web analytics

Don’t Threaten People with This Famous Dr. Deming Quote

by Mark Graban on February 19, 2013 · 22 comments

One of the more popular email signature quotes that I see (at least amongst Lean  practitioners) is this priceless gem from Dr. W. Edwards Deming:

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”  

It seems that this quote, and a few other Deming-isms, are more popular than Dr. Deming’s actual teachings.

deming 150x150 Dont Threaten People with This Famous Dr. Deming Quote leanThe line does not appear in either of Dr. Deming’s main books, either Out of the Crisis Dont Threaten People with This Famous Dr. Deming Quote lean or The New Economics Dont Threaten People with This Famous Dr. Deming Quote lean  (at least according to my attempts at searching electronically via Google Books and Amazon).

Update: Clare Crawford-Mason, who worked closely with Deming (my podcast with her is here), says the quote was actually  ”Survival is optional.  No one has to change.”

I suppose it’s a Deming-ism that he used in his famous seminars. Does anyone have a definitive citation? I hope the quote isn’t urban legend like the incorrect attribution of “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” to Dr. Deming.

Google Books shows the quote is cited in at least dozens of different books, ranging from a book on the Theory of Constraints management system to the memoirs of a physician.

I think Dr. Deming had a valid point, in my interpretation of it — that no company is entitled to success forever, just because – whether that’s General Motors, Dell (yikes, two companies I used to work for) or a standalone community hospital. While Dr. Deming said sometimes you need to “don’t just do something, stand there” (when you have a stable system that you want to avoid tampering with), his point that was that companies need to embrace his new management philosophy.

There are times I have seen online discussions or emails that make some sort of supposedly “Lean” point that would have made Dr. Deming shake his head, such as “You need to give people incentives and quotas for Kaizen ideas, or they won’t participate” or “you need to demand a 10% cost reduction from your suppliers each year and play them off each other to get the best price.”  And each one of those gems that contradicts Deming’s teaching is followed by an email signature like:

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory” – W. Edwards Deming

*CLSSMBBOTHO is Certified Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt of the Highest Order, by the way (a level I made up, not to be confused with Jack Donaghy’s “Six Sigma Black Belt Ultra.”

That Deming quote is sometimes used in a vaguely threatening way by consultants or leaders. Somebody might be trying to force “compliance” or “accountability” with some sort of top-down process change. When somebody objects (often with good reason or, at least, with a better understanding of the system than the “boss”) the boss might retort with the Deming quote.

In other words – do as I say, otherwise if you don’t, you object to change, therefore you’re not going to survive.

When I see that quote in an email signature, I’m tempted to ask the person if, in the context of Lean or Six Sigma (or Lean and Six Sigma… please don’t call it “Lean Sigma”):

  • Have you ceased dependence on inspection as a way to achieve quality?
  • Are you driving out fear?
  • Are you going to single source suppliers instead of pitting vendors against each other for short-term savings?
  • Have you eliminated slogans, exhortations, and targets for the workforce?
  • Are you planning to eliminate numerical quotas for the workforce or  management?
  • Did you already eliminate the annual performance review, ratings, and the merit system?

At the least, locally, have you:

  • Taken steps to let each person you work with have joy in work?
  • Applied the lessons of common cause vs. special cause variation?
  • Taken steps to understand and manage each person as an individual?
  • Tried to tap into people’s intrinsic motivation?

These are some of the highlights of Deming’s 14 points on management  and some of his deeper lessons. I interviewed one CEO who, as a student of Deming, didn’t have his salespeople on commission.

Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda, Chairman and former President (1982-1999) of Toyota, said:

Every day I think about what he meant to us. Deming is the core of our management.

That said, I don’t think modern Toyota follows every one of Dr. Deming’s recommendations.

But, don’t you think you should follow at least SOME of them if you are throwing around Deming quotes in your email signatures? Do you ever challenge people when they use Deming quotes — do you really follow what he taught?

Mark Graban 2011 Smaller Dont Threaten People with This Famous Dr. Deming Quote leanAbout LeanBlog.org: Mark Graban is a consultant, author, and speaker in the “lean healthcare” methodology. Mark is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as the new Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. Mark is also the VP of Innovation and Improvement Services for KaiNexus.

pixel Dont Threaten People with This Famous Dr. Deming Quote lean
pinit fg en rect gray 28 Dont Threaten People with This Famous Dr. Deming Quote lean
Please consider leaving a comment or sharing this post via social media.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jamie Flinchbaugh
February 19, 2013 at 8:12 am

There is another quote that is wrongly attributed to Deming: “A bad system will beat a good person every single time.” I’ve researched this one an abnormally large amount of time, and it is not something Deming ever said. He probably believed it, but never said it, at least not like that.

Twitter has helped increase the sloppiness about quotes. I see people leave off attributions, intentionally or not taking credit themselves.


2 Mark Graban
February 19, 2013 at 9:52 am

I used that short version, maybe incorrectly, the other day.

The longer version of the quote (which I am also struggling to find a primary reference on) is this:

“If you pit a good performer against a bad system, the system will win almost every time. We spend too much time fixing people who are not broken and not enough time fixing organizational systems that are broken. Only leadership has the power and responsibility to change the systems.”
Mark Graban recently posted..What Makes a Person Clean Drinking Glasses with Pledge? A Bad SystemMy Profile


3 Todd Hudson
February 19, 2013 at 8:48 am

The threatening quote is from an early video series and Deming said it in response to an interviewer question. I’ve heard people use it numerous times (ineffectively) to try and beat executives into changing their ways. It’s much better to simply reflect on the 14 Points in the light of current business practices and results and make changes.


4 Sherry Holliday February 19, 2013 at 9:19 am

God Bless Dr. Deming, wow I bet he would be amazed that he hasn’t been forgotten and is still appearing in articles, debates and discussions. The Deming disciples will keep his work going at least through their generation, he changed the way I look at work forever. Just the red bead experiment forces so much of our thinking into reality and makes you look at things so much different. What a huge contribution into the future!


5 Mark Graban
February 19, 2013 at 9:53 am

I agree. I have participated in the red bead exercise and I have facilitated it. It really teaches you to look at a system and the silliness of blaming individuals for system problems in a whole new way.
Mark Graban recently posted..Please Don’t Steal THIS Idea – Paying a % Bonus for Cost SavingsMy Profile


6 Lawrence M. Miller February 19, 2013 at 10:16 am

Many of the quotes from Dr. Deming are not written down, but from talks he gave. I was with him a number of times and I heard him say (and I have used this over and over again) “95% of the quality problems are a result of the system. 95% of the time we blame the person, fire the person. Then we can’t understand why the next person has the same problem.”

All these versions, or different quotes, all make the same point and it hardly matters whether the quote is exactly right, as long as the point is made. After all, the four Gospels all report quotes in different ways, but from the same talk.


7 Mark Graban
February 19, 2013 at 10:20 am

Great point, Lawrence. My main problem is when the “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” idea gets incorrectly attributed to him because that’s exactly the opposite of what Deming taught.

He actually said:

One cannot be successful on visible figures alone … the most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable, but successful management must nevertheless take account of them.


8 Todd Hudson
February 19, 2013 at 10:49 am

Deming’s point about ‘visible figures alone’ is particularly powerful coming from a statistician. He knew the limits of the science. That said, he showed how it could be an incredibly power tool to improvement.

Regarding the red bead experiment, I’ve seen many a business person completely reject the exercise. They don’t believe (or want to believe) there’s randomness in their processes. Everything can be attributed to something or someone and every problem becomes a “search for the guilty.” The idea that there is a larger system at work that’s bigger and more powerful than individual efforts scares most managers and executives to death.


9 Mark Graban
February 19, 2013 at 10:58 am

Yes, I find it really interesting that Deming, a statistician, said that the most important thing for managers is psychology.
Mark Graban recently posted..What Makes a Person Clean Drinking Glasses with Pledge? A Bad SystemMy Profile


10 Mark Graban
February 19, 2013 at 10:59 am

Re: the red bead exercise.

Front-line workers always get it. They are the ones being abused because of common-cause variation.

First-level supervisors sort of get it (they can remember being front-line staff).

I bet the higher you go in the organization, the less likely the exercise is to be believed. They’ll make 100 excuses about how real life is different.


11 Todd Hudson
February 19, 2013 at 11:31 am

Completely agree. The first time I ran the red bead experiment was for line workers at a GM assembly plant in 1988. They got it immediately with a mixture of humor and sadness. Their bosses, on the other hand, couldn’t grasp the concept and saw common cause variation as an excuse for workers to use to blame for poor performance. This plant went out of business about 5 years later. It’s the one featured in ‘The Machine That Changed the World.’


12 pragya February 20, 2013 at 7:06 am


Even if we do not attribute the saying to Deming the spirit certainly has Demings main philosophy. What Flinchblaugh quoted also indicates the same thing- A must have- to accept change and a good breathing system..


13 Jamie Flinchbaugh
February 20, 2013 at 7:14 am

I agree, that the spirit matters most. I found that this quote wasn’t even based on presentations, even talking to Deming Institute folks and others who have pretty much based their lives on digesting everything he said.
Jamie Flinchbaugh recently posted..The value of considered thought (and what Jeff Bezos is doing about it)My Profile


14 Patrick Anderson February 21, 2013 at 12:09 am

Thanks for a different point of view Mark. I used that quote as a tag line for a while on my email, but didn’t really use it as a bludgeon. Organizations do an amazing job of survival even when they deliver very little value. But as a Deming advocate, I certainly found value in much of what he advocated. I do have to agree that understanding the psychology of change is more important than knowing what to measure. By using lean tools, we could improve a log even without serious measurement.


15 Mark Graban
February 21, 2013 at 7:48 am

I wasn’t thinking of you, Patrick, as a Deming email signature quote abuser, believe me!
Mark Graban recently posted..Stuff I’m Reading, February 21, 2013: Transparent Errors, Hidden Gorillas, Gaming of SystemsMy Profile


16 Patrick Anderson February 21, 2013 at 5:38 pm

I wasn’t worried Mark. Just wanted to share that I did find value in using it. I can imagine Dr. Deming saying it in response to resistance to doing the right thing because that’s how I feel sometime. People resist doing the right thing for a variety of reasons. In my first year of implementation, I can’t tell you how many times I heard that we were not a car company. Talk about stating the obvious. And about a non argument. It’s confrontational and maybe fear based. Interestingly enough, the one most opposed ultimately turned around and became a supporter.


17 Mark Graban
February 21, 2013 at 6:22 pm

Just wanted to clarify for the readers that I wasn’t accusing you of that…

It’s a great quote and it’s really true. I think we’re in agree that it needs to be used in the right tone and spirit of Dr. Deming.

There’s often a really good valid reason behind a person’s so-called “resistance to change…”
Mark Graban recently posted..Stuff I’m Reading, February 21, 2013: Transparent Errors, Hidden Gorillas, Gaming of SystemsMy Profile


18 John Hunter
February 26, 2013 at 10:10 pm

I do believe Deming said “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

I think short quotes are wonderful because they can pack tons of meaning into a short quip that you can take in quickly. The problem is to then do what Dr. Deming implies is necessary – change – you need the knowledge necessary to make the right changes.

While change may well be necessary. Change is not sufficient. You need to know what to do then change. Similar to Dr. Deming’s thoughts on best efforts :-) http://management.curiouscatblog.net/2007/09/13/deming-on-being-destroyed-by-best-efforts/

And as Peter Scholtes said “95% of changes made by management today make no improvement.” http://www.management-quotes.net/quote/37459 as quoted in the New Economics.


19 Mark Graban
March 22, 2013 at 9:40 am

Update: Clare Crawford-Mason, who worked closely with Deming (my podcast with her is here), says the quote was actually  ”Survival is optional.  No one has to change.”

Mark Graban recently posted..Kaizen Questions… What If?My Profile


20 John Hunter
April 8, 2013 at 1:26 am

I think Dr. Deming repeated the same sentiment with different wording. I believe he probably said both these and many more.

The easily available written record of his quotes is somewhat sparse (mainly the New Economics and Out of the Crisis). The new Essential Deming, is great for many reasons but one is giving us easy access to a bunch of original text directly from Dr. Deming.

The videos from Clare Crawford Mason (and others such as the Detroit Deming Study Group and I think the San Diego Deming Study Group) provide many more direct quotes.

Lots of Deming quotes are from the notes (better) or memory (leaves lots of room for error) of those that attended seminars. This is useful (gets lots of nice quotes) but is risky as sometimes I think either the people took notes incorrectly or out of context or Dr. Deming misspoke. It is easy to misstate a sentence in a 4 day public seminar that you gave over 100 times.
John Hunter recently posted..George BoxMy Profile


21 Bruce Nagel December 24, 2013 at 11:34 am

Thank you so much for this post. I see so many missing the point of Lean, falling back on ‘productivity metrics’ and annual reviews for employees whose individual performance is determined by the system in which they work. They want numbers on which to manage employees and processes so badly, they want to explain away and ignore the randomness in their systems rather than face it.

Eliminating slogans and useless targets? Driving out fear? Very few have the courage for these things, in my experience – almost no one does them. For many, many companies the 14 Points are sadly still there on a shelf waiting to be implemented.


22 Mark Graban
December 24, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Thanks, Bruce. I agree in that I wish more people in the Lean community would study Dr. Deming’s writings and videos. Like you said, it’s sitting on the shelf… I know a few brave leaders who are working to eliminate dysfunctional practices like annual performance reviews and some who have a better understanding of variation. Slogans and targets are still far too common… as is the fear that interferes with improvement.
Mark Graban recently posted..Online Lean Healthcare Class through LEI, More Upcoming Kaizen ClassesMy Profile


Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

CommentLuv badge

Previous post:

Next post: