Remembering Deming

Posted on July 28, 2017 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion
Deming: Out of the crisis

Do you remember Deming? Heck, do you even know who Deming was?

W. Edwards Deming (1900 – 1993) did not found any Start-ups, head any corporations, or promote visions of a greener Earth. Why should you know of him? And yet he had a profound influence on our world, and his thinking changed the fate of entire industries. What’s more, he was a man of piercing understanding and wisdom, and he created a management philosophy deserving our admiration. He was unknown in his native USA for most of his life, and now is sliding back into oblivion. I, however, remember Deming well; I was exposed to the man and his philosophy early in my career, and I’d like to share my recollections.

If Japan can… why can’t we?

Deming’s rise to stardom is almost a Cinderella story. It began in 1980 when NBC News sent a crew to Japan to research a documentary called “If Japan can… Why can’t we?”, whose intent was to understand why Japanese products were clearly superior in quality and price tag to American products (believe me, they were; I was then living in California and had a Ford and a Toyota… the former spent endless time in the repair shop while the li’l Toyota just ran, and ran, and ran!). To their surprise, the NBC crew discovered that the Japanese had a clear answer: it was all due to Deming’s teachings. Further inquiry found that Deming was an American working in Japan on the reconstruction effort around 1950, and had lectured and advised Japanese managers and engineers about his outlook on manufacturing methodology focusing on continuous improvement, statistical process control, and the rest of the methodology and philosophy that today we call Total Quality Management. The Japanese, being disciplined and conscientious students, implemented what they learned across their industry, propelling it from ruins to riches. Americans were deeply troubled when they saw the results; I remember a scary joke that made the rounds at Intel: a US company orders 100,000 computer chips from a Japanese manufacturer, and specifies they may have 100 DPM (defective units per million). They receive two boxes, one large, one small. When they ask what’s going on, the Japanese rep says “These are the 99,990 good chips you ordered, and here are the 10 defective ones you wanted”.

Meanwhile Deming had returned to the States and was teaching as an obscure university professor, and nobody outside Japan knew of his work (the Japanese did know, and had established in 1951 the Deming prize for Quality to honor him). All was quiet for Deming, until NBC aired that documentary in 1980 (you can watch it here; Deming is interviewed from about 1:02 hours in).

Into the limelight

Once “If Japan can… why can’t we?” was broadcast, America discovered Deming, then 80 years old, and its industry – which was badly in need of improvement – threw itself at his feet. He consulted to Ford executive management and to many others; he also published his landmark book “Out of the Crisis”, and lectured widely.  He had a very good, active 13 year stretch until his death.

The interesting thing about the Deming philosophy is that although he was an engineer and a statistician, his advice spanned process control, culture, psychology, and – most importantly – management. He had deep insights about what fails manufacturing processes, and he knew that the first culprit was poor management (and not, as managers like to think, incompetent employees). Combining insights about management practices with the knowledge pf process control science made him uniquely capable in helping industry improve quality and reduce costs.

My encounter with Deming

Back then I was in the US, training to become the Quality and Reliability manager of the Intel plant in Jerusalem, and I was fortunate enough to see W. Edwards Deming with my own eyes. No, I did not shake his hand; I was one of hundreds of industry people, each of which had paid $1000 to attend a 3-day seminar taught by him at Anaheim. Deming was 84 years old then, yet he stood tirelessly on a podium for three days and kept us all mesmerized with his presence and his deep insights.

I remember him running for us the famous “Red and white beads” simulation. This is a “factory” where workers are exhorted to produce only white beads – “a “zero defects” goal – in a mixture that has red beads in it; each worker draws a random sample of beads, and gets praised or castigated by Deming based on the presence of red beads in the sample, as if they had any control over them. Try as he might, Deming (representing management) can’t motivate or threaten the “employees” to improve “quality” – and he roundly blames the employees, not the reality of the process and the silliness of the goal, for this failure. You can see a video of this hilarious role play here. He did it with a wry sense of humor, but it was clear that our own companies were guilty of the same managerial blindness he was deriding.

And then we all went back to our many companies, and worked hard to apply what we had learned – to introduce the methods and change the culture. American industry as a whole tried to pivot by adopting TQM, and eventually succeeded; they also instituted the Baldrige award, a US counterpart of the Deming Prize, and all this eventually led to the ISO 9000 standard as we know it today. On a personal level, in addition ot instilling TQM into my Intel plant, this was the first nudge towards dealing in behavior rather than the physics I’d graduated in – which predisposed me to pioneering the Computing Productivity domain at Intel and eventually becoming an information overload expert.

Deming’s fourteen points

And here are Deming’s 14 points for management (there are some slightly differing versions out there; this is from my copy of the 1986 edition of “Out of the Crisis”):

  1. Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service.
  2. Adopt the new philosophy.
  3. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality.
  4. End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag alone.
  5. Improve constantly and forever every process for planning, production, and service.
  6. Institute training on the job.
  7. Adopt and institute leadership.
  8. Drive out fear.
  9. Break down barriers between staff areas.
  10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force.
  11. Eliminate numerical quotas for the work force and numerical goals for management.
  12. Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship. Eliminate the annual rating or merit system.
  13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement for everyone.
  14. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation.

Just look at this list, and think of the dramatic departures it holds from what was the “normal way of doing business” in the years before and following WW2. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality  (that’s the Red Beads lesson for you)? Eliminate quotas? Eliminate  annual rating of employees? Eliminate slogans? Don’t buy from the cheapest bidder? The list goes on.

It’s primarily about people

Each of these jarring ideas comes from a deep insight about what is really going on. Take #8, “Drive out Fear”. The instinctive response of any executive would be “What fear? We have complete trust here, we have an open door policy, we are all brothers and sisters in this company!”. Yeah, right; I’ve seen enough to know that fear and mistrust are present in every organization, and are a powerful force against quality and productivity. But Deming was the first to articulate this explicitly.

And my favorite Deming quote: “Quality is Pride of Workmanship”. This is so true, and it captures so well the man’s humanistic attitude to something we normally think of as technical. It’s all about the people, and a second reading of the 14 points will show you how well W. Edwards Deming understood that only by empowering and respecting your employees can you hope to succeed. He knew his statistics, but he knew people come first. But you already know I believe that.

I’m glad I got to know this man, whether or not you remember him!