Misinterpreting Deming: The Misuse of ‘Survival is not Mandatory’ in Lean Practice


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.

The line does not appear in either of Dr. Deming's main books, Out of the Crisis or The New Economics (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.”

Before I heard from Claire, I supposed it was a Deming-ism that he used in his famous seminars. I hoped the quote wasn't an 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.

In my interpretation, Dr. Deming had a valid point that no company is entitled to success forever. That's true whether that's General Motors, Dell (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 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.”  

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 vaguely threatening ways by consultants or leaders. Somebody might be trying to force “compliance” or “accountability” with a 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 are labeled as resistant 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 eliminate the annual performance review, ratings, and merit system?

At the least, 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 more profound lessons. I interviewed one CEO who, as a student of Deming, didn't pay his salespeople based on commission. It was a straight salary.

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.

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 ask if they really follow what he taught?

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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. 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.

    • 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.”

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

    • 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.

  4. 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.

    • 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.

  5. 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.

    • 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.

  6. 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.’

  7. Mark

    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..

    • 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

    • 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…”

  10. 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.

    • 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.

  11. 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.

    • 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.

  12. Deming was not so confrontational in general, but was unrelenting on the need for management to change for improvement to happen. The same spirit is in these excerpts from Out of the Crisis (pb,2000)

    “Who will survive? Companies that adopt constancy of purpose for quality, productivity and service, and go about it with intelligence and perseverance, have a chance to survive.

    …The only survivors will be companies with constancy of purpose for quality, productivity and service.
    p 155

    Why is transformation of management necessary for survival?”
    p157 “Questions to help Managers” so the aphorism captures the sense of his comments.

    I just completed my MBA HR course. One of the questions for the required PowerPoint presentation were,

    “A. Explain the benefits of performance appraisal systems within the organization in which you address the following:
    1. Present the positive results expected from a well-prepared and well-delivered performance appraisal.
    2. Recommend preappraisal activities that will ensure the performance appraisal processes is beneficial to the employee and the company.
    3. Illustrate what can go wrong when giving feedback to the employee during the delivery of the performance appraisal.
    4. Discuss steps that a manager might take when delivering a performance appraisal to ensure the process provides value to the employee and the company.
    5. Recommend postappraisal activities that will ensure the performance appraisal process is beneficial to the employee and the company.
    6. Discuss the benefits to the company of working with employees to further their career goals.”

    I did some fancy dancing to answer these, since PA’s have negative value…
    “The [annual performance appraisal ]… annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork…The effect is exactly the opposite of [the] promise… It does not reward attempts to improve the system.”

    • Thanks for your comment. And thanks for being willing to take, even in a small way, a stand against the tyranny of the annual performance review and merit compensation.

      I don’t disagree with Dr. Deming’s quote. I agree that the quote is meant to be pointed at senior leaders, those responsible for long-term strategy and for the system.

      I cringe when I see that Deming quote used as a way to threaten employees that they have to change or else. That’s not leadership and that’s not the Deming way.

      Did you hear my podcast with Prof. Sam Culbert on getting rid of performance reviews?


      • Considering 90% of people think they’re in the top 10%, performance reviews aren’t likely to be productive unless maybe they start with “what can I do to allow you to do a better job”. But why wait for an anual review?

        • Yes… I think one of Dr. Deming’s criticism of the annual performance review is that leaders must coach and develop people continually, rather than just judging them once a year. Leaders need to help most everybody succeed, rather than judging and doing things like “rank and yank.”

      • Actually the PowerPoint was fun. The hard part was dancing around telling the profs they had ahold of the wrong end of managing people, and getting the required criteria into the answer, since WGU evaluates on a matrix-“did you cover topic 1 with great, moderate, little or inadequate detail, etc.”
        Link to the PPT

  13. I love the Deming quote – but would never use it – I substitute “Not all change is improvement, but all improvement is change.” which has a similar thrust to it and sounds more sage vs threatening. On the Annual Performance Review, I have pointed out my own reservations to it to management, to my own detriment, I believe. To me, the APR turned into an exercise in self-promotion, focusing on individual achievement in a system where teamwork is purportedly valued. It encourages all the wrong behaviors. I suggested instead to assume excellence in our people and reward rather those who point out things that don’t work well (so we can learn and work on those things). Poorly received (not too blind to considered it may have been poorly presented).

  14. Maybe it’s time to bring back the DEN (Deming Electronic Network) or at least feed the archives into Watson.

  15. It must be some kind of measure of success, Mark, that you’ve had so many responses to this original post, up to 4 years later. And here I am 8 years later. I came back to see what you wrote about this, as I was planning to share the Deming quote with colleagues within my biopharm employer (yes, i’ve left healthcare), and remembered your post provided clarity about Deming’s words and intent. Thanks for being such a great resource for my learning and practice of lean, LSS, opex.


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