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Steve Moore

Quality Insider

Deming’s Famous Red Bead Experiment With A Twist

Improve the system, distort the system, or distort the data

Published: Tuesday, April 13, 2010 - 08:14


n 1991, I had the privilege of attending one of W. Edwards Deming’s four-day seminars and I still proudly display the certificate of completion in my office. One of the highlights of the seminar, of course, was Deming’s famous red bead experiment. I had read about the red bead experiment, but this was the first time I saw it up close and personal. It truly was a profound moment in my professional education.

Deming and the red beads

During the red bead experiment, Deming announced that he had created a company whose mission was to produce white beads for its customers. He recruits from the audience four “willing workers,” two quality inspectors, a chief quality inspector, and an accountant. The “willing workers” are then “trained” to produce white beads by dipping a paddle with 50 holes to capture white beads from a box of 8,000 red (20%) and white (80%) beads. The red beads are “defects.” The “willing workers” are warned often against producing red beads.

Production begins

Taking turns, each “willing worker,” dips the paddle into the box of beads for his first day of production, and the quality inspectors count the defects. The chief quality inspector announces the result, and it is recorded by the accountant via an overhead projector. After each result, Deming admonishes the “willing workers” who produce too many red beads and praises those who produce the fewest. “Best worker” awards are given to the two “willing workers” who produce the fewest red beads after two days’ production. The others are put on probation. Any suggestions or attempts by the “willing workers” to make changes for the improvement of quality are rejected by Deming; they must do exactly as they were instructed and concentrate on doing their best. After the third day of production, the two “willing workers” who produced the most defects are fired and the two remaining are put on double shifts to improve quality on the fourth day. Alas, the results of the fourth day are no better and the company goes out of business. Everyone is now out of work.

Deming then constructs a process behavior chart from the defect figures. The process is in a “reasonable degree of statistical control” and the average number of defects is always somewhere between 9 and 11 with control limits around zero and 19. 

The room of 500–600 people falls silent as Deming discusses the lessons learned from this “stupidly simple experiment with a profound message.” The system is at fault, not the “willing workers.” You cannot bribe, beg, cajole, or threaten the “willing worker” into achieving quality. If the system is in statistical control, to improve quality, management must change the system; and the system includes the people. 

The red bead experiment with a twist

Since that seminar, I have conducted the red bead experiment perhaps 50 times in front of groups comprised of the entire spectrum from senior vice presidents to hourly operators (i.e., the genuine “willing workers”). While I am certain my theatrics never matched Deming’s during the exercise, the lessons learned have been valuable to most people in the workshops. I say “most” because I have learned that the genuine willing workers already know the lessons of the red beads. Those to whom the red bead experiment is an epiphany are almost always the management people in attendance.

At the risk of being labeled “heretic” or “blasphemer,” my aim is to offer an improvement to the red bead experiment—or perhaps “twist” is a better word. I believe Deming would approve of my effort of continual improvement. I first thought of this enhancement while attending a workshop given by the W. Edwards Deming Institute in 2009, in Cincinnati, Ohio. In attendance was Kevin Cahill, vice president of the Deming Institute and Deming’s grandson. I shared my thoughts with Cahill and he approved of the idea. Since then, I have conducted the red bead experiment with the twist about 20 times.

I conduct the red bead experiment with four "willing workers:" two quality inspectors, one chief quality inspector, and one accountant. After three rounds of bead production, I lay off the two worst-performing willing workers and put the remaining two on double shifts. The best workers cannot meet customer specifications on the fourth round, so the company goes out of business and everyone returns to their seats. We then review the standard “lessons learned.” 

When the post mortem discussion of the red bead experiment comes to an end and everyone thinks we are going to the next topic, I make an announcement: “I have just contracted with a new customer to re-open the business. This will be our only customer and they demand that no shipment of 50 beads contain five or more red beads. If any single shipment contains five or more red beads, the new customer will immediately cancel our contract and we will be out of business forever. I am recalling the four willing workers, but not the other employees to keep costs down. The willing workers will be ‘self-directed work teams’ and will conduct their own manufacturing and quality control processes. After each production run of 50 beads, the willing workers will report their results directly to me in my office. Remember, no shipment of 50 beads may contain five or more red beads, or we will be out of business permanently.”

I then move the bead receptacle and paddle to a remote location where the willing workers cannot be observed by anyone else in the workshop. I remind the willing workers that the beads may not be touched by any part of the body (safety violation) and any bead dropped on the table or floor is an environmental violation. I reiterate several times that the customer specification must be met every shipment or we will all be out of work. Then I put the willing workers to work.

In every presentation that I give, the willing workers have reported less than five red beads and in many cases zero red beads. They also report no safety or environmental issues. Another notable change is that each production run takes significantly more time than in the previous part of the experiment. After each report, I heap loads of praise upon the willing worker for his or her good work with no safety or environmental issues. After each of the willing workers has had a chance to operate under the new system, a final post mortem discussion is conducted.

The additional lessons learned include the fact that willing workers, when faced with the need to preserve their business and livelihood, have three choices: improve the system, distort the system, or distort the data. Because the willing workers are not able to improve the system, they distort the system or the data (or both). Again, this is no new revelation to the willing workers.

It has been my goal to offer an enhancement to Deming’s “stupidly simple experiment with a profound message.” I hope that the reader finds this useful in the future.


About The Author

Steve Moore’s picture

Steve Moore

After 47 years, Steve Moore is retired from the pulp and paper industry. He is a graduate of North Carolina State University with a pulp and paper degree, and holds a master's degree from the Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, Wisconsin. He has held various research and development, technical, engineering, and manufacturing positions in the paper industry. He has been a student, teacher, and practitioner of statistical methods applied to real-world processes for the past 35 years.


Excellent Steve

 Your 'twist' happens in real life.  Imagine you are working in a company where you and thousands of your workmates have been given cost savings targets of $1,000,000 per annum.  Your CEO has been scammed by a hawker of Six Sigma, making outrageous promises.  Your CEO sacks 10% of staff each year.  You are terrified.  The result is inevitable ... massive data fraud.  The company goes down the drain and the CEO walks away with a $417,000,000 golden handshake.Professor Deming:

8 Drive out fear.

9 Break down barriers between staff areas

10 Eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets for the workforce.

11 Eliminate numerical quotas for the workforce and numerical goals for management.

In this non contact, Covid-19 environment, you might enjoy doing the Red Bead Experiment using Augmented Reality:https://www.qualitydigest.com/inside/six-sigma-article/augmented-reality...

What did they Change?

I like your twist. What kinds of process changes did the teams invoke?

Jonathon Andell
Andell Associates LLC

Simple....They distorted the

Simple....They distorted the system or the data or both. They made no process changes that were useful. That is management's job.

Interesting Twist

That is an interesting twist, Steve. What changes do they make to the system to get the performance better?

In another twist, I used to run the Red Bead in our Department of the Navy seminars. During one long stretch, we did a one-day introductory course for thousands of people on a naval base, 25-30 people at a time, so we were doing the experiment every day for months. My partner and I had a routine where I was the CEO, sitting in the back of the room. He was the foreman, and would have to come back and report to me every day, and I would give him a hard time, and offer "suggestions for improvement."
We had made up some play money fifty-dollar bills(with Deming's portrait in place of Grant's), and when it came time to reward the "best worker," I would peel off four of the bills and send him out to present the 200-dollar "merit raise." One day, on a whim, he made a great show of pocketing one of the bills as he walked up to the production line, and congratulated the best worker, saying, "Here's, uh...a one-hundred dollar merit raise."
Everyone laughed, but something extraordinary happened. We had probably done this with 30-40 groups up to this point, and no one had tried to cheat. This time, however, the inspectors started reporting lower numbers, the workers tried dumping red beads or picking them out and pocketing them, anything they could do to game the system. It got so bad that the foreman had to count the beads himself and keep his own count so we could have an accurate np-chart at the end!
We taught probably 50-60 classes after that, and we switched off...every other day, he would pocket the money. In all of the classes where everyone knew management was cheating, the workers, inspectors and chief inspector all found it acceptable to cheat. In all of the other classes, with "honest" management, no one tried.

Red Bead with a Twist

Thank you Steve for sharing this with the Quality Digest readers. Awesome! This stupidly simple experiment is powerful.

Dirk van Putten