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The Deming business intelligence workout

Much like the physical therapy process, business intelligence and data warehousing can use Deming's "Plan, Do, Study, Act" cycle for improving performance.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

Let’s see a show of hands for all the over 30, weekend warrior “athletes” out there…  Ok, now let’s see how many are in the “heavier” weight class… Good, now let’s see how many of that group have been to physical therapy recently… Nice, it appears that I am in good company.

Recently in physical therapy for a foot injury, I noticed an interesting similarity between my rehab and “proper” business intelligence and data warehousing. During each visit, my physical therapist would:

  • Develop new exercises to do based on my last visit.
  • Watch me perform these new exercises.
  • Compare my progress to the last visit.
  • Continue exercises that showed improvement and discontinue those that did not.

Each week I progressed and learned more about strengthening my calf, ankle and foot. By doing this, I could both avoid similar situations and the need for returning to the physical therapist.

Now, let’s see exactly how many people use this same type of process for their business intelligence or data warehousing programs. Ahh, there are not as many as you might think.

Hitting for the cycle

If you have ever been to business school or a quality improvement training program, then the physical therapy “process” should seem familiar. This process is one of the best ways to improve just about anything. It is often referred to as the “Plan, Do, Study, Act” cycle. The PDSA cycle was “invented” by W.E. Deming, alongside his Total Quality Management (TQM) theories. Even though no one really invents common sense, I use the term “invented” because many people do not recognize common sense.

Whatever one uses the PDSA cycle for, it is based on regular testing and observing results. After completing this, you can make appropriate changes to the quality of the product. Deming applied the PDSA cycle for manufacturing. Similarly, my physical therapist uses it to heal my foot. I recommend it for business processes as well.

“You’re either getting better or getting worse”

Albert Einstein once stated, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

For my physical therapy, I continued running so that my foot would “just get better.” Unfortunately, I was providing a great example of Einstein’s observation.

Many information technology and business programs always follow the same procedures. This approach can best be described by “it’s the way we have always done things.” Often, it is smart to use the established way of doing things. However, this is not always true. To paraphrase a former University of Michigan football coach; you and your business intelligence and data warehousing program are either getting better or getting worse.  It is up to the leadership of your organization to decide to get better.

One of the best ways to improve your business intelligence and data warehousing program is to experiment and try something different. The “act” phase is that undertaking to do something different and improve.

Admit that you have a problem

The first part of my physical therapy process was to admit that my foot could not heal itself. I realized that I needed a new plan and went to a physical therapist. This is analogous to bringing in professional consultants. Much like physical therapists, professional consultants can:

  • Offer a new perspective to your business intelligence and data warehouse programs.
  • Provide information on the latest trends and technologies.
  • Give insight to other implementations.

They can also waste a lot of time and money. (Have you heard the joke about the consultant who when asked “what time is it?” asked the client for his watch?)

While I do NOT recommend handing over your business intelligence and data warehousing programs to consultants, I suggest using them to help with the “plan.” This is the next phase of the PDSA cycle.

The “plan” phase determines exactly how you will improve your business intelligence and data warehousing program. This can be anything from improving the value of the services you provide to your internal “customers” to the speed of your report generation.  Basically, anything that you can measure is something you can potentially improve.

Put one foot in front of the other

Once you have your “plan,” you must execute it. Nike refers to this as “Just do it.” I wonder if Phil Knight sends Deming any royalties?

For my physical therapy, executing the plan was relatively easy. I simply had to show up and listen to my physical therapist. A lot of the time, she listened to me complain about what I was doing. In any event, I committed to the plan and then executed it.

If you implement any type of improvement plan, you will hear similar questions from members in your organization: “Why?” or “What’s the benefit?” If you have developed a realistic plan that includes relevant measures, those questions should be easy to answer.

However, answering such questions and executing the plan activities are two different things. Just as I had to buy into my physical therapist’s plan, your organization must buy into the improvement plan. The important part is to move forward, execute the plan and determine how to measure the results.

Execute the plan and measure the results

After executing the plan, we now have results. You then compare it to the baseline information that spurred your improvement plan into action. This is called the “study” phase of the PDSA cycle.

Having this baseline information is one of the keys to developing your plan, as well as determining the relative success or failure of your activities. Knowing where you began is just as important as determining where you currently are. Realizing where you began gives you a way to measure your results to show how much you have improved.

In terms of my physical therapy, the baseline was the condition of my foot when I arrived. This baseline was eventually adjusted, based on my performance during a particular session.

For a business intelligence and data warehousing program, the baseline is the quality of reports, speed and accuracy of processing, uptime, etc. Measuring the difference between the baseline and the new results allows you to determine how effective your plan activities were.

Repeat the cycle

We now return to the start of cycle. This is the “act” phase of your business intelligence and data warehousing improvement plan. In this particular phase, you are looking to implement those activities that generated improvements. You do NOT want to repeat those that did not improve (or continue to improve) your organization.

For my physical therapy, certain exercises could only do so much before they lost their effectiveness. The same is true for improving your business intelligence and data warehousing organization. The leadership must be creative and find new ways for continuous improvement.

I am not trying to give you a false sense of hope. In truth, there is no end to this improvement journey. If your business intelligence and data warehousing program never has any changes in scope, platform, software, customer expectation, staff, etc; there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (…and your DBA is probably a leprechaun…).

However, I am guessing that your “customer” base will have no trouble in helping you find the next new area for improvement. This can happen both directly and indirectly.


Deming’s “Plan, Do, Study, Act” cycle offers a simple, not simplistic, way to improve the value of your business intelligence and data warehouse program to your “customer” base.

Nevertheless, it takes the leadership of your business intelligence and data warehouse organization to:

  • Find the motivation, reason and/or courage to make a change (Act)
  • Determine and prioritize the most important areas to improve (Plan)
  • Obtain organization buy in and execute the plan (Do)
  • Analyze the results (Study)
  • Implement the appropriate value add changes (Act)

If they can do these things regularly, a culture of improvement can soon follow.


I do not usually suggest books from particular authors but those interested in additional information on Deming and his thoughts on improvement in business, I recommend Out of the Crisis, by W.E. Deming. Because it was originally printed in 1986, some material might be “dated.” But it is one of the “b-school” classics.

The above is dedicated to Neal, Paul, Sharon, Jeff and Courtney. They are my “consultants,” who helped me set my physical improvement plan. This resulted in many personal records in my running activities this spring and summer; and put me back together again this fall.

John Myers has more than 10 years of information technology and consulting experience in positions including business intelligence subject-matter expert, technical architect and systems integrator. Over the past eight years, he has gained a wealth of business and information technology consulting experience in the telecommunications industry. John specializes in business intelligence/data warehousing and systems integration solutions. John may be contacted by email at [email protected].

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