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Jeff Dewar

Quality Insider

Dr. Deming Critiques 2011

Is “profound knowledge” applied wisely today?

Published: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 - 05:00

In January 2011 I had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Deming to explore the current state of his teachings. He was unhappy. He felt that too much of the momentum and quest for “Profound Knowledge” that began during the 1980s has been lost. Our conversation followed an evening talk at a packed meeting of the Seattle ASQ section, where not a single soul so much as left the room to answer their cell phone, let alone departed early. This was notable for a local ASQ meeting that ran later than anyone could recall.

Let me clarify a few things. I’m a big fan of Deming. He passed away in 1993, but it feels like just yesterday that I heard Lou Dobbs on CNN say, “…and one of the grand old men of management theory has left us today, Dr. W. Edwards Deming.” My conversation with Dr. Deming last month wasn’t with the man himself, of course, but with one of the Quality Digest’s popular columnists, Mike Micklewright, who does an extraordinary, almost eerie, spot-on impersonation.


Mike Micklewright just before his transformation into Deming

Fear—Deming style

Among Deming’s key principles is this provocative sentence: Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.

It was often shortened to just “drive out fear” in casual conversation, yet ironically, in life Deming instilled more than a little fear in his audience. I know; I attended two of his now-famous, four-day seminars, and I always sat in fear that I would be the victim of his legendary voice-modulated mocking if I was in the front rows, but fortunately he reserved that for executives. It was brutal at times. I’ll never forget how he nearly brought a Ford VP to his emotional knees in front of an audience of 500. I was grateful to be in the back.

During the 1980s I wrote a lighthearted booklet about how to be a more “participative employee” (remember “participative management?”), and had a brilliant idea to ask for a few endorsements from prominent people. Yes, with the nerve and audacity of youth, I asked Deming. After several attempts, I actually got through to him on the phone, and I made the foolish mistake of explaining that I was asking for an endorsement for my booklet by leaders in the quality field like him. He exploded, “Who are these people?! What do they know?! Do they have knowledge?!” I still cringe when I think about my feeble mumblings as I apologized for the way I intruded on his time. Yet this only illustrated his passion for his principles, as everyone close to him would attest to his kindheartedness and compassion for others.

For those of you either too young to know, or are older but forget the gravity of his influence, philosophy, and trademark speaking style, take a look at this video (definitely his most gentle verbal delivery). Note: I have started this video clip toward the end, where Deming delivers a profound comparison between U.S vs. Japanese industry.




A transformation into Deming

Mike Micklewright’s impersonation of Deming was done in a particularly creative fashion. He opened his talk as himself, explained some background about Deming, and then… a remarkable transformation took place. He turned off the LCD projector that displayed his PowerPoint, slowly hunched over, and methodically donned Deming’s horn rimmed eyeglasses, progressively remaking his expression into the notorious Deming scowl with that gaze that looks past his listeners as though they were vapor. When he turned on the old-school overhead projector and began writing on the transparency, the transformation was complete.

Micklewright becomes Deming

That voice. Unforgettable. The cadence of Deming’s speech patterns, the cryptic delivery of his points—Micklewright has it down to the last detail, including trademark expressions like (said with a tone of disgust):

“Any executive that buys from suppliers based on price deserves to be rooked! Rooked, I tell you, rooked!”

I asked Mike if he’s ever been accused of being disrespectful to Deming’s memory, but no. Quite to the contrary, even Deming’s close friends have said he would take it as an enormous compliment.

Decoding Deming

Despite Deming’s greatness, decoding his philosophy into actionable information has been a longtime challenge (and a source of big consulting fees for the Demingites). Reversing his transformation to himself after each point, Mike explained, with the high-tech aid of his PowerPoint, what this means in practical terms—today—not in a 1990 environment. This commentary forms the basis of his book, Out of Another @#&*% Crisis! Motivation Through Humiliation (Quality Press, 2010).

It’s a bit of word play on Deming’s most famous book, Out of the Crisis  (MIT Press, 1982).

And so went the evening, back and forth between Deming and Micklewright.

The conundrum over performance evaluations

It was easy to see who was new to Deming’s principles in the audience that night by how they reacted to a particularly thorny issue. Perhaps the greatest bone of contention in his legendary 14 points is this phrase:

“Abolition of the annual merit rating (appraisal of performance) and management by objective.”

That stuns people when they hear it the first time. Forget the second part for now; just the idea of abolishing the annual performance evaluation is still, well, revolutionary. At the core of this is Deming’s conviction that daily feedback is the life blood of performance, but a once-a-year performance evaluation is just plain stupid, as it robs people of their right to pride in workmanship. Deming even went so far as to say that he could statistically show you (he held degrees in engineering, mathematics, and physics) that the annual performance evaluation was nothing more than a lottery, and that some were lucky, while others were necessarily unlucky.

Given that, it was no surprise when the expected question came from the audience, “Well, if we abolish annual performance evaluations, what do we replace them with?” I remember waiting for this question with some devilish anticipation because I recall Deming’s answer to an executive years ago when he asked the same question, almost word for word:

“What?! You get rid of one stupid idea and think it needs to be replaced with an even more idiotic one?”

The solution, as Micklewright explained in more practical terms, is a potpourri of actions that change how we look at the nature of feedback and individual performance. It includes such things as:
• Teaching employees to seek out continuous feedback, not just teaching management how to administer a performance evaluation.
• Asking employees to design the methods of measurement, and put visibility of those methods in their hands, so they can have real-time information about how the process is doing.
• Using performance measurement to fuel the selection of projects for continuous improvement, rather than as a tool to punish.

 

For those interested in pursuing the issue further, there’s a great book on the topic:
Abolishing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What to Do Instead (Berrett-Koehler, 2000).

Organizations obviously feel the need to document employee performance for many reasons, not the least being in case they need to terminate someone. However, one current claim is that they are more often used against an employer, e.g., “My performance evaluations were fine; why are you firing me?” A future column on this topic is brewing in the recesses of my head.

Final thoughts

The most notable line of the evening? It wasn’t a Deming quote, but rather Thomas Jefferson’s to describe the only truly valuable way to understand and interpret Deming’s principles for your organization:

“Be flexible in style, yet unwavering like a rock, in principle.”

 Information about Mike Micklewright’s keynote presentations for corporations and conferences can be found at http://www.mikemick.com.

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About The Author

Jeff Dewar’s picture

Jeff Dewar

Jeff Dewar is CEO of Millennium 360 Inc., Quality Digest’s parent company. During his career he has presented quality-related topics to thousands of people on six continents, all but Antarctica.