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Davis Balestracci

Quality Insider

Deming Is Dead… Long Live Deming

The man is dead, but his teaching continues... often, unfortunately, inaccurately.

Published: Wednesday, August 12, 2009 - 05:00

W. Edwards Deming has been dead for almost 16 years. In my opinion, he and Joseph Juran were the true quality giants of the 20th century. No one seems to talk about Deming much any more except to relate stories from the past and pine for the “good ol’ Deming 4-day seminar days.” (I don’t. Nor do I think he would want us to.) He also seems to have a fundamentalist cult following who revel in smug running commentary, quoting chapter and verse a la Deming on any current quality effort.

I’m going to say a couple of things that might not make me popular. However, I’m also going to preface these remarks with my utmost awe and thanks for the extraordinary influence Deming has had on my career, including a warm hand-written personal note of encouragement at the low point of my career 25 years ago. I feel that all the current improvement manifestations come directly from Deming theory—with a healthy dose of Juran’s practical wisdom—but they are missing the point, which is what he tried to put in context at the end of his life with his system of profound knowledge. (See my column “TQM, Six Sigma, Lean and…Data?” www.qualitydigest.com/july06/departments/spc_guide.shtml.)

Brian L. Joiner synthesized Deming’s theory better than anyone in his book Fourth Generation Management: The New Business Consciousness (McGraw-Hill, 1994), which is still worth a read. Joiner’s business produced The TEAM Handbook in 1988, which should be in every quality professional’s library. Quality improvement had really taken off by then, but it was mistaken in its emphasis on internal teams of allegedly “empowered” employees who were working on various and sundry projects. Many organizations developed an arm known as “quality” that became a parallel sub-industry which sunk under its own weight of excruciating formality. Even the late Peter Scholtes, primary author of the book's first edition, acknowledged this in his foreword for the second edition of The TEAM Handbook in 1996:

“The importance and popularity of teams have escalated dramatically in the last several years. As someone who perhaps helped to contribute a bit to that trend, I feel a need to offer a caution: teams are not a panacea. Teams are one vehicle for getting work done. Teams will not always be the best vehicle. A given team may not be able to deal with the causes of the problem or the needs of the system. There is no substitute for leadership, good planning, well-functioning systems, excellent services, well-designed and executed products, and an environment of trust and collaboration. Some managers seem to want to proliferate teams, the more the better. But teams need to be a part of larger contexts and larger systems: systems that select priorities, systems and processes for providing goods and services to the customers, systems for training and educating the workforce. Without purpose… there can be no system. And without purpose and systems, there can be no team. Leaders, therefore, must focus on their organization’s mission, purpose, and the systems needed to successfully accomplish that mission and purpose.”

That last sentence goes right to Deming’s Point 1: Constancy of purpose.

So where’s the controversy?

I sat through two Deming 4-day seminars and a “Part 2” seminar presenting Deming with other leaders—including David Kerridge; I read Deming's books Out of the Crisis (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Advanced Engineering Study, 1982) and cut my teeth on Quality, Productivity, and Competitive Position (MIT, 1982) in 1983; and I have also read The New Economics (MIT, 1994). I admire the man, but his teaching style and writing were, in a word, “dreadful.” I hate the red bead experiment and cringe in horror as I think of how many of you have had to sit through a god-awful demonstration of it by someone other than Deming. There… I’ve said it.

Deming did not tolerate fools gladly, nor did he disguise his disdain for U.S. management arrogance. He also had the patience of a saint with front-line people. Deming maybe had this privilege—his “followers” need to be much more careful. It takes a lot of wrestling with his ideas before they blossom fully in one’s brain, and one has to be very careful being willy-nilly in pointing fingers at management using the platitude “It’s all management’s fault because ‘Deming says’ that 97 percent of the problems in an organization are due to management.”

In my experience, most managers hated Deming, and little minions shouting out that everything was management’s fault certainly didn’t help. Like Deming, I feel that management arrogance is a key root cause for quality improvement not being hardwired into organizational culture. However, quality professionals need to stop pointing fingers and boring executives to death.

For those of you who want a remarkable refresher on Deming theory (and it could have been written yesterday), get Henry R. Neave’s brilliant book, The Deming Dimension (SPC Press, 1990), a case where the biblical concordance is much, much better than the original and still applicable (and includes a mind-blowing, lucid discussion of profound knowledge).

And use Joiner’s Fourth Generation Management to teach yourself common-cause strategies. Deming did not say that 97 percent of the problems needed to be fixed by management but rather, that 97 percent of the time it was due to bad processes, not people. Yes, some of these are the responsibility of management; but good statistical thinking can use a common-cause strategy with data to solve a lot of these problems… and managers can remove barriers to implementing the solutions. So, “plot some dots,” solve some problems, and stop lecturing!

Need some suggestions? See:


Excellent reading

How about this? I got a flier in the mail today advertising Six Sigma Belt training. Yikes! $2,500 for a Yellow Belt, $7,500 for a Green Belt, $6,500 for a Green Belt to bridge to a Black Belt, $12,500 for a Black Belt, and $6,000 for a Master Black Belt..

Folks… spend $250 ($350 if you buy my book Data Sanity) then read and re-read the following and I promise that you will not only understand quality improvement theory, you will be able to apply it universally:

The Deming Dimension, by Henry R. Neave (SPC Press, 1990)

The Best of Deming, by Ron McCoy (SPC Press, 1994) [If you’re going to quote him, quote him correctly.]

Fourth Generation Management: The New Business Consciousness, by Brian L. Joiner (McGraw-Hill, 1994)

The TEAM Handbook, Third Edition, by Peter R. Scholtes, Brian L. Joiner, and Barbara J. Streibel (Joiner/Oriel Inc., 2003)

The Improvement Guide: A Practical Approach to Enhancing Organizational Performance, Second Edition, by Gerald J. Langley, Ronald D. Moen, Kevin M. Nolan, Thomas W. Nolan, Clifford L. Norman, and Lloyd P. Provost (Jossey-Bass, 2009)

Improving Performance Through Statistical Thinking, by ASQ Statistics Division (ASQ Quality Press, 2000)

Understanding Variation: The Key to Managing Chaos, Second Edition, by Donald J. Wheeler, (SPC Press, 1993)

Sign up for Jim Clemmer’s free “Improvement Points.”
His books Firing On All Cylinders (Business One Irwin, 1992) and Pathways to Performance (Prima Publishing, 1995) are excellent and worthwhile.

An excellent article, “Root Cause Analysis: The Seven Deadly Sins of Quality Management,” by John Dew (Quality Progress, September 2003), discusses the seven issues that are considered root causes of quality problems—all entrenched in a culture where “leadership” is considered sitting in on a 20-minute overview of the latest quality fad, declaring “Make it so. I’m behind it,” then getting way behind it never to be seen again Jim Clemmer calls this “passionate lip service” and it has the following attributes:

1. Placing budgetary considerations ahead of quality
2. Placing schedule considerations ahead of quality
3. Placing political considerations ahead of quality
4. Being arrogant
5. Lacking fundamental knowledge, research, or education
6. Pervasively believing in entitlement
7. Practicing autocratic behavior that results in “endullment” rather than empowerment

Regarding items four and five, quality professionals are slowly making progress in speaking the language of senior management. However, in many organizations, senior management still doesn’t understand the fundamental lessons of quality and frankly, isn’t interested in learning them. Could it be that few quality managers make it into senior management positions because senior management doesn’t really believe in quality concepts?

The wisdom of Deming strikes again: “If I had to reduce my message to management to just a few words, I’d say it all has to do with reducing variation.” How do we address the current management culture that allows collecting large salaries in order to draw circles around numbers; look at smiley faces, bar graphs, trend lines and traffic lights; compare numbers to goals; and throwing tantrums—all the while spouting platitudes from the latest airport bookstore best seller, Leadership Secrets of [famous dead person du jour] (living exception: Jack Welch)?

It’s going to take two points of view to change—and the only person you can change is yourself. How can you create a culture where the words “statistical” and “quality” are dropped as adjectives because they are givens? That’s the challenge… not collecting a bunch of belts.




About The Author

Davis Balestracci’s picture

Davis Balestracci

Davis Balestracci is a past chair of ASQ’s statistics division. He has synthesized W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy as Deming intended—as an approach to leadership—in the second edition of Data Sanity (Medical Group Management Association, 2015), with a foreword by Donald Berwick, M.D. Shipped free or as an ebook, Data Sanity offers a new way of thinking using a common organizational language based in process and understanding variation (data sanity), applied to everyday data and management. It also integrates Balestracci’s 20 years of studying organizational psychology into an “improvement as built in” approach as opposed to most current “quality as bolt-on” programs. Balestracci would love to wake up your conferences with his dynamic style and entertaining insights into the places where process, statistics, organizational culture, and quality meet.