13 October 2007

W. Edwards Deming's Birthday


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.

11 comments:

ThomasLB said...

At the last corporate environment I worked in, my boss convinced the company to use a certain obscure software package for all their projects, then wouldn't teach any of the other groups how to use it. All of the work had to flow through us.

It made him absolutely indispensable- and the company went bankrupt a year later.

That's the kind of crap I've seen over and over: empire building. Everyone wants to be the Big Fish in the polluted pond.

ThomasLB said...

PS- Wikipedia has a nice summary of Deming's philosophy. LINK

Dave said...

Your economic knowledge is in a galaxy far far away from mine.

That said, I played an "educational game" in college that was based in feudal times.

By draw the players were lords, serfs and trade people. The rules were loose. Deal with people to make a living.

I was a serf. I combined with a lord to share. We worked out a percentage deal. We then went to some of the trade people and other serfs and offered them a profit sharing arrangement.

The remaining lords and trade people and the hold out serfs couldn't compete. We had a libertarian commune going.

The Professor pretty much shook his head. He had invented the game and said it hadn't been designed to turn out with that result.

So what is the ideal social/economic construct?

curiouscat said...

Nice post. I have a page discussing some of Deming's ideas on management.

Norman said...

Dave, sounds like you invented the "Look out for yourself, but do so within a social framework that benefits all who participate" philosophy Ron spoke of is his 9 Oct Inventing Civilization post.

Ron Davison said...

Thomas,
what you've describved is exactly the kind of dynamic that was at least part of the reason that Deming spoke out against grades and ranking.

Dave,
a libertarian commune? Only in college. Answering the question about the ideal society would take an entire post - and probably days of gestation. Elle McPherson clones might play a part in such a society.

curiouscat,
I've visited your site before - great to see someone continuing to advocate Deming's ideas.

Norman,
indeed.

David said...

Peter Drucker would be very offended Ron. And Juran? We'll he'd just say I did most of it first.

Ron Davison said...

David,
Drucker is awesome - but Sunday was not his birthday. Juran never captured my imagination in quite the same way as W. Could be my failing - might be his.

Geordie said...

Hey Ron - I appreciate the difficulty of articulating how you know what you know. Testing of any kind is applied epistemology, a branch of philosophy that remains elusive to most people. I've found that the best way to think about what you know and what you don't is to tell stories to yourself about the situation you are in and the performance of your product or your organization. Create a real story, with conflict, character development, tension, resolution, climax, denouement. As you are testing, you are building this story - and your wonderful brain will remorselessly pick out the unconvincing parts, the evidence that isn't there, the counterarguments, all of which demand further testing and allow you to complete the story with a happy ending.

I wish your post said a little more about Deming's approach to explaining how we know what we know. Oh, and (not to nitpick), "drive out fear" and "honor the right to pride of workmanship" are 2 of Deming's 14 points, not three.

Norman turned me onto the blog, I really love it. Thank you for writing.

Ron Davison said...

Geordie,
Very cool that you stopped by R World.
I love the idea of a story as a virtual simulation of what you know. I will try that. And, yeah, the theory of knowledge material is thin - but still my blog postings run too long.
Finally, these two points are actually three points for this odd reason: Deming separated out the right to pride in workmanship for hourly workers and managers and professionals. I'm not sure why those two deserved two separate points - maybe its like saying that democracy is good for the serfs and the petty aristocracy. Anyway, thanks for the provocative comment.

qualityg says said...

Ron,

Thanks for the Summary on Dr. Deming, good stuff!

qualityg