Deming Endorses Obama (?)


Breaking: Deming Endorses Obama – IndustryWeek Forums

A few people have emailed me about this and it's easier for me to comment here than it is to register for the IW forums. An interesting idea is posed by Brad Kenney: would Deming “endorse” Obama as the result of this quote?

“Does experience help? NO! Not if we are doing the wrong things.”

– W. Edwards Deming (consultant, statistician and educator, 1900-1993)

That's hardly an endorsement and it raises the question of whether Obama really has “new” ideas or old liberal ones. The Deming quote is certainly a paraphrase of what Obama is trying to say about Hillary Clinton, that she has “experience” and it was the wrong things.

Yes, things are broken in Washington DC, as the writer points out. My own position is that things are equally broken on BOTH sides of the political aisle. Kenney is trying to be clever in comparing government problems to business issues, but I think he misses the mark — badly.

The employees (us) aren't engaged, and the management (the three branches of government) range from hopelessly inept to criminally incompetent. Employee morale and “customer satisfaction” (approval ratings) are at an all time low (in the 20% range for both Bush and Congress). Our country is hopelessly in the red, and don't get me started on defect rates where legislation is concerned (Congress' first pass yield has got to be in the single digits).

Whoa whoa…. the American citizens, the public…. we're NOT “employees.” We do not work for the government. The government is supposed to work for us. “Customer satisfaction” is maybe a better analogy than “employee morale.”

Kenny equates political change to “pulling the andon cord.” Maybe that's not a bad analogy. But, I don't think Dr. Deming would want change for the sake of change or merely “fresh ideas.” I'll have to dig up some of his quotes from “The New Economics” for his thoughts on government, but I would suspect Deming would favor the PDCA process — try a change, measure the results, see how it works. Too many government programs never go through the Check and Act phases… we just “Do” and programs are stuck in place forever.

Deming wrote, on page 123 of The New Economics:

Transformation is required in government, industry, education. Management is in a stable state. Transformation is required to move out of the present state, not mere patchwork on the present style of management. We must of course solve problems and stamp out fires as they occur, but these activities do not change the process.

… there will be cooperation on problems of common interest between people, divisions, companies, competitors, governments, countries…. the function of government should be to work with business, not harass business.”

I quoted selectively and hopefully not out of context. You can read the whole page online at the Google Books page for the book (scroll to page 123).

If I had to guess Deming's views on the current election… he would be opposed to party divisions and the use of divisiveness to win votes. I'm guessing he would want a candidate with systemic solutions to broken government policies and systems, not just fire-fighting. I'm also guessing he would fall more along the Republican or Libertarian lines of not over-regulating or punishing business.

Too bad Dr. Deming isn't alive to be a third-party candidate, because I would have voted for him in a second. Heck, Dr. Deming had plenty of foreign policy experience with all of the countries he visited during his teaching and consulting!! Deming for President!

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Great post, Mark.

    I went to Deming’s 14 points for further guidance. To wit:

    Drive out fear. Both parties seek to stir up fear, fear of the other one.

    Break down barriers between departments. Need I say more?? Between parties? Between Feds and States? Between federal agencies? Oh my.

    Eliminate slogans. Hoo boy. Can’t have a campaign without slogans.

    Create constancy of purpose towards improvement. Who has constancy of purpose when the latest poll will trigger shift in talking points?

    I could go on…but thanks for a provocative post, Mark.

  2. I think if you look at issues based on root cause analysis…

    Ron Paul believes that we should cut spending because we are in massive debt, we should follow the constitution, and have a better foreign policy.

    Google or Youtube Ron Paul for more info.

  3. Why is it bad to have experience doing the wrong things? In the laboratory, the wrong thing is done in experiments all the time. As long as something is learned from the “failed” experiment, a more “successful” one can be designed and executed.

    Failures and defeats are part of life. If a specific person doesn’t learn from them, then I would whole heartedly agree with the Deming statement being applied to that person. They will continue to do the wrong things.

    “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
    –Albert Einstein

  4. Mike – you’re right, that’s an enlightened view that mistakes are learning opportunities. But is either political party learning from its past mistakes?

  5. It worries me that *none* of the candidates have experience at running a substantial organization. Not one of them has run a state, a large city, a large corporation, or a major military organization.

    We’re electing a chief executive, not a chief policy wonk or chief speechmaker, yet the executive experience just isn’t there.

  6. Mark — thanks for adding to the discussion! I wrote this from the perspective of someone who is in Ohio, has family on both sides of the manufacturing coin (management and labor) and is looking for some common-sense thinking about how to change the Washington “workplace” for the better. I’m glad at least you and I can admit that it’s broken — there are those who don’t believe this to be the case.

    You’re right in saying that we’re not technically government employees, but I guess what I’m trying to point out is that at least part of Obama’s appeal is that he’s asking for “we the people” to get involved, to get re-engaged in the political process, is setting records for grassroots involvement, even has a plan for trading college tuition for community service (kind of like a domestic Peace Corps). In short, he wants to make the electorate feel a sense of empowerment and ownership, which was very similar to the theme of employee engagement — similar enough that the analogy (albeit somewhat sloppily made) made sense at the time. Still does.

    In fact, I volunteered my entire weekend to walk around some fairly sketchy neighborhoods here in Cleveland (the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis) to try to get him over the top. First time I’ve ever done anything like this. Am I an employee? Or a customer? Or some of both?

    In the meantime, if you (or anyone) wants to read up on his plans (economic or otherwise), go to If you read his policy plans, you might be pleasantly surprised at just how pragmatic the guy is.

  7. Wow, Blogger just completely erased my previous comment. I’ll start again.

    We the citizens don’t pull the andon cord; that is done by employees. We are more like shareholders who can change management if things aren’t going well.

    Government should pull the andon cord when problems are visible. Of course, for this to happen government would need to put in place a reliable Check phase of the PDCA cycle (not likely to happen). Another barrier to andon implementation in government would be the lack of long-term thinking, perpetuated in no small part by the never-ending pressure to satisfy the electorate in order to win elections. Are we the citizens no different than narrow-minded investors only looking at short-term stock prices?

    Or, are we possibly a little more aligned with long-term thinking than politicians realize? I think so…for the most part. I think Americans know that we have issues that can only be addressed over time. Has Obama caught onto this, thus allowing him to better connect with voters? Maybe. Does this indicate that he would be more of a Deming-like President? I’m not sure yet.

  8. Just a few observations on this post as well as the comments –

    First off, this very well may be a case of the overzealousness of a “lean application.” Lean is a tool for organization and optimization on a local level that then builds up. It’s purpose was for factory applications, and through extension business and similar environments.
    No offense – it’s not a tool of sociocultural reform, or socioeconomic, or whatever you see as the primary purpose of government.

    Just because you have a hammer doesn’t mean everything is a nail.

    I think next we’ll meander to some of Mike’s comments.
    Mike, a domestic peace corps that lets you trade college tuition for volunter/social work?
    AmeriCorps anyone? Teach for America anyone? Both already exist and function in similar ways.

    Beyond that the current 0 loan policies being enacted by top schools (Stanford, Harvard, Pomona, some others I can’t think of off the top of my head) is going to drastically alter the face of tuition in the coming years.

    It wouldn’t be the internet without at least one Ron Paul support cropping up, the problem with the entire Paul campaign is that making a blog post isn’t political activism, nor is joining a Facebook group.

    That said, Mike, what you did is. And good for you, hopefully this will inspire you to pay more attention to your local elections.
    They have far more importance on your day to day life and your actions have far more of a direct effect.

    I’m not commenting for or against any political candidate (or party) here, just that seeking to run a government like a business isn’t necessarily the best idea.
    It is, more or less, what occurs in the present incarnation of the PRC.

    Corporatism (as a social policy) rarely scales to large levels without drastically exploiting poorer economic zones, something the United States has enjoyed since the Monroe Doctrine. Do we really need to expand and increase the rate at which this occurrs, what of the “respect for people” clause?

    Mark, you are probably right, Deming would lean libertarian in all likelihood or anarchocapitalist most likely.

    Since we seem to be ending with quotes,
    “In America there is one party – with two branches.” Gore Vidal.

  9. J Thatcher – This is an inspired comment.

    “pay more attention to your local elections.They have far more importance on your day to day life and your actions have far more of a direct effect.”

    Until you put that into words, I never realized it.

    Mark – You are right about both parties lacking the characteristics of learning organizations.

  10. J Thatcher – you’re probably right about us being overlzealous with the application of Lean to government. Thanks for giving us a reality check. That being said, I don’t agree with your statement that “Lean is a tool for organization and optimization on a local level that then builds up.” I’ve always been taught that a system of local optimums is not equal to an optimal system. Lean thinkers focus on creating optimal systems, and then improving upon them from all directions (ground up and top down).

    I agree that the tools and applications of Lean are not applicable to all situations, obviously. However, the thinking that underlies Lean is universally beneficial. In “Profit Beyond Measure,” H. Thomas Johnson et al reason that the Toyota Production System is so effective because it resembles nature’s system of evolution. In other words, Lean systems have the ability to adapt over time, keeping what works and discarding what doesn’t. I can’t see how a such a mental model couldn’t be helpful to public reform or any other endeavor.


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