

How many times have you seen inflexible performance plans that assume everything will go perfectly? When things don’t go as assumed, that inflexibility can lead to an abrupt and startling failure. Being nimble, flexible, and willing to change course in order to hit your target is vital. Making mistakes and learning from them can indeed be powerful.

Here are several tips on how you can integrate PDCA into your performance plans:

  • Check the frequency with which you review and act on your key performance metrics. Ask yourself if that time period is appropriate for what you are measuring.
  • Apply Failure-mode (FMEA) thinking to your processes. Proactively consider what may go wrong with your process, and what your corrective response should be (similar to an SPC Control Plan). This way when you do a "check" and things don’t look good, you already know what the action should be and you won’t waste valuable time.
  • Apply synch-points to your strategic plans – describe in detail what you will do over the short term (next 3 months). Then have a synchronization point where you Check the environment and Act to make course corrective changes as needed.
  • Foster an environment where key performance metrics are identified, measured, and most importantly acted upon in an appropriate and timely manner.
  • Lastly, apply a measurement system analysis (MSA) to your key performance metrics. PDCA is practically worthless if the data being checked and acted upon can’t be trusted.

Applying the PDCA cycle is a simple yet powerful way of integrating change into the performance plans of any organization (including the Ministry of Silly Walks).