A Toast to Dr. W. Edwards Deming in Honor of his Birthday

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It is a great pleasure to offer a toast to Dr. Deming. He was a friend and mentor for 30 years. I cried when he died and would cry again today if I were here with you. And I am not alone. Dr. Deming touched many people’s lives in a very deep way.

Some people say Deming was a statistician – and that he was – a great one. But he was much more than a statistician, just as Mahatma Gandhi was much more than a lawyer. There are many parallels – both started out in rather technical fields – but their work took them into uncharted territory. Both had a deep caring for people and their belief in people allowed them to touch many people deeply. Both made Nobel Prize level contributions to peace and the betterment of human kind.

A toast to Dr. Deming would not be complete without recourse to a few of his famous sayings:

“Best efforts are not enough, you have to know what to do.”

Dr. Deming was a great learner – I saw him continue to learn almost daily, up until he died at 93 – and maybe beyond for all I know.

“Willing workers, just doing their best.”

He would meet with the workers in factories, in routine clerical jobs, in any job – and he would ask them, “Can you take pride in your work?” Then they would tell him the problems they encountered in their everyday work – these willing workers, just doing their best. He may have been the only person who ever asked them that question. They trusted him – and he learned things their managers needed to know but few were ever curious enough to ask. Where managers did ask, there was a wonderful change. In one moving instance, a gruff 50+ year old employee said, “We used to have to check our brains at the door, but now people care what I think, now I look forward to coming to work!”

“There is no substitute for knowledge.”

A chemical company manager (Jerry Brock) decided to teach “the willing workers” about the chemistry that was behind the products they made – the result – greatly increased employee satisfaction and improved quality and productivity – they had some knowledge! Dr. Deming used to say it is important to promote education. Pay for the tuition. It doesn’t matter what they study – Plato or basket weaving; it’ll make them better, more productive employees.

“You can work with a man who knows his limitations.”

(Dr. Deming never made the switch to more gender neutral language.) For years I found this statement strange – what’s he really trying to say here? I don’t know why it was so hard – but now it’s totally clear. Maybe I just had to work with a few more people who were totally over their heads and didn’t know it.

  • “A numerical goal without a method is nonsense.”
  • “The most useful numbers are unknown and unknowable.”
  • “Where there is fear you do not get honest figures.”

These three are closely connected and still not understood by most managers and most professors of business. The simplicity of Management by Results is so compelling – too bad it just doesn’t work.

So here is to the most amazing and wonderful man I have ever known – a man who raised my spirits and taught me so much – Dr. W. Edwards Deming.

This post is a speech written by Brian L. Joiner (1937-2023) and delivered on December 15, 2004, for the Madison, Wisconsin area Quality Improvement Network. We are grateful to Ted Snyder for sharing this with us.

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