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Learning from Crisis: PDSA in Times of Challenge

Mat Roosa, LCSW-R
NIATx Coach

Crisis requires that we triage the most urgent matters, and take rapid action to address them.
Crisis demands that we limit our analysis to the critical data points.
Crisis demands that we try new and untested strategies, and rapidly respond to the results of our efforts.

Crisis is dangerous, chaotic, messy, heart-wrenchingly painful,…and also an opportunity for invention.

During the past several weeks you probably have:

  1. Recognized immediate problems.
  2. Prioritized resources.
  3. Taken rapid action to test new strategies.
  4. Made decisions based on key data.
  5. Learned a lot from testing these new strategies and refined your efforts.

Put another way, you have been working your way through a challenging crisis using Plan-Do-Study-Act change cycles.

Rapid-cycle Testing: One of the Five NIATx Principles

“The fifth principle of the NIATx model is what we call rapid-cycle testing. Structured around what’s known as the PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act) Cycle, rapid-cycle testing is used to quickly evaluate the impact of potential changes on a given aim. In rapid-cycle testing, the executive sponsor, change leader, or team comes up with ideas for changes to test, and then tests each of those changes in quick succession for a short time on a limited test pool. During each test (a.k.a. PDSA Cycle), the team collects and analyzes data relevant to its chosen aim to determine whether the change has produced a desirable effect on performance levels. Depending on the outcome of that analysis, the team may decide to abandon the change completely and begin testing an entirely new change; adapt the change for further improvement and retest the modified version; or adopt the change, testing it again on a slightly larger scale, or in conjunction with other changes that have already proven successful in testing. In any case, the team uses the knowledge it has gained from one testing cycle to improve subsequent cycles. A new procedure is only implemented on a full scale once it has been proven in testing to yield significant improvement in regard to the project’s aim.”

From The NIATx Model: Process Improvement for Behavioral Health

See related blog post: Make it Quick: NIATx Principle #5

A Perfect Time for Rapid Change

A crisis like the one we are all facing right now is tailor-made for rapid-cycle PDSA change. Many of us have been using the NIATx model—perhaps without even knowing it. Right now is an excellent time to document the PDSA cycles that you have been conducting.

A few questions may help you to refine your understanding of the crisis work that you have been doing, and to document your PDSA efforts.

  • What did you observe through data or experience?
  • What did you do in response?
  • What was the result?
  • What did you learn?

You might also want to use the NIATx Change Project Form to document your recent efforts retrospectively. You can find the form and step-by-step instructions on how to conduct a PDSA Cycle on the NIATx website.

As this crisis persists, we struggle to figure it out as we go. Finding the opportunity in this unprecedented challenge is both difficult and painful. Yet, one way to find purpose and meaning moving forward is to learn everything we can from it.

Consider how rapid-cycle PDSA can teach you more about what you have done and will do, as we work our way through this together.

About our Guest Blogger

Mat Roosa was a founding member of NIATx and has been a NIATx coach for a wide range of projects. He works as a consultant in quality improvement, organizational development, and planning, evidence-based practice implementation. He also serves as a local government planner in behavioral health in New York State. His experience includes direct clinical practice in mental health and substance use services, teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and human service agency administration. You can reach Mat at [email protected]

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The opinions expressed herein are the views of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), SAMHSA, CSAT or the ATTC Network. No official support or endorsement of DHHS, SAMHSA, or CSAT for the opinions of authors presented in this e-publication is intended or should be inferred.