W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993) changed our lives by developing better ways for people to work together. He derived the first philosophy and method that allows individuals and organizations—from families and schools to government agencies and large companies—to plan and continually improve themselves, their relationships, processes, products and services. His philosophy is one of cooperation and continual improvement; it eschews blame and redefines mistakes as opportunities for improvement.
Raised on the Wyoming frontier in a poor family, Deming experienced hardship and learned early about cooperation as a way of life. He saw the value of shared benefits in barn raisings, quilting bees and advice to sugar beet farmers from the Great Western Sugar Company.
Deming was educated in engineering and physics and became an early student of statistics, the theory of knowledge and systems thinking. He eventually integrated the disciplines of statistical thinking, how people learn, systems thinking and psychology into his theory of profound knowledge, which allows leaders and managers to see a dynamic, complex social system in new ways, predict its performance, and continually improve it in a rapidly changing world. Using his ideas to eliminate cross-purposes, teams and organizations can produce greater wholes—more than any of the individual parts or people added together can.
He developed his philosophy helping Japanese export industries to recover following World War II. He said he could teach them to produce quality goods more cheaply than quantity, a revolutionary idea in 1950. He told them to treat manufacturing as a system rather than “bits and pieces.” He said to include the supplier and the customer in the system and to use feedback from the customer to continually improve products, services and processes. He also said to continually improve both the people in the system and the communication between them. And he said that decisions should be based on facts and data.
His ideas, which require a personal transformation and new world view for the individuals involved, was only adopted by Japanese auto and electronic export companies and later some American companies. Yet his teachings have changed our workplace vocabulary in less than 20 years to includes ideas such as pleasing the customer, partnering with suppliers, empowering workers, managing for quality, and eliminating layers of management and hierarchy.
Another way of explaining his philosophy is to say instead of managing focused on outcome or objective, one should manage for the continual improvement of processes and systems. As a result, the outcome will continually improve.
His work has been called the third wave of the industrial revolution after the steam engine and the production line. In a 1991 cover story, US News & World Report listed Deming’s philosophy, along with St. Paul, the numerous pre-Columbian discoveries of America and Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, as one of history’s nine hidden turning points.
Deming would evoke disbelief in his management seminars when he insisted that 94 percent or more of all problems, defective goods or services came from the system, not from a careless worker or a defective machine. He would go on to say that to improve an organization’s goods or services, the system had to be improved rather than searching for the guilty worker or broken equipment. Top managers in America’s leading companies were dubious students. But, in almost all cases, when they implemented his ideas, they were surprised to find that they agreed with him: The management and the system they were managing were the true source of both problems and improvements.
In the years since its introduction, Deming’s philosophy of continual improvement of products, services, processes, systems and people has rarely been practiced in its fullness. In too many cases, his philosophical principles have been reduced to promoting only continual improvement in products and services to please or delight customers. Instead of focusing on the more intangible aspects of his philosophy, as Deming advised, American companies have focused almost exclusively on the tangible products and services produced by those systems. They have often substituted measurement for management. As a result of this linear-minded focus on the tangible outcomes, Deming’s goal of the complete transformation of organizations and their people remains an opportunity waiting in the wings, but we have no doubt that it will someday be as universally accepted as the assembly line.