Applying Deming’s Management Ideas at the Maine State Prison

By John Hunter, founder of

Jon Parker learned about Deming’s management ideas while serving in the United States Navy. The Navy had a huge effort to use Deming’s ideas (under the Total Quality Leadership) in order to improve performance, especially during the 1980’s and 1990’s.

After leaving the Navy Jon went to work at the maximum security Maine State Prison and found another environment in which applying Deming’s management ideas could help. As he pursued attempts to bring this thinking into the prison he had challenges (as we always do) and also found others very interested in finding new ideas on how to improve results at the prison.

Early in his efforts one of his officer’s said: “You’re like a laser understanding and isolating problems; how the hell do you do it?”

Jon’s response was that “Dr. Deming’s work gives us a special set of glasses to see what is normally hidden in our organizations.”

Jon’s colleagues that work with him on the front line of the prison “are motivated to solve their own problems, not simply because it will simplify their work environment, but because their lives depend on it.”

Applying Deming’s Principles in a Prison

When he [Jon] began working at Maine State Prison, Parker was shocked that his colleagues were unable to see the systemic problems that reinforced violence in the prison.

He set out to find a way fix the violence by applying Deming’s principles. Lacking formal institutional support, Parker began examining the way things worked at the prison. He discovered a lack of communication between management and front-line corrections officers, lost information, and a top-heavy management.

“This is where conflict is invited by management. When [an officer] has a confrontation with an inmate, what do you think happens? It may be a screaming match between the two of you; the inmate may remember it and wait until later on to get you,” Parker said. “And often blood is associated with this.”

One of the areas they decided to tackle was reducing violent confrontations at the prison.

By taking a systems view it is possible to address not just individual symptoms as they appear but to work on reducing the conditions that lead to problems. This is not always easy and when you are working in a stressful environment, like a prison, that magnifies the challenges.

At the Maine State Prison, junior officers (those that worked on the processes themselves) prepared flow charts based on the prison’s ad hoc processes, for example, for handling inmate requests in the mental health unit. They then showed how often these process failed, resulting in a preventable and potentially violent confrontation.

Wide variation in the handling of requests – sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes approval other times rejection, many times total failure – often results in inmate frustration. As you can imagine, stress and frustration inside a prison is already high, so processes that increase the likelihood of such feelings are ripe for improvement. Decreasing the likelihood of preventable, potentially violent confrontation between an inmate and an officer is a very desirable outcome.

Bill Feuss is an outside consultant assisting in the efforts to use Deming’s ideas to improve the prison. As he says, the long term vision is “to help transform Maine State Prison into a real corrections system, where the critical input is a criminal, and the output is a law-abiding citizen who is able to function in society.”

As Jon explains the overall Prison management system has honorable goals and aims in the mission statement. However, without a systems approach to address the identified systemic crisis; the results (both violence in the prison and the capability of released prison’s to successfully integrate successfully back into society) will remain the same.

Two out of every three inmates released will return to prison. This hidden cancer will continue to drain and damage our society until we recognize and properly diagnose the problems openly. But as Dr. Deming would say best efforts are not enough. A true systems approach is necessary.

Some data can provide a bit of context to the larger prison situation in the USA within which the Maine State Prison rests. The USA has the highest rate of prisoners (to population) in the world. The USA has 716 prisoners per 100,000 people, the number some other countries have: Russia 484, Singapore 230, Mexico 209, England 148, Canada 140, Germany 70, Japan 54.

The efforts to improve the performance of the prison using Deming’s ideas have been presented at 2011, 2012 and 2013 Deming Research Seminars at Fordham University.

The Frontline documentary, Solitary Nation, which will air on 22 April 2014, provides a view of the current conditions at Maine State Prison.

In the next post we will continue to explore the actions taken at Maine State Prison by Sgt. Parkers Officers in applying Deming’s ideas to improve results.

Related: Total Quality Leadership Process Improvement ModelDeming 101: Understanding SystemsImproving Police (by former Chief of Police for Madison, WisconsinHallmark Building Supplies: Applying Deming as a Business StrategyRespect for Employees (Don’t Waste the Ability of People)

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