October 14 is W. Edwards Deming's birthday. Born in 1900, he delivered his last four-day seminar from a wheel chair, within a month of when he died in December of 1993. In his last couple of years, he'd end up in the hospital from time to time and the doctors would examine him and then say, "He's just old." After resting up, he'd head back out to conduct more seminars, desperate to change the prevailing system of management. Even in my thirties, I found it exhausting to conduct three and four day sessions. As much as I admire his philosophy, I envy the passion he had for his work and personal mission even more.
Deming's message seemed to have two dimensions. One had to do with seemingly abstract concepts and the other had to do with the individual.
Walking through a GM plant in the late 1980s, he muttered, "The worker must be released." Three of Deming's 14 points were to "Drive out fear," and to remove barriers that rob employees and managers of "their right to pride of workmanship." As I work with a variety of companies, I still see little evidence of this as a goal and a great deal of evidence of the benefit of making them goals.
Deming's management philosophy he labeled a "system of profound knowledge." It includes four elements: psychology, a theory of knowledge, appreciation for a system, and an understanding of variation. He convincingly argued that one could not, and ought not to, be in management with at least some rudimentary appreciation for these four elements.
By psychology, he was referring to the importance of respecting intrinsic motivation as essential to creativity, problem-solving, and quality. One example of what he meant by variation is the use of control charts by factory workers as tools to improve quality, perhaps the most visible element of the quality movement with which he was often associated. Appreciation for a system is complex, but it basically points to the importance of orchestrating parts, processes, and people to work well together. Finally, the question at the heart of theory of knowledge is simple but profound: how do you know what you know?
The Japanese gave Deming a great deal of credit for their economic revival after the devastation of World War II. What became known as the quality movement, or TQM (total quality management) became very popular in the U.S. as Japan gained large shares of automobile and electronic markets in the U.S. While American and European companies were focused on rework and blaming individuals, the Japanese companies that drew from Deming's teaching were focusing on system-wide improvements. At one point, the German and Japanese luxury cars had the same quality, as measured by flaws; but the Germans were using as many people to perform re-work at the end as the Japanese were using for the entire production process. Last year, the profits of Toyota (a company that has given huge credit to Deming) were more than the next five largest car companies combined.
Deming argued that bad managers focused on finding individuals to blame whereas good managers focused on changing the system: they had appreciation for a system and knew that an individual who may appear bad in one system can thrive in another. Progress comes from creating and modifying systems that allow real individuals to get real results. Understanding what to attribute to the system and what to attribute to the individual depends on understanding variation - seeing the difference between common cause (outputs caused by the system) and special cause (egregiously bad or amazingly good results that come in defiance of the system).
To this day, most managers still practice management without an articulated theory of management. Much of what animates management practice is little different from what once animated Indian rain dancers, a reliance on exhortations and slogans and tradition that has inspired hundreds of Dilbert cartoons. That management so often lives at the intersection of science and the occult is not something for which we can blame Deming. He tried to transform us. Perhaps, in time, he still will.