Deming and Lean: The Disparities and Similarities

In my opinion Deming’s ideas and lean thinking share many similarities. I do see plenty of weaknesses in lean manufacturing efforts at organizations. Most of the weaknesses are due to bad implementation of lean manufacturing rather than lean thinking missing fundamental elements included in Deming’s management system.

A very common point of criticism (from Deming folks) of lean efforts is that they fail to address the management system: saying “lean” merely provides a few tools and what executives do doesn’t change. Understanding the importance of focusing on the entire management system is core to understanding Deming. The problem with criticizing lean manufacturing based on this however, is that the lean folks people should listen to all know that deploying a few tools is not what lean is about.

Such criticisms leveled at lean are no different than those leveled at organizations over the decades that use a few of the tools Deming talked about and picked a point or two from Deming’s 14 points and Deming’s deadly diseases to address and then struggle. Deming didn’t advocate using a couple tools and ignoring the management system; neither does lean manufacturing.

It is a bit tricky to define what exactly “lean manufacturing” means, since there is no one recognized authority. But you can look at Toyota (since lean manufacturing is just a name given to a descriptions of the Toyota Production System), Lean Enterprise Institute, Kaizen Institute and great thinkers, writers and bloggers such as James Womack, Mark Graban, Jon Miller, Kevin Meyer, Jeffery Liker, Daniel Jones, Bill Waddell along with many others. To me the lean manufacturing these organizations and people practice and discuss is extremely consistent and that shared understanding is the basis of what I think of as lean manufacturing.

It is no surprise that lean manufacturing has so much in common with Deming. Toyota’s management system was designed based on Dr. Deming’s ideas. Toyota took Deming’s ideas and, as Dr. Deming encouraged, adapted those ideas into a management system that worked in their organization. They experimented and extended the ideas and over time developed some new tools and enhanced existed tools and techniques that are quite useful and consistent with Deming’s thinking.

Shoichiro Toyoda, Honorary Chairman and director of Toyota: “There is not a day I don’t think about what Dr. Deming meant to us. Deming is the core of our management.”

Excerpt from 2012 Deming Institute Conference presentation by Sarah Pavelka – Deming and Lean: The Disparities and Similarities.


Sarah shows many sources of overlap between lean and Deming thinking. One of those is how they both focus on the customer and customer value. Various tools and concepts on this topic are used by both management systems; while each may emphasis different wording the approaches are very similar (customer focus, Kano model – loss function, going to the gemba, what job does your product or service solve for customers, value stream, training within industry…). The way both management systems focus on the customer are closer to each other than any other management styles I am familiar with.

Lean manufacturing and Deming focused on the importance of treating employees with respect and creating systems that allow employees to think and drive improvement. Again the way these two systems address this issue is more similar than any other system I can think of. Many management efforts give lip service to valuing employees but few create reliable system that result in concrete action.

As she says: “how can we create more value and create jobs.” This is one of the areas where poor implementations may give people the wrong impression about what lean means or Deming’s ideas mean. Some people talk about lean being mainly about “reducing waste” and then jump to the conclusion lean is about reducing staff. Good efforts based on Deming’s ideas or lean principles do not have layoffs. Many organizations fail to follow this fundamental principle but that is a failure of those organizations not lean manufacturing or Deming. Both systems specially mention the importance of respecting people; if improvements result in fewer workers being needed to do certain jobs those workers are moved to other parts of the organization.

Both systems focus a great deal of effort on continually improving processes. They both are based on the understanding that continual improvement is important and that is achieved by engaging the brains of the people doing the work on making the processes better day after day. They both encourage investment in training employees on using improvement tools and creating systems where those improvements are made sustainable through standardization.

As Sarah mentions, lean organizations probably have a bit more acceptance of inspection. I still believe the best lean organizations rely on inspection much less than most organizations. But I would say lean efforts are a bit more accepting of this practice.

Deming talked about standardization, documenting processes, training employees, continual improvement of job processes. But I think lean organizations (the good ones) actually do this better than most Deming organizations. I think this is primarily a result of most of the Deming folks in the last few decades just not focusing on things like job instructions, visual management, kanban, etc. as much as good lean efforts have focused on them. I think Deming’s thoughts in this area have been better implemented by those good lean organizations. It isn’t a matter of the philosophies being different on this point, it is just my opinion that the implementation is a bit different and Deming folks would be served to put more focus on what the lean thinking organization are doing in those areas. You can try to make ties to what goes on in agile software development fitting into this but in general I think this is just something most agile efforts don’t pay much attention to (and there are reasons for some of this area to have less focus in agile, I believe).

Related: Podcast Discussing Dr. Deming’s Ideas, The Deming Institute and ToyotaThe Relationship Between Dr. Deming’s and the Toyota Way’s PrinciplesThe Two Pillars of the Toyota Way: Continuous Improvement and Respect for People

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