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Tripp Babbitt

Quality Insider

Deming, Systems Thinking, and the Future

Don’t be a copycat—think and learn

Published: Thursday, September 2, 2010 - 05:30

W. Edwards Deming did a great disservice. He left a prescription for what the United States should do to improve government, manufacturing, and service. The prescription is composed of his 14 Points and Seven Deadly Diseases (which later became his System of Profound Knowledge), and he learned from personal knowledge that these were the issues holding the country back.

The elimination of reward systems, making the worker relevant, breaking down barriers, etc., are all very relevant and are correct actions to take. However, Deming learned this by working with U.S. companies. The key point here is he learned… other executives did not come to the same conclusion (or at least very few did).

Deming could not coerce executives into believing him, so he tried a rational approach. But red-bead experiments and four-day seminars were not enough for management to make the connection between what they were being told and how they operated. A rational argument rarely convinces anyone to change their thinking.

This is why there is a need for systems thinking. How can we create the learning that Deming achieved that led him to his prescription? Using coercion or rationalization? No. The learning must be emergent—executives and workers must learn for themselves.

When designing better systems for organizations, we must also design out the thinking that created sub-optimizing and wasteful systems in the first place. Improvement that does not include human-system change methods, leaves the current way of thinking in place. That will undo any improvement in the short-, mid-, or long-term. This is why improvement tools are dangerous; they do little (and I’m being generous) to design out the assumptions that management designed in, not to mention generating unintended consequences.

Executives must first “unlearn” or what I like to call “get a brain enema.”  They need to have a normative design to changing their thinking that helps them with this unlearning. In other words, learn what Deming learned when he came up with his prescription.

Every organization is different in make-up and each has a different set of problems in its culture, work design, structure, technology, management thinking, measures, and many other elements. These problems manifest themselves in management thinking and become system conditions that create waste and sub-optimization.

What is dangerous to management thinking? Assumptions. People assume that pay for performance, budgets, projects, shared services, outsourcing, or even the focusing on costs will help them reduce costs.

Where is the evidence? All assumptions need to be challenged to improve any system. When people seek evidence and don’t find any, or if the assumptions are making things worse, this is when to have evidence that challenges assumptions and changes thinking.

Deming described himself as a life-long learner. I suspect Taiichi Ohno was of the same ilk. It is difficult to imagine that those who buy into trading pictures of 5S in hospitals such as Pokemon cards are learning. Copying, yes, but learning, no.

What are the prospects of learning in America?

We have so much to overcome. Short-term thinking around quarterly dividends, budgets, and targets reinforced by rewards has left U.S. management scrambling for immediate solutions. For the most part, this has led to not thinking through actions that correspond with the assumptions. When improvement is kicked off this way, disaster follows.

A way to achieve a shift in mind-set lies in our curiosity. This takes us back to our childhood before formal education ruined (in many) that ability to learn through curiosity.  A curious child learns by doing and asking questions. The curious sometimes take their lumps, but they are always learning.

Deming learned much over his lifetime and he ran out of time. Otherwise, I suspect the fourth area of his System of Profound Knowledge—psychology—would have been developed further. For the curious, this is the area that offers new hope and thinking, and challenges the assumptions found in old problems.


About The Author

Tripp Babbitt’s picture

Tripp Babbitt

Tripp Babbitt the managing partner for The 95 Method - Executive Education and Advisors. The 95 Method is about giving organizations a method to use new theories to grow business.  Babbitt can be reached at tripp@the95method.com. Reach him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TriBabbitt or LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/trippbabbitt

Tripp also does two podcasts: The Deming Institute Podcast and The Effective Executive podcast. 



Great insights. I have followed Deming's work for years and would like to apply his thinking deeper. Where can I learn more?

'System Thinking' helps make the system


I agree, the 14 points are directed only at USA.

Deming had the (last) two points written for Americans. He believed American's (read the western world) are not likely to implement the 12 points in the right perspective, and consequently consider the redundancy (because of poor implementation) a prevalent feature big enough to relegate the system of improvement.

The cause to such a conclusion is present in 'the system' itself. A system is a serious equation which incorporates all critical requirements in their right threshold- neither more not less. The lack of 'Plan' culture in general is a cause to the poor balancing of this equation, which eventually leads to poor (Quality) results. Revisiting the points as a rigor helps iron out the discrepancies by chance if not by choice. But when there is a Deming's Systems thinking, the job is well done. right first time.

Priyavrat Thareja

Culture Change

Im am very fortunate to have a president who is open to new ways of doing business. We have started "lean" in our company. I understand its a tool but it offers an opportunity to begin discussions about Deming, Seddon, Systems Thinking and customer value. The numbers our management focuses on is far removed from the real work. Its simply a measure, something Deming warned about. I have been on the Systems Thinking wagon for over a year and now I find the tough part is getting management to see the real customer value in our work, not the numbers. I often find myself falling back into watching the numbers, charts, software packages. I stand up then and pace around in my office thinking about a better way to service our customers.

The best method for clear thinking is to get out of my nice comfy office and get to the customers! No charts, numbers, software packages needed. The customer will tell me what they want, and I need to find out how to give it to them before our competitor does. This is hard work!!! Something Deming and Ohno would be proud of.

Deming and Systems Thinking

Your article is spot on. Projects and tools to achieve limited objectives are not going to achieve the desired results. Command and Control (thinking and methods) is so ingrained that is not even questioned. It is just how business is done. To change the situation, systems thinking needs to become a core curriculum in Business and MBA programs along with the education efforts of consultants and facilitators within organizations. Systems thinking education in our schools would reach future decision makers early in their careers, with the possibility of replacing current assumptions and methods with more effective, scientific methods. Command and Control methods need to be directly challenged in curriculums and issues such as economies of scale versus economy of flow need to be directly compared and contrasted. I have read that it takes a generation to break paradigms such as this, so the earlier and more broad based the challenge to Command and Control, the sooner organizations and citizens will benefit from the elimination of Command and Control thinking and methods.

One last thought, probably the biggest challenge to replacing Command and Control is how easy it is to just order people around (and the ego boost it gives people when they control others), rather than doing business in a thoughtful manner.

Charles "Chuz" Shillingburg

Learning for yourself

Tripp, I agree completely and this is consistent with others who are thinking about this issue, namely Mike Rother, as this was also his conclusion about Toyota after studying the issue for about 6 years.

Likewise, I've tried to develop our software so that we could keep up with the learning process from our users. Some have caught on to this ability and are really making the most out of it, but most people believe they are pretty much stuck with their software choices and don't realize a needed change could be delivered the next day.

David Smithstein, Founder and CEO

Deming and Changing People's Minds

There is a line in the article that says, a rational argument rarely convinces anyone to change their thinking. That sounds like something Dale Carnegie wrote in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. I guess I need to go reread it (always a good thing to do) and see what he suggests in lieu of rational arguments. Dale Carnegie identified rock solid principles of how people work. If he hadn't his book would not still be one of the top selling titles at Amazon over 70 years after he wrote it.

Jack Dearing

Deming, Systems Thinking, and the Future


This is a most thoughtful and thought-provoking post, which I will seek to encourage others to read.

My only issue with it is that you have limited your question regarding learning to America.



Deming and USA


I didn't mean to slight other countries deficiencies. I do believe that Deming's 14 Points were aimed squarely at the US and same with SoPK. This doesn't mean that other countries don't have this thinking problems, just that the US (still the largest economy and shrinking) has more of it and unfortunately many copied some bad practices that were learned from the US. The US was lucky Europe was decimated after WWII and this doesn't always translate to good. Just ask the US auto industry.