Deming on Education


If there was any value to the Industry Week commentary that tried to link Deming and Obama, it was that it prompted me to re-read some of Deming's work, namely the “management of people” chapter from The New Economics.

There's so much good stuff in there, including the 14 rules / guidelines for a manager of people to follow. You can read that online at google books (for free). There's so much that's re-stated, from Deming, in many of the more recent books about Toyota. You definitely see the Deming influence coming through. So it's sometimes interesting to go back and re-read earlier books.

In the chapter, Deming rails against business schools, pointing out what they SHOULD teach, which is, of course, the opposite of what's taught. Deming says business schools should teach students about the “evils” of short-term thinking and the “evils” of the merit system and ranking people. There's also a somewhat bleak chart on page 122 that makes the case that schools and management systems do nothing but demoralize people throughout their lives until they die.

Deming then, on page 145, rails against grading students and grading teachers or schools. Deming's argument is that grades (especially forced ranking and grading curves) rob students of their intrinsic motivation to learn (and probably robs teachers of their joy in teaching).

Deming recommends:

  • Abolish grades (A, B, C, D) in school…
  • Abolish merit ratings for teachers
  • Abolish comparison of schools on the basis of scores
  • Abolish gold stars for athletics or for best costume

He writes, “Our schools must preserve and nurture the yearning for learning that everyone is born with.”

In recent years, the trend has been toward “merit pay” for teachers and schools. Hogwash. Deming, the hypothetical presidential candidate, would undoubtedly be against the “No Child Left Behind Act” (but maybe for different reasons than Democrats).

From the wikipedia page:

NCLB is the latest federal legislation (another was Goals 2000) which enacts the theories of standards-based education reform, formerly known as outcome-based education, which is based on the belief that high expectations and setting of goals will result in success for all students

High expectations and goals without a method? That's a recipe for failure and I assume Dr. Deming would have hated that. The focus is on measurement… but at the expense of learning? Given goals, people in any setting are clever about “gaming the numbers” (as the Wikipedia article points out) and educators are no different.

I'm not a NCLB expert… reading more, I'm guessing Dr. Deming wouldn't disagree with the whole act. Making sure that teachers are well qualified is a good thing. All things considered, I guess that Dr. Deming would suggest “leadership” as a replacement for NCLB. What do you think?

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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. I see one problem with your post – and it might just be my unfamiliarity with Deming’s actual body of work.

    Basically you begin by illustrating his displeasure with Business Schools, but then you jump into the NCLB act (which by the way he’d be against for pretty much exactly the same reason as most democrats).

    Business Schools and Elementery Schools are very different learning environments.
    One is, at heart, a highly advanced trade school while the other is a place of general education, preparation, and development – critiques of one are completely inapplicable to critiques of the other.

    So I suppose I’m asking, since the NCLB question is far more interesting, what did Deming actually say regarding childhood development?

    How does a model for managing employees apply to encouring 5 year olds to excel?

    Education and lean is something we’ve talked about previously, and it’s a slippery slope.

  2. J Thatcher- thanks as always for your comments. I wasn’t clear in the post. Deming was against grades and forced distributions (or gold stars) at any grade level, elementary to grad school.


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