It’s Been 25 Years Since Dr. Deming Passed Away

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Today marks 25 years since W. Edwards Deming passed away in 1993. I remember sitting in a statistics class as an undergraduate at Northwestern University — it must have been January 1994. My professor said something about Dr. Deming's passing and I think my hand was the only one that went up when he asked who had heard of Dr. Deming.

Here is an article I wrote for the Deming Institute a few years back:

Why Dr. Deming's Work is So Important to Me

I never got to meet the man. In this post, I'll share some of the podcasts I've done with people who worked with Dr. Deming and I'll share some links to blog posts about his books and the famed NBC video about him.

Obituaries

His passing was noted with obituaries in very high profile publications (and I'll share some excerpts). As noted by the New York Times, Dr. Deming had been ill with cancer, but completed his last four-day seminar, in Los Angeles, just ten days before he died at home in Washington D.C.

The New York Times

“…urged American corporations to treat their workers as associates rather than adversaries… 

Mr. Deming's theories were based on the premise that most product defects resulted from management shortcomings rather than careless workers, and that inspection after the fact was inferior to designing processes that would produce better quality.

He argued that enlisting the efforts of willing workers to do things properly the first time and giving them the right tools were the real secrets of improving quality — not teams of inspectors.”

“Can you blame your competitor for your woes?” he would intone to groups of corporate managers. “No. Can you blame the Japanese? No. You did it yourself.”

“Although the core of his method to improve quality was the use of statistics to detect flaws in production processes, he developed a broader management philosophy that emphasized problem-solving based on cooperation. He exhorted managers to “drive out fear,” so that workers would feel free to make improvements in the workplace.

Mr. Deming denounced management procedures like production quotas, performance ratings and individual bonuses, saying they were inherently unfair and detrimental to quality. He said customers would get better products and services when workers were encouraged to use their minds as well as their hands on the job.”

“One of his daughters recalled that he had dated the eggs in his refrigerator with a felt-tipped pen so that the oldest would be eaten first and none would go to waste.”

“He said the only way to bring about change was to have direct contact with senior management,” said James K. Bakken, a former vice president at Ford.”

“He kept his client list short and refused to have anything to do with companies not willing make top executives available to him.”

The Washington Post

“Japan's manufacturers were eager to learn about American business techniques. But Dr. Deming urged them to eschew inefficient American methods and create new systems that focused on the consumer. He told them, in short, that they could do better than Americans.”

“Quality is not something you install like a new carpet or set of bookshelves,” [Deming] would say. “You implant it. Quality is something you work at. It is a learning process.”

The Independent

“Considered one of the most influential management theorists in the modern world, Deming based his concepts on a strong systemic approach and a statistician's understanding of the real meaning of data – particularly variation in data. He also had great understanding of the value of people and was deeply concerned by the waste resulting from treating people like commodities.

For decades Deming explained that if you improve quality at source then productivity will rise, giving both higher quality and lower costs. He advocated ridding workplaces of fear and competition and replacing them with teamwork and co-operation. He was talking about customer care and continual improvement over 40 years ago whereas the rest of us did not grasp the importance of these concepts until comparatively recently.”

“Deming was an extraordinary man, with an extraordinary life, but, much more importantly, an extraordinary legacy. Japan is a special case but in Britain and the United States in particular he has left a legacy of knowledge which is capable of transforming our industries and our societies.”

Blog Posts About Deming's Books and More

Here are some blog posts (see all with the Deming tag):

Revisiting and Re-reading Dr. Deming's “Out of the Crisis” – Chapter 1

Re-visiting Chapter 2 of Out of the Crisis (Part 1)

Dr. Deming on Why Improvement Stalls Out, Today's Hospital Patient Safety Parallels

Highlights & Notes from “The Essential #Deming”

Dr. Deming & Kaizen: Employees Should Not Just Suggest, But Try Improvements Out

Dr. Don Berwick is “Stunned” By How Few Organizations Study Deming

The Famed NBC Documentary

Dr. Deming was “discovered” by Ford and other American companies after NBC aired this documentary about him and his work, as I've shared here in blog posts:

Famed NBC Video with Dr. Deming from 1980 Now Available: “If Japan Can, Why Can't We?”

It's Not the Worker's Fault – in 1980 or Today (Part 1 of “If Japan Can, Why Can't We?”)

More Notes on Dr. Deming & “If Japan Can, Why Can't We?” (Part 3)

Podcasts

I've been fortunate to speak with people who worked with Dr. Deming to various degrees… these are their podcast stories (get the whole list of podcasts that touch on Dr. Deming):

Podcast #238 – Kevin Cahill, on his Grandfather, W. Edwards Deming

Podcast #167 – Claire Crawford-Mason, Producer of Dr. W. Edwards Deming Videos

Podcast #156 – Mike Stoecklein, Memories of Working with Deming

LeanBlog Podcast #43 – Mike Micklewright, “What Would Deming Say?”

Podcast #229 – John Dyer, Reflections on Deming, Six Sigma, and More

Podcast #280 – John Dyer on Dr. Deming's Red Bead Experiment

Podcast #320 – Skip Steward on Deming, Wheeler, Metrics, and More

Final Thoughts (and Your Thoughts)

It's fair to say that Dr. Deming has been incredibly influential to me. I've always said that it's both the best thing and the worst thing that happened to me.

Understanding (or trying to understand) Dr. Deming's perspective helps you see the world differently. That's good… but it's bad in that it puts you out of sync with most everybody else in business and different organizations.

What are your thoughts or reflections on Dr. Deming?

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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

6 Comments
  1. Chris Roser says

    HI Mark, glad to see a fellow history aficionado. I also wrote about the anniversary if you are curious https://www.allaboutlean.com/25-years-deming/

    1. Mark Graban says

      Thanks for your post and for sharing it, Chris. Dr. Deming, the man, is a historical figure at this point… but I think the concepts and lessons have a lot of relevance today.

      FYI to readers: I interviewed Chris for my podcast series and will have that published in January.

  2. Joy Dobson says

    While VP Medicine for over 500 physicians serving 400,000 patients, I posted his 14 principles on managing for quality on my office wall. It was a sobering reminder almost daily of why organizational excellence is so elusive.

    1. Mark Graban says

      Thanks for sharing, Joy. How did his 14 principles influence your behavior and actions as a leader? I imagine the 14 points would have going against the grain in many organizations…

  3. Mark Graban says

    Here is some of the LinkedIn discussion:

  4. Mark Graban says

    Here is some other robust and current discussion about Dr. Deming’s “14 Points.”

    I encourage people to read this version of the 14 Points though.

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