From “Too Tight” to “Just Right:” Improving Staff Meetings Using PDSA

By: Christina Dragonetti, The Deming Institute

Christina Dragonetti has curly brown hair, glasses, and is wearing a blue-green sleeveless blouse.Our team had a common problem: weekly staff meetings were disorganized, a little frustrating, and almost always lasted longer than one hour. Like ill-fitting shoes, they served to keep our feet dry but made running difficult. Recognizing a change was needed, we turned to the process improvement tool devised by Dr. Deming: Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA).


Plan. A few of us started to work on the problem together. Why were staff meetings unproductive? Was it helpful to have each staff member report on their work? How could that time be used more wisely? After a few conversations, some of which went in circles, we decided the aim of the PDSA was “to foster greater problem solving, collaboration, and continual improvement in staff meetings.”

Our theory: If we add some structure to our meetings, allocate 90 minutes instead of one hour, and have one person use Trello to add notes and track tasks, then “staff will experience greater value from the meetings and have a higher level of insight and awareness of the system(s) we work in, leading to greater efficiency, effectiveness, and staff satisfaction.”

Our conversations shifted to answer Dr. Deming’s next question: by what method? We identified three key focus areas to discuss during each meeting:

  • Strategic priorities and context
  • Highest priorities for the week ahead
  • Potential/current barriers to progress

We also compiled a long “master list” of topics, for example, fund development, communications, special projects, or partnership opportunities. At the beginning of each meeting, we would choose from that list of topics to keep our conversations focused on urgent and important issues.

Not forgetting Dr. Deming’s emphasis on “joy in work,” we allocated about 10 minutes at the beginning of the meeting for talking about interesting weekend explorations or introducing a new puppy. Staff meetings aren’t just about getting work done – they are a time for us to connect as humans, as a team, so we made room for that in the new format.

Data collection is an essential part of PDSA, so we noted a few things to track during the test period:

  • Adjustments to the format on the fly
  • How long the meetings ran
  • Ask ourselves if the new format made us more effective in our roles

Finally, we put a time limit on our PDSA cycle: 6 weeks.

Do. One meeting was spent discussing the changes, and the new format was implemented in the next meeting. At first, it felt oddly stilted. Our previous format was more free-flowing, so the new structure felt stiff, like new shoes. But we soon discovered we could run faster and jump higher!

Study. After our 6-week test period, I led a review of the PDSA and our notes on the Trello cards. We discussed what adjustments were naturally made to the new format as the weeks passed (for example, topics arose organically, and the “master list” was not used). Most meetings lasted more than 1 hour, so the 90-minute allocation gave us room for extended discussions when needed.

Compared to the old “report out” meetings, these changes helped us focus on the bigger picture and look forward. We now dedicate our time to discussing the highest priorities for each week and resolving the most critical issues together.

Act. Do we want to keep the format described in the current PDSA, adjust and run another PDSA cycle, or go back to the old way? The new format was far superior, but given the adjustments, a second PDSA cycle with the changes codified was the best choice. The aim and theory remain the same, but the Plan section was updated to reflect our new process, and we are in the Do phase once again.

Using PDSA to improve our staff meetings is so satisfying. I’ve been in hundreds of dull, unproductive, or outright infuriating staff meetings in many different companies. Following the PDSA steps took us from mediocre meetings to highly productive and enjoyable meetings in just a few weeks. We are comfortable in these shoes, but improvement is continual, and I look forward to discussing the Staff Meeting PDSA cycle 2 in late April.

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