Defying Time: Dr. W. Edwards Deming

Dr. W. Edwards Deming has been called the Father of Quality and the guru who started the quality revolution in Japan which changed the world of business. Deming was born in 1900 and died in 1993. He was brought to Japan by General Douglas MacArthur to help rebuild the Japanese infrastructure after WW II. He was so successful working with the Japanese that the highest award for quality in Japan was named in his honor. It was called the Deming Prize and is the most sought after award in Japanese industry. After helping Japan, Dr. Deming lived in relative obscurity in Washington, DC., until a TV special called “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We” helped to rediscover Dr. Deming and start a quality revolution in the USA in the early 1980’s.

I became part of that quality revolution when I was hired in 1986 by Process Management Institute as an Organization Development Consultant to help implement the Deming way of management into organizations. Dr. Deming started conducting these all day and often late evening conferences on quality when he was in his 80’s as a result of demand by American Management for learning about quality. His conferences ran 4 full days. Dr. Deming was 93 when he conducted his last conference which was about 6 months before he became too ill to conduct them anymore. Dr. Deming was usually on the podium for most of his conference. Needless to say, Dr. Deming never retired. Have you ever been on a stage for 8 hours? Can you imagine doing this for 4 days straight? Now think of doing this when you are in your 90’s.

I first met Deming when I volunteered to help at one of his 4 day quality conferences. In his irascible way, he proceeded to tell me that the Ph.D. that I had just spent 5 years of my life and over $60,000 dollars on was a waste of time. Needless to say, I did not see eye to eye with him on this point. It took me over 4 years of working with Dr. Deming and his ideas to realize that he was at least 90% percent right. Most of what I was taught in the University and most of what they still teach in most universities about business is wrong. I would occasionally bring PMI clients to visit with Dr. Deming at his home in D.C. for what you might call open chat sessions. We would visit and then go to lunch or dinner with Dr. Deming usually at his Cosmos Club where he was a member. Dr. Deming drove an older large 4 door white Lincoln for many years until he could not safely drive anymore. It was one of those classic Lincolns with the suicide doors.

Dr. Deming’s method revolved around a trilogy that included process understanding, data analysis and customer focus. However, Dr. Deming always believed that quality was not tangible since the most important part of quality was an attitude. You either strive for never ending improvement or you do not. The determining factor is your belief system. You either accept that the goal of business is never ending improvement or you subscribe to the more common USA attitude of “it’s good enough.” Dr. Deming believed that the typical attitude was a prescription for failure and obsolescence. Thus, the more difficult part of our consulting at PMI was not in teaching statistics or process analysis but in helping to change management attitudes from the old thinking of meeting goals and quotas to the new thinking that went beyond goals and quotas to never ending improvement and innovation.

As I reflect on the work that we did at PMI, the teachings of Dr. Deming which still guide every iota of my business consulting and the state of American business today, I see a mixed bag of success. Dr. Deming would probably laugh and say “You expected instant pudding.” Yes, I did expect that with the logic that impelled the changes needed by America to regain a quality edge against Japan that the wake-up call would have been absorbed by American management. Sadly, most business schools adopted quality curriculum based on process improvement and statistics but they missed the essence of the quality philosophy that Dr. Deming tried to teach. The business textbooks are still full of bad instruction and fallacies that would make Dr. Deming furious for the stupidity therein. Dr. Deming’s 14 points for management remain a staple and bedrock for anyone wishing to change their fundamental thinking about how an organization should be managed. I daresay it will be 200 more years before his ideas have been assimilated. Unless of course, American organizations retreat backwards to the days of Frederic Taylor and what might be called “adversarial management.”  In that case, it may be a thousand years before we finally change our paradigms.

Dr. Deming defied time not only because of his continued longevity but more importantly because he defied the current thinking of his time. People laughed at Japanese quality for years and buying anything from Japan was often a joke. Dr. Deming counseled the Japanese to be patient. He told them in the 1950’s that if they continued on his path, in 20 years they would exceed the world in quality and capture markets in every industry where they applied his principles and ideas. Dr. Deming’s prescriptions for Japan bore fruit even faster than he had predicted.

Think of the vision, the wisdom and the patience that Dr. Deming was counseling. Think of working for twenty years on a foundation of faith and hope. I can constantly hear Dr. Deming saying: “There is no instant pudding.” Nevertheless, perhaps more than ever our culture wants everything overnight. We spent thirty years working ourselves into a large debt crisis and then most Americans expected Obama to bring us back to prosperity in his first 4 years in office. This is a classic example of instant pudding.

Are you willing to dedicate twenty year of your life or more to something you believe in? Do you expect instant pudding? Are you willing to challenge conventional thinking when you believe differently? Do you control your attitude or do you let others control it for you? What does it mean to you when someone says “think for yourself?” Dr. Deming used to say “survival is not compulsory.” Can we become great again with old style thinking? What will it take to really change our colleges and universities so they can truly fulfill the vision that Dr. Deming had for business and the world?

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. bgalbreath
    Jan 13, 2012 @ 13:49:21

    There's a common saying among government workers about quality and meeting goals: “It's close enough for government work”. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the early 20th century fad of Coueism, which centered around people repeating to themselves, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”

    I don't know enough about quality research to know whether quality can be quantified, or if it is inherently an “eye of the beholder” thing, that you (think) you know it when you see it.

    I think that, in order to become great again, we do need to retain some bits of the old style thinking. Colleges need to become more responsive to their customers, the students, but that's tricky. One (wrong) way is to cater to their short term desire for easy answers and nearly automatic high grades. The other, harder, way is to bring out the best in them by getting them to stretch their comfort zones and fashion new abilities. One old idea, from Adam Smith's “Wealth of Nations” is for teachers to be paid directly by their students based on perceived value received. I think third party payments is a big part of what has led to cost explosion and diminished quality in both education and medicine.

    Finally, it's true that it is unrealistic to expect 30 years of excess to be cured in 4 years, but it is reasonable to hope that at least we we move in the right direction instead of actively making things worse (which I think we are by expanding debt at an unprecedented rate and punishing savers by debasing the currency and mandating tiny interest rates).



  2. John Persico
    Jan 14, 2012 @ 14:00:07

    Remember Bruce, the Paradigm Shift, when the system changes everyone goes back to zero. What made you successful in the old paradigm will confer absolutely no advantage in the new paradigm. To continue trying to do what once made you successful is a blueprint for obsolescence. Deming used to say “Survival is not compulsory.”



  3. Alan Pippenger
    Jan 22, 2012 @ 18:38:46

    Very well put indeed. I would like to borrow the “timeless” stamp from you, with credit of course for an ASQ presentation late February on Deming. One of the sadder moments in my life was at the realization that I would not, in this lifetime, meet Deming face to face. I had already been a professional speaker for a few years before Dr. Deming reached from beyond the grave and shook me real good. From that moment I changed the focus of my speaking to center around Deming. Thank you again for reminding all of us what a remarkable man he was.
    Alan Pippenger
    Founding Member
    Deming Collaboration



  4. John Persico
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 07:58:45

    Thanks Alan for your kind comments. It is a remarkable testament to the ideas and the power of Dr. Deming's vision that even after his death, he can still “convert” people to a new way of doing business. I wish you could have met him. I am sure you would have really enjoyed each other. Dr. Deming was a most unique individual.



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