The Conundrum that is Dr. Deming on Metrics, Measures, and Data


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Even almost 25 years after his passing, it's still somewhat popular to quote Dr. W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993) in email signatures or on social media.

Sometimes, I think he gets misquoted or his quotes get misused, as I blogged about here about this popular quote of his:

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

The W. Edwards Deming Institute has a page full of Deming quotes, context, and citations here and a more interactive database of quotes here.

Dr. Deming also often gets quoted as saying:

“In God we trust, all others bring data.”

That makes it sound like Deming thought data was everything.

But, it's unclear if he actually said it. In discussion in the Deming Institute site, some attribute the quote to others who Deming worked with and one person claims, “He never would have said that.”

Dr. Deming did actually write and say something that sounds like the opposite of the “all others bring data” line:

“the most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable (Lloyd S. Nelson, director of statistical methods for the Nashua corporation), but successful management must nevertheless take account of them.

Thanks to John Hunter and his Curious Cat blog for the citation that the line is from Deming's book Out of the Crisis, page 121.

What are some examples of things that are important, but hard to measure?

How do you put a number on “health” or “quality of life?” You might be able to measure some indicators of health. Some “Key Performance Indicators” (KPIs) might include weight, blood pressure, resting heart rate, etc. The KPIs that you choose might be different than what someone else might choose (body fat percentage, HDL cholesterol, A1C levels). Can you measure how much you love someone?

But what about workplace examples? Are there examples of things that are important, but hard to measure? What about customer or patient satisfaction? Sure, you can take surveys or, in some industries, measure how many customers are repeat customers, but are those just our best approximations of the thing we're interested in tracking or improving?

John Hunter has blogged about how the line, “If you can't measure it, you can't manage it” is incorrectly attributed to Dr. Deming. He said quite the opposite.

The full quote, again thanks to John is:

“It is wrong to suppose that if you can't measure it, you can't manage it – a costly myth.”

The source for that is Deming's book The New Economics, page 35.

How do you reconcile the “all others bring data” quotes with data and measures not being the only thing?

Where does your organization stand on the importance of data and measures?

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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. Good post. I think the biggest problem is if people try to find a simple absolute completely accurate belief from a short quote. Using data is extremely useful in improving performance. But as Deming quoted Lloyd Nelson as saying “the most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable.”

    It is pretty easy to understand that Deming believed that organizations failed to use data effectively to improve. He believed that greatly increasing the use of data in decision making would be useful. He also believe there were specific problems with how data was used, when it is was used. Failing to understand variation leads to misinterpreting what conclusions can appropriately be drawn from data.

    I believe Dr. Deming would have said something like “In God we trust, all others bring data” (I haven’t been able to find a source verifying he did say it). Others don’t believe he would referencing the Lloyd Nelson quote and all Deming’s other work showing that Dr. Deming’s opinion that data isn’t all that matters. I believe they are correct that Dr. Deming wouldn’t mean for the quote to be taken literally as a summation of everything he every said. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t use a funny line that emphasized an important message – we need to stop relying so much on unsubstantiated opinion and instead back up opinion with data (including experiments).

    Quotes can help crystalize a concept and drive home a point. They are very rarely a decent way to pass on what the author meant, this is why context is so important. But, most often quotes are shared without context and that of course, leads to misunderstandings.

    A funny example of this is the Deming quote that you often see: “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Deming did actually say that. But without the context you get 100% the wrong understanding of what he said. Deming’s full statement is “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.” Now normally the much more context is required to truly understand the author’s point. But this is a funny example of how quotes can be even be accurate when passed on to you and yet completely misleading because they are taken out of context.

    I don’t see any difficulty understanding Dr. Deming’s position on data. Data is very important. Data is very useful. Data can be misused. Certain practices around how we use data lead to problems. We will perform much better by using data properly. We will perform better by using data more frequently than we do not. Trying to use data for those cases where it doesn’t work well (Nelson’s quote…) will create problems. When using data it is important to understand the data within the context of the system (data is very useful but can led to sub-optimizing the overall system to reach specific targets without an appreciation for the organization as a system).

    That perhaps some short quotes taken out of context might seem contradictory, or at least at odds with other quotes, isn’t surprising. When you understand the ideas Deming’s presented it is pretty clear that data is important and using data to improve performance is useful. But at the same time there are dangers of being misled by the improper use of data.

    Far too often people want to take a short quote as a full expression of a concept. It is much more likely to be useful as a reminder. But when you just read the quote and then try to have that stand in for the entire concept you are often misled. That might even be useful for you. But it often has next to nothing to do with the point the original author was making.

    If Dr. Deming did say “In God we trust, all others bring data.” I believe it was largely as a joke line to emphasize the importance of using data. This emphasize was and us needed. However, it is one of the less useful points of emphasis on data in Deming’s message. First, would be the importance of using data properly, which encompasses a huge amount of area. That includes
    1) understanding what the data does and does not say (understanding variation)
    2) understanding the system, and that optimize one measure can easily harm the overall system (appreciation for a system)
    3) psychology can often interact with the use of data in harmful ways (creating fear, fear causing people to distort the data…)
    4) using data more (because we often don’t use it)
    5) the importance of experimentation and iteration
    6) Nelson’s quote – and the understanding that if you focus on what you have data for you will miss very important aspects that need to be taken into account (and also that you will likely make up data to try and capture things you believe are important but can’t actually measure)…

    The points in those 2 quotes are worth paying attention to, but they are part of a concept of using data effectively. When you understand that concept well it is pretty easy to see how it all fits together. If you try and take the meaning behind those 2 quotes without understanding the system it is less obvious how they fit together.

  2. Personally, I feel as if some of the most important things in life can’t be measured. You mentioned patient and customer satisfaction, and love. What about the amount of creativity, compassion, generosity, integrity, joy, faith… I could measure how often my daughter makes her bed, but I can’t measure her compassion for helping others. What I really care about. Mark, would you say this is relevant in healthcare? My sister in law was a Chief Nursing Officer for a large hospital in Virginia and talked a lot about service and caring for her patients. I guess this sort of can be measured by the % at patient’s bed. She ended up walking away from a career in nursing because the hospital was squeezed so tightly and her and her nursing staff was overworked.

  3. Hi Mark,

    Great responses so far. With respect to Deming’s quote “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth” and the Nelson quote, i feel that one of the workplace ‘un-measurables’ is culture. Culture has some loose measures such as sick time and feedback on satisfaction surveys but those as measures alone don’t cut it for the manager. You can reduce sick time and get your satisfaction ratings up but still have a sick culture.

    I recall your recent post about an article from Don Berwick (1989). The culture instilled by “Foreman 1” (who believes his people are bad apples and that inspection and fear are the way to get results) vs. “Foreman 2: (who believes the improvements necessary to get results lie within the employees and that it is her/his job as foreman to bring out the best in each person) is vastly different, yet Foreman 1’s group can still produce good data but as Deming quotes, it is ‘costly’. You can and should manage culture…and a large part of it is the attitude you bring in trying to instill continuous improvement in your people.

    Also, the corrected quote fits very well with Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge: appreciation of a system, knowledge of variation, theory of knowledge and psychology. I contend that psychology is the domain of the ‘un-measurable’ that Deming is speaking of. On a personal note, when I ignore developing relationships with my people, and supporting the work they do to get them to be their very best, I couldn’t agree more that it is “costly”



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