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Quality Transformation With David Schwinn


Profound Knowledge

Four elements of Deming’s worldview we often overlook

Published: Wednesday, June 5, 2019 - 12:02

As some of you already know, I was in Ford Motor Co.’s corporate quality office during the early 1980s when, just after “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We” aired on NBC, we pleaded with W. Edwards Deming to help us out of a very bad place. One of the things I most remember about those times was that he just told us to follow the 14 points... “what top management must do to improve productivity.” Quality, Productivity, and Competitive Position, by W. Edwards Deming (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first edition, 1982).

Some of those points seemed obvious, some seemed impossible, and some we just couldn’t understand. After struggling to get people like those of us at Ford to realize what he was talking about, he sensed he needed to share his, at that time, revolutionary worldview to help us gain clarity.

That worldview is best captured in Deming’s 1994 book, The New Economics (The MIT Press, second edition, 2000). He named his worldview “Profound Knowledge.” We were recently discussing Profound Knowledge in my Managing for Continual Improvement course when I was struck by how many of our current problems continue to result from a lack of understanding of Profound Knowledge. I’ll use the four primary elements of Profound Knowledge to briefly describe a few differences between his worldview and the worldview that is still all too common today.

Four primary elements of Profound Knowledge

Appreciation for a system
Deming thought we should look at everything that has a purpose as a system. A system includes purpose, functions, products, services, processes, structure, values, an appreciation for its environment, and the ability to robustly generate and distribute wealth, truth, beauty, values, and power. See Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity, by Jamshid Gharajedaghi (Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999). Deming’s worldview helped us take a hard look at process improvement and the interactions among the various elements of the system, at a time when our focus was mostly on personnel and restructuring.

Too many organizations are still organized in silos, focusing on improvement by moving or “motivating” individual employees, creating and distributing products and services that are entirely inadequate to meet customers’ needs, and oblivious to the fact that when one part of a system is changed, many other parts are affected.

Knowledge about variation
Deming taught us that systems vary over time. Some systems tend to be stable (i.e., in control) and demonstrate natural variation. Although stability can’t be maintained without constant effort, we can predict the future performance of those systems. He also taught us that if we react to individual instances of variation within a stable system, we are likely to be frustrated in the effort and leave the system worse off than it was. He called this management error “over-control.” On the other hand, some systems contain significant instances of unstable (i.e., out of control) behavior. Some of those unstable events or trends may tend to improve system performance, and some may be harmful to system performance. He also taught us that to ignore those special cases of variation is to permit the system to get worse or, at the least, miss significant opportunities for improvement. That is the second primary management error.

Today, a lack of knowledge of variation in the minds of management abounds. We still set goals without any understanding of the stability of the system, making our ability to achieve those goals almost entirely unknown. We still treat three- or even two-point trends as significant and garner our forces to solve the (nonexistent) problem. On the other hand, we ignore long-term trends such as global warming at the peril of humanity.

Theory of knowledge
Deming taught us to plan a change, do it, study the results, and act on what we learn (PDSA). He said this should be a continuous cycle that results in both continual learning and continual improvement.

Hardly a day goes by that I still don’t see some organization create a plan with high expectations yet ignore the results unless, sometimes, when they are achieved. Some organizations just continually do things with little or no planning or measurement of the results. Others spend all their time planning without ever giving their ideas a try.

Deming’s worldview stressed the value of intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. My favorite summary of that worldview came from an interview we, at Ford, did with Bill Conway, then chairman of Nashua Corporation. “No more carrots and sticks,” Conway said. “The job of management is to help the people.”

Today, carrots and sticks are still in the top management’s toolbox, along with incentives, bonuses, incentive pay, piece work, and pay for performance, to name a few. Helping people find and do meaningful work does happen today, but all too infrequently.

Profound Knowledge still provides a valuable way to look at the world and at our workplaces. It provides a great set of lenses to help us see and solve the many problems and opportunities we run up against every day.

As always, I treasure your comments and questions.


About The Author

Quality Transformation With David Schwinn’s picture

Quality Transformation With David Schwinn

David Schwinn, an associate of PQ Systems, is a full-time professor of management at Lansing Community College and a part-time consultant in the college’s Small Business and Technology Development Center. He is also a consultant in systems and organizational development with InGenius and INTERACT Associates.

Schwinn worked at Ford’s corporate quality office and worked with W. Edwards Deming beginning in the early 1980s until Deming’s death.  Schwinn is a professional engineer with an MBA from Wright State University. You can reach him at support@pqsystems.com.  




A while back, I was inroduced to a different take on PDSA, the OODA Loop, Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. The genesis of the OODA Loop is found in the Korean War, codified by a USAF fighter pilot. In the business world: Observe - Gather your data, Orient - Determine how the situation fits within the organiztion ecosystem, Decide - Plot your actions, Act - Do it! But, as in a dogfight, these steps are all occuring as one ongoing feedback function. In any environment, for every action there is a reaction. Unfortunately, unlike physics there is no constraint as to magnitude or direction and, hence, may be quite unexpected. Using a continuous process of small, finite steps, with contiuous feedback appears to me to make the OODA Loop more efficient to reach the desired outcome, while minimizing the unforseen reactions.