WWDD: What Would Deming Do?

“No one has to change. Survival is optional.” W. Edwards Deming


Several lifetimes ago (1983) I attended a 3.5 day seminar in San Diego and joined over 300 people from various manufacturing and service companies to listen to W. Edwards Deming. Deming is attributed to be the father of the evolution of manufacturing in the use of statistical methods to manage business processes and the attitude of continuous improvement.

We all sat at narrow tables in a large ballroom with Deming on a raised dais. We were equipped with a full 3″ binder that contained a Xeroxed volume containing his many lessons on how to apply statistical methods to solve business problems and improve product performance. Deming was not a gifted speaker but his stories and anecdotes were riveting and despite the size of the group few people left early.

Deming did carry a chip on his shoulder since he had not, by then, received recognition in America for what he had done in Japan. Others, American based statisticians, were claiming ownership of the movement but it was clear that Deming had fostered a miraculous change in post-war Japanese industry that resulted in significant inroads in American markets with lower cost and higher quality products. In the early 80’s it was clear that American companies were waking up to what they had to do to just catch up let alone get back in the lead.

What Would Deming Do Today? American industries have gone a long ways in implementing the the following Deming philosophy into their business.

Deming would evoke disbelief in his management seminars when he insisted that 94 percent or more of all problems, defective goods or services came from the system, not from a careless worker or a defective machine. He would go on to say that to improve an organization’s goods or services, the system had to be improved rather than searching for the guilty worker or broken equipment.

In almost all cases, when top managers implemented his ideas, they were surprised to find that they agreed with him:

The management and the system they were managing were the true source of both problems and improvements.

However, in today’s economy we find an increasing presence of government in business in terms of regulation, company ownership and increasingly complex taxation and fee structures. What role should government take in adopting the Deming philosophy as it becomes inextricably involved with the ability of business to operate in the free-enterprise marketplace. Can government, a body that sees some form of leadership change every two years, plagued by lack of accountability, has many political appointees that are not carefully recruited and placed because of their ability to perform in their jobs, has extreme difficulty in managing itself (post office, budget deficits, perks) let alone managing profit based organizations?

Successful adoption of the Deming principles begins at the top of the organization. It requires a constancy of purpose, breaking barriers between functions, driving out fear as the common denominator for change or performance, elimination of slogans, exhortations and targets and a solid understanding of the processes that they are managing. This is a tall order for a government process that consistently demonstrates an inability to be accountable to its citizens and other stakeholders for the management of basic services.

What would Deming do?

He would get government out of the business of managing business.

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