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W. Edwards Deming – Prophet in His Own Land

Geoff Schaadt

Drive out fear.

If you are familiar with the work of legendary management consultant, W. Edwards Deming, this phrase is nothing new. Sadly, far too few managers and leaders in North America are aware of his contributions to the modern business world.


W. Edwards Deming finished his university education in 1928 with degrees in engineering, mathematics, and physics. It was during this period, while a PhD candidate at Yale, that he would spend his summers working for Western Electric—where he had his first encounters with scientific management methods, productivity, and working conditions.

Deming turned down a number of employment offers from private companies—including Bell Laboratories—to work for the US Department of Agriculture and, later, the US Census Bureau. It was during this time that Dr. Deing was introduced to Walter Shewhart, a statistician who is known as the ‘father of statistical control’.

The Second World War

His prominence in the world of production, quality, and statistical control began during World War II when he was tapped to lead the effort to teach Shewhart’s methods to the engineers and managers in the factories that were struggling to meet the production demand for war materials.

Ultimately, Dr. Deming and his group trained over 31,000 students in the implementation of these tools, and resulted in the formation of the American Society for Quality Control—now ASQ.

Deming quote

Recovery in Japan

As post-war manufacturing in America ramped up to meet rapidly expanding global demand, most corporate executives were focused on production capacity with quality initiatives taking a distant backseat. Dr. Deming was largely forgotten at home, but continued to be in demand on the international stage—being contracted to assist with recovery efforts throughout Europe and, eventually, in Japan.

It was in Japan that he found a truly receptive audience. As a result of the overall poor quality of their products, the leaders of the Japanese manufacturing sector were struggling to make headway in the export markets. It was armed with Deming’s management methods and his statistical approach to process variance that Japanese industry was able to emerge from the post-war ash-bin to become the bellwether for quality products worldwide.

In fact, the Toyota Production System, which led to the Total Quality Movement and, subsequently, Six Sigma, evolved directly from the techniques that Dr. Deming implemented during the Japanese reconstruction.

America Falls Behind

Eventually, as Deming predicted, the US manufacturing sector was screaming for protections from the Japanese. American products simply could not approach the level of quality that was built-in to the Japanese competition, and no one had a good answer as to how things could be turned around. The answer turned out to be living in an unpretentious neighborhood about five miles from the White House. Dr. Deming, at 80 years of age, became the prophet who was, at last, recognized in his own land.

American companies scrambled to hire him to consult or to attend one of his four-day workshops. And some of the things that they heard must have seemed as if Marx himself had been hired to show them the error of their ways.

Many people consider the genius of Dr. Deming to be his successful application of statical tools to real-world production and service environments. And in that assessment, he would most certainly disagree.

While his mission to create lasting improvement began with statistics, it was his perspective on management—and those who practice the ‘science’ of management—that separated him from nearly everyone else.

He that starts with statistical methods alone will not be here in three years.

       - W. Edwards Deming

As a result, Deming codified his philosophy of management in “The Fourteen Points”, “The Seven Deadly Diseases”, and “The Obstacles”:1

The 14 Points

  1. Create constancy of purpose for improvement of product and service. There it is, right in point 1 that Dr. Deming diverges from the modern, Western approach to management. While nearly every corporation lives by the ethos of “maximizing shareholder value”, Deming advanced the idea that companies worry less about making money, and concentrate on staying in business and providing jobs by focusing on innovation, research, constant improvement, and maintenance.
  2. Adopt the new philosophy. Companies are typically too tolerant of poor workmanship and service.
  3. Cease dependence on mass inspection. Inspecting products at the end of the process is expensive and creates unnecessary waste. Quality emerges from improved process, not from additional inspection.
  4. End the practice of awarding business on price tag alone. This almost always results in poor quality of inputs. And quality outputs are very difficult to generate from poor inputs.
  5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service. Improvement is not a one-time effort. Everyone, especially management, must be committed to ongoing improvement.
  6. Institute training. Most workers are taught their jobs by peers who don’t thoroughly understand what is happening in the system, or they have just figured it out on their own.
  7. Institute leadership. The job of a supervisor is not to tell people what to do or to punish them. It is to state a clear vision of the future and provide the guidance and instruction to those who need help.
  8. Drive out fear. Many employees are afraid to ask questions or to take a position, even when they do not understand what the job is or what is right or wrong. People will continue to do things the wrong way, or not do them at all. The economic loss from fear is appalling. It is necessary for better quality and productivity that people feel secure.
  9. Break down barriers between staff areas. The silos that exist between departments or units often compete with each other or have goals that conflict. They do not work as a team, and may actually cause trouble for each other.
  10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the workforce. These never helped anybody do a good job. Let people put up their own slogans.
  11. Eliminate numerical quotas. Quotas take account only of numbers, not quality or methods, and are usually a guarantee of inefficiency and high cost. A person, to hold a job, meets a quota at any cost, without regard to damage to the company.Pdca deming
  12. Remove barriers to pride of workmanship. People are eager to do a good job and distressed when they can’t. Misguided supervisors, defective materials, or poor processes stand in the way.
  13. Institute a vigorous program of education and retraining. Both managers and the workforce will have to be educated in the new methods, including teamwork and statistical methods.
  14. Take action to accomplish the transformation. It will take a special senior management team, with a plan of action, to carry out the quality mission. Neither the workers nor the managers can do it on their own. A critical mass of people must understand the Fourteen Points, the Seven Deadly Diseases, and the Obstacles.

The 7 Deadly Diseases

  1. Lack of constancy of purpose. A company that is without constancy of purpose has no long-range plans for staying in business. Management is insecure, and so are employees.
  2. Emphasis on short-term profits. Looking to “maximize shareholder value” undermines quality and productivity.
  3. Evaluation by performance, merit rating, or annual review of performance. The effects of these are devastating—teamwork is destroyed, rivalry is nurtured. Performance ratings build fear, and leave people bitter, despondent, and beaten. They also encourage mobility of management.
  4. Mobility of management. Job-hopping managers never understand the companies that they work for and are never there long enough to follow through on long-term changes that are necessary for quality and productivity.
  5. Running a company on visible figures alone. The most important figures are unknown and unknowable—the multiplier effect of a happy customer for example.
  6. Excessive medical costs. (only applies in the US)
  7. Excessive cost of warranty, fueled by lawyers that work on contingency fee.

And Some Obstacles

  • Neglect of long-range planning and transformation.
  • The supposition that solving problems, automation, gadgets, and new machinery will transform industry. New technologies are rarely the solution to quality and process problems.
  • Searching for examples used elsewhere that can be copied, rather than finding solutions internally.
  • “Our problems are different.”
  • Blaming the workforce for problems.

Workers are responsible for only 15 percent of the problems, the system for the other 85 percent. The system is the responsibility of management.

       - W. Edwards Deming

  • Meeting specifications. The accepted practice, but it will never drive improvements in quality or productivity.
  • “Anyone that comes to try to help us must understand all about our business.” It is possible to know everything about a business except how to improve it.

Obviously, Dr. Deming had a number of opinions that were, and continue to be, contrary to the ‘accepted’ way of doing business in Western society.

I would love to get some feedback from others. So, what do you think? Was he a visionary or a crackpot? Somewhere in between? Are there bits of his philosophy that you like and others that you reject?

I plan to expand on a number of the points in future blog posts, but in the meantime you might enjoy some previous items here on the Delta Blog that were written by Phil Hawkins:

Bringing the Factory to the Office: Applying Deming – Part 1

Bringing Deming to the Office: Drive Out Fear

Bringing Deming to the Office: Break Down Barriers

And, in the meantime, if all this talk of variance vs process vs management sounds like nonsense to you, here is a demonstration of Dr. Deming's "Red Bead Experiment"—put together by the Mayo Clinic—that will make things very clear. 

To see Dr. Deming himself in action, this short Youtube clip is quite fun.

1This content is sourced primarily from The Deming Management Method by Mary Walton, (Perigee Books, 1986). A text written with significant first-person input from Dr. Deming.


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The company I was just laid off from suffers from nearly all of the 7 Deadly Diseases that you mentioned and follows none of the 14 Points. Just your article alone could be a very good read for all levels of any company. I’ll need to look into this as I try to work my way into management, it could be a great help.

By Jeff Friedt on 2013/11/19

Jeff, you shouldn’t feel that your old company was alone in this approach to business. I often wonder if the ‘leaders’ of many of these firms don’t have to make a willful attempt to maintain their level of ignorance when it comes to dealing with their workforce in a useful way.

By Geoff Schaadt on 2013/11/20

Great and timely reminder of a truly wise and timeless management thinker. It’s the system, stupid.  Maybe you should recap the late, great Russell Ackoff too - there are some great and amusing videos on YouTube where he often pays homage to Deming.

By David Hain on 2013/11/20

Thanks David.  Not a bad idea at all - perhaps a series looking back at the important voices who influenced the direction that management has (or has not!) taken. Hadn’t thought of Ackoff, but a great suggestion. I was actually thinking of following this up with Drucker and maybe a dose of Mintzberg—can’t be bad to reference the living at some point?!

By Geoff Schaadt on 2013/11/21

I’d definitely read and promote it.  The fad surfing game we all play means that some excellent thinking has tended to be seen as yesterday’s thinking - which it was, but as you say, it was often entirely excellent but failed in the take up and execution. I am getting old but I have regularly found myself introducing people to Blake and Mouton lately, as well as TA and others.  Maybe a bit specialised for your area, but an accessible source of the best thinkers of the last century, primer style as above, would be excellent value imho.

By David Hain on 2013/11/21

Excellent. Well, let’s add that one to the to-do list! (Of course, guest posts are always entertained here!)

By Geoff Schaadt on 2013/11/21

We have managed to make things far more complex than necessary
and forgot the basics. Dr Deming is about making things simple, and that is why his
Philosophy works. I often get asked to help companies understand sis signs,
only to find out that basic quality management processes such as CAR are not working
the way they should.
Get the basics right, follow the Deming rules
then move on to more complex things as your business requires

By Sam Jbarah on 2013/11/23

Well said, Sam. Thanks for your feedback.

By Geoff Schaadt on 2013/11/24

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