Selected Papers By Dr. W. Edwards Deming

Dr. Deming published over 170 articles, wrote numerous unpublished papers for his students and clients, and conducted hundreds of studies for clients. These and numerous other writings by Dr. Deming are in the National Archives, The Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington, DC. To access this collection, call the LOC Manuscript Division. Since access to the collection is restricted, please call the LOC at 202-707-5387 to receive an access form.

Emotions In The Workplace

Guest post by John Hunter, founder of the

This interview on NPR, How To Harness The Power Of Emotions In The Workplace, provides some good thoughts on psychology in the workplace. There is often much more focus on the data part of W. Edwards Deming’s ideas, and while using data to understand and improve is very important, Dr. Deming understood the critical importance of understanding that employees must be understood and treated as people, and not treated as cogs in a machine. See our resource page for Deming on Management: Psychology.

One challenge with treating people this way is all of them react differently, even in the same situation. From the interview:

Emotions happen when a deadline gets moved or when we don’t get invited to a meeting. They happen when your boss sends a cryptic email saying “see me ASAP” or when a co-worker gets credit for a project they barely contributed to (again).

My reaction when reading “didn’t get invited to a meeting” is: great, I don’t have to sit through another frustrating meeting. My guess is that isn’t the emotion the author had in mind (though maybe it is). In any event, there are certainly people that would be frustrated about being excluded and other people who would be glad. My guess is most people (probably nearly all) would be frustrated “when a co-worker gets credit for a project they barely contributed to (again).”

The challenge of dealing with emotions in the workplace is one reason I think people avoid dealing with them if possible. There are so many ways to slip up and create more problems. This is especially true if an organization has largely avoided such issues in the past. After people accept good faith efforts are being made and see the benefits, they will likely be more forgiving of slip-ups. But there are good reasons for managers to fear treading on this ground.

I think another reason people are reluctant to bring more focus to emotions is they believe it will just be a bunch of navel gazing and excuse making that doesn’t actually focus on improving the workplace. In my opinion, the way similar efforts have been made in the past gives people good reason to feel that way. Others may disagree with that opinion. If you accept it, and maybe even if you don’t, I think there is good reason to focus on how this effort is going to improve the workplace. How are we going to be more effective? How are we going to increase cooperation and decrease harmful conflict, etc. The adjective “harmful” there, I think, is important as conflict can be useful in, for example, a debate on the merits of one approach over another.

Blog posts are useful in many ways, but this complex topic is well beyond the scope of a blog post. This post can remind those already practicing Deming’s ideas at work the importance of an understanding of psychology to practicing Deming’s management ideas. And it may spur some to read a bit more, listen to experts on the topic, reflect a bit more on this topic, or make some efforts at work to actively consider psychology in your actions and the decisions you make.

The interview has some ideas to think about and points to some useful resources (as does Deming on Management: Psychology).

Venting is useful for a small period of time, if you’re doing it to someone you trust. We always say don’t just do something, stand there. If you’re feeling a really strong emotion, you sometimes just need to calm down because you’re not in a rational state [to] figure out what you want to do next.

Venting isn’t productive from a mechanical way of thinking. The venting isn’t a value-added activity. But we are human beings and not machines. Venting may well allow you to let out some frustration and get back into a better state of mind where you will be more productive. But venting also has an affect on the person you vent to, and that could be negative so it is important to be careful. And things can be complicated; there could easily be situations where a little bit of venting very occasionally is healthy but going past some tipping point will serve to demotivate the person you are venting to.

Harnessing positive emotions (pride, joy, excitement…) is an important component of using psychology in the workplace to improve. This is ignored too often.

I do think managers should spend more time making efforts around psychology in the workplace, partially because so little time is spent on it normally. I believe managers should be spending time working on making the organization function well; this includes building the improvement capabilities of the organization (sponsoring and assisting and working on PDSAs etc.) and creating an environment where people are able to find joy in work.

I See You

Guest Post by Dr. Doug Stilwell, Drake University

All the lonely people; where do they all belong?

– The Beatles

Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge (SOPK) is a system made up of four interrelated components: Appreciation for Systems, Psychology, Variation, and Theory of Knowledge. Each of these parts impacts and is impacted by the other, which is why it is a “system” of profound knowledge. Yet, in any system, the parts are not always perfectly in balance, nor should they be. In fact, Dr. Eli Goldratt, in his book The Goal, writes that it can be inefficient and ineffective for a system to be completely balanced. Systems should be “balanced” based on the desired aim of the system, meaning that sometimes some parts of any system may require more attention and others less. It is through “balancing” the parts of the system, in other words balancing how the parts interact, that we can be most effective as leaders.

In April of 2020, I had the opportunity to author a blog for The Deming Institute entitled, “Systemically Non-Systemic: COVID-19 through the Deming Lens”  In it, I examined COVID through the lens of an “appreciation for systems,” offering thoughts about the nature of our interconnectedness as humans relative to the spread of COVID. I offered that our system of relationships as humans is a perfect structure to transmit COVID or any other communicable diseases. Further, I shared for consideration that, short of a vaccine, the only way to mitigate COVID’s spread is by breaking our physical connections – our physical system-ness – through social distancing and the wearing of masks.

But examining COVID-19 through the systems lens alone is not enough, for we now know that in addition to the physical illness itself and the “system-ness” of the spread, there are other consequences that are growing with each passing day. The aim of this paper is to focus attention on psychology, giving it a bit more attention at this point over the other components of SOPK. This is not intended as an exhaustive examination of psychology and mental health related to COVID, for I am not an expert in either psychology or mental health. Rather it is a snapshot, a “ten-thousand foot” overview accompanied by some thoughts about how to mitigate COVID’s psychological and emotional impact.

While social distancing is a strategy to reduce the spread of COVID, it comes with consequences. These consequences have to do with the mental and emotional toll this separation can take on us as members of the human race, a species that succeeded over time because of its ability to work collectively for the good of all. As I wrote in my April paper, we are the product of thousands of generations who cooperated with one another and “won out in the harsh struggle for existence, while our more self-interested cousins in the distant past failed to cooperate and died out as a result” (Buchanan, p. 134).

So, what might happen to us as people, who are “wired,” either socially or biologically, for social connection when we are cut off from one another? In other words, “What is the psychological impact of this separation and isolation?”

On August 21, 2020, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) reported that “53% of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to the worry and stress over the coronavirus.” This was an increase of 21 percentage points from what was reported in March, 2020. The article goes on to explain that research links social isolation to poor mental and physical health and increased anxiety. COVID, like many other epidemics, has “been shown to induce general stress” (KFF), across the general population.  Additionally, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there has been a rise in unfavorable mental health issues, substance use, and suicidal ideation reported by adults in the United States in June 2020. The CDC goes on to report, “The prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5% versus 8.1%), and prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3% versus 6.5%).” It is clear that COVID is having a direct and devastating impact on mental health in the United States, and it would be a fair assumption that we all know someone who is experiencing increased emotional distress as a result of COVID; and one of those “someones” may be ourselves.

While not to minimize its impact on us right now, the expression of mental and emotional health concerns during COVID related to social isolation may be a magnified expression of the impact of disconnectedness and social isolation that may occur in organizations during so-called “normal” times. In other words, fragmentation, isolation, and non-imposed social distancing may also exist in our organizations during non-COVID times, resulting in the same mental health concerns, but perhaps not on the same scale as COVID has produced.  In a report by Cigna Insurance, a global health services company, entitled Loneliness and the Workplace 2020, 41% of men and 29% of working women reported feeling lonely in their workplace. According to Dr. Doug Nemecek, chief medical officer for Behavioral Health at Cigna, an analysis of one of their surveys concluded that “Loneliness is increasing across the United States and that people who are lonely are less engaged at work and feel less productive at work.”  Magnify this “typical” loneliness that exists in the workplace by the isolation that is a result of COVID and we have a recipe for disaster relative to mental health.  It seems the Beatles were prophetic in their 1966 song “Eleanor Rigby,” in which they penned the lyrics, “Ah, look at all the lonely people…”

COVID’s impact on mental health is not a simple problem. Looking at it through the systems lens, there are many interrelated factors contributing to the situation. There is no one answer to the situation, although an effective and readily available COVID vaccine would certainly be a great place to begin. However, while the vaccine would address our physical health, it would not mitigate the mental health issues that have erupted or address the overall concern about isolation and loneliness in the workplace, as identified by CIGNA. Perhaps COVID can be the impetus for us to examine and address loneliness and its consequential lack of engagement in the workplace. To that end, I would like to offer ONE way to think about the issue and offer ONE strategy to address it.

In his seminal work, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Stephen Covey’s Habit 5, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood” offers a reasonable conceptual framework through which to view and address the problem. Seeking first to understand requires individuals to first listen to others. Dr. Covey tells us that being listened to and understood is like “psychological air” and offers five levels of listening. The fifth, “empathic listening” is the level that is most appropriate for this conversation, for

When we empathically listen, we immerse ourselves in understanding how the other person is thinking and feeling. We actively push our own perspective out of our mind and heart and instead try to walk with them, see as they see and feel as they feel” (

While empathetic listening has great value and provides “psychological air,” following through on and acting on expressed needs when possible might be even more powerful for it sends a clear message that “Not only did I hear you, but I am acting on what I heard.”

One method for doing just that – listening with empathy and taking action based on the feedback – is “Rounding for Outcomes.” Rounding is not a new concept, although there are likely numerous perspectives on what it means and how it is actionized. In the 1970’s, Hewlett-Packard developed the practice of “Management by Walking Around” (MBWA). This process consisted of “managers wandering around, in an unstructured manner, through the workplace(s), at random, to check with employees, equipment, or on the status of ongoing work” (  However, Dr. Deming believed that “Management by walking around” is hardly ever effective either. The reason is that someone in management, walking around, has little idea about what questions to ask, and usually does not pause long enough at any spot to get the right answer”(Orsini, J., 2013, p. 18).

Rounding, specifically Studer Education’s “rounding for outcomes,” is a tactic used to increase employee engagement and build relationships. Through this process leaders

…get to know them (employees), what they like, what they relate to, the people who are most important to them, and other things that define employees as individuals. When leaders round, they recognize employees’ needs, which are to feel cared for, to develop their skills through training, and to have the resources they need to do their jobs. (

Leader rounding, one of Studer Education’s “always behaviors,” is a systematic approach in which leaders meet regularly with direct reports and ask the following four questions:

  1. What’s working well?
  2. Are there any individuals who have been especially helpful to you whom I could recognize?
  3. Do you have the resources to do your job?
  4. Is there anything that we could do better?

(Studer and Pilcher, 2013, p. 209)

During these rounding conversations, leaders take notes, capturing information that includes requests for actions.  For the purpose of this paper, we will focus on questions three and four (“Do you have the resources to do your job?” and “Is there anything that we can do better?”), for they are a call to action for leaders. To demonstrate transparency and accountability, leaders take action on responses to these questions and follow up by creating what is known as a “stoplight report.” The stoplight report, updated regularly and shared publicly with the entire staff, includes three color-coded columns based on the feedback received from questions three and four during rounding visits:

Green: These are items from the rounding conversations that have already been addressed by leadership.

Yellow: These are items from the rounding conversations that are still in progress.

Red: These are items from the rounding conversations that cannot be addressed and includes supporting rationale.

Studer Education’s “rounding for outcomes” process, has many benefits including:

  • Demonstrating to employees that they are valued
  • Increasing staff engagement, which correlates with quality outcomes
  • Communicating an openness to “listen to understand”

(Lane, 2018)

With these benefits, along with others, “rounding for outcomes” is one method leaders can deploy that addresses isolation and loneliness and the feeling that “no one is listening/no one cares.” It operationalizes Dr. Covey’s habit of “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” and provides the “psychological air” that we desire as human beings. While many strategies may exist for acknowledging people, “rounding for outcomes” also provides a systematic method for listening and acting on the things that are important to people in our organizations.

One of my favorite movies is 2009’s Avatar. In this movie, the Na’vi, the native inhabitants of the alien world Pandora, greet one another in a very unique way. They say, “I see you.”  This not only means that they see the physical presence of another, but that, “I see who you are; I see and acknowledge that you exist.”  This is similar to the phrase “Sawu bona” from the tribes in Northern Natal in South Africa, that literally translates to, “I see you, you are important to me, and I value you.” Both of these greetings, “I see you” and “Sawu bona” communicate the existence, validation and acceptance of others. These are sentiments leaders can and, given our situation today, must convey to those they lead.

Finally, in the Beatles famous song “Eleanor Rigby” two questions are posed:

  • All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
  • All the lonely people, where do they all belong?

During this time of COVID-driven isolation and loneliness, and the accompanying challenges to mental health, answering the second rather than the first question may be paramount. Finding and operationalizing systematic methods to help people belong and recognize their sense of belonging – even after COVID is over – may be more important than ever for leaders to address.


Buchanan, M. (2007). The Social Atom: Why the rich get richer, cheaters get caught, and your neighbor usually looks like you. Bloomsbury USA.

Cameron, J. (Director). 2009. Avatar [Film]. 20th Century Fox.

Chidambaram, P., Cox, C., Garfield, R., Hamel, L.,  Kamal, R., Munana, Orgera, K., Panchal, N. (Aug. 21, 2020).  The implications of COVID-19 for mental health and substance abuse.  Retrieved from

Covey, S. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. Simon & Schuster

Czeisler M., Lane, R., Petrosky, E., Wiley, J., Christensen, A., Njai, R., Weaver, M., Robbins, R., Facer-Childs, E., Barger, L., Czeisler, C., Howard, M., MBBS, Rajaratnam, S. (2020, August 14). Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Davis, W. (July 23, 2018) The levels of listening.  Retrieved from

Eisenberg, R. (Feb. 25, 2020) Who’s lonely at work and why. Retrieved from .

Goldratt, E., Cox, J. (2014). The goal: A process of ongoing improvement (3rd Edition).  North River Press Publishing Co.

Lane, M. (2018). Rounding for Outcomes [PowerPoint Slides].

Leader rounding: the most important tactic for employee engagement. (2017, February 6).

Management by walking around. (2020, November 27). In Wikipedia.

McCartney, P., Lennon. J. (1966). Eleanor Rigby. [Recorded by The Beatles] on The Yellow Submarine [Record]. London, England. EMI.

Orsini, J. (2012). The essential deming: Leadership principles from the father of quality. W Edwards Deming Institute.

Sawubona: An African Tribe’s Beautiful Greeting. (2018, October 17-.  Retrieved from

Studer, Q. & Pilcher, J. (2015). Maximize performance: Creating a culture for educational excellence. Fire Starter Publishing

Ackoff on Leadership and Transformation

Guest post by John Hunter, author of the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog (since 2004).

This is the first video from a day with Russell Ackoff presentation (from 2004). As always, Dr. Ackoff does a great job of providing insight in an easy to listen to package. We are lucky to be able to so easily access such great content.

The possibility for improvement is huge; but the improvement requires the transformation of a corporation from a mindset that characterizes the the age we are coming out of to the age we are going into.

Unfortunately, that transformation is still a potential instead of a reality. We have made some improvements in the management of our organizations since Ackoff gave this presentation but those improvements are fairly minor in my opinion. The potential for improvement is so promising but our progress is frustratingly slow. If we would listen to Russell Ackoff, W. Edwards Deming, and others we highlight on this blog, I think we could make great progress.

In this presentation, Dr. Ackoff recommends Jan Carlzon’s book: Moments of Truth as one of the few that provides insight into leadership.

As usual Dr. Ackoff’s talk is peppered with insight into appreciation for a system:

What you have to do is start with the whole and then evaluate manipulation of the parts in terms of their affect on the whole, not their affect on the part taken separately.

We often use the excuse that we would act differently if only we could, but, as Ackoff says:

The principle obstruction between us and where we want to be is us.

Such a simple idea, but very powerful. Take action to create the organization you want to be a part of.

See more conference presentations exploring Dr. Deming’s ideas.

Related: Leading The Transformation Process

From Flat to Round: Is Educational Transformation Possible?

Guest Post by Dr. Doug Stilwell, Drake University

“The transformation Dr. Deming is asking us to do – the mental model transformation – is more difficult than the transformation from a flat earth to a round earth. . . and that was a big deal several hundred years ago.”

-Dr. Myron Tribus

Our current system of education, born of the industrial age, was designed and perfectly aligned for what was needed at that time in our history; to prepare people to work in factories that came into existence during the industrial revolution. The mental models that were the foundation of these factories were the same mindsets that created the schools. However, 150 years later, we are no longer in the throes of an industrial revolution. Rather, we are in what some refer to as the information/digital age, which requires a different mind and skill set. Unfortunately, in many ways, education has not made the appropriate modifications to adapt to what our world and economy require or to what we now know about brain research, systems, variation, building knowledge, and psychology and their application to learning.

There have been multiple attempts at educational reform in our country, including but not limited to:

  • The National Defense Education Act (1958)
  • The Elementary and Secondary Act (1965)
  • The Educate America Act (1994)
  • No Child Left Behind (2001)
  • American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009)
  • Every School Succeeds Act (2015)

While this paper is not intended to dive deeply into each of these efforts, it does cause one to wonder what impact these well-intended efforts, individually and collectively, have had on transforming our educational system and improving educational outcomes for the millions of students served. We could likely have lively and lengthy conversations as to why we believe these efforts have or have not yielded the desired effects, but that is not the purpose of this particular paper.

With so many attempts and so few examples of successful educational transformation to point to, we might well wonder if such a transformation is even possible. To that end, the purpose of this writing is not to conduct an extensive look at and argument about educational reform efforts, but rather to provide a real-life case study of a successful transformation that took place at the most fundamental unit of education – the classroom – and to give hope to readers that transformation is possible at both the micro and macro levels of the system, so long as one possesses the profound knowledge, skills, tools, and a desire to do so.

First, a comment about transformation. Based on the ideas of Dr. Russell Ackoff, transformation is a creative process that does not occur through incremental steps of improvement. While continuous improvement efforts are important to the ongoing improvement of any organization, transformation is a discontinuous and creative “leapfrog” effort that “breaks the chains before it” (Ackoff, 1994). It requires, in the words of Dr. Stephen Covey, the “breaking with” old ways of thinking.  In other words, transformation requires new insights and knowledge not likely existent in one’s current system or way of thinking.

During my tenure as superintendent of the Urbandale (Iowa) Community School District, I had the good fortune to observe first-hand the successful transformation of a classroom, and its teacher; a transformation that resulted in improved student engagement, parent satisfaction and learning outcomes. It is this experience that I will share, and it is indeed a celebration!

Steve Mefford served as an eighth grade science teacher at Urbandale Middle School. I first met Steve 34 years ago when I was a volleyball coach at an area high school and he was a student assistant in the program. In 2011 when he began his transformation efforts, Steve was a veteran educator with 14 years of teaching experience. Steve describes himself, at that point in his career, as the “epitome of a traditional teacher,” someone who taught one lesson each day, taken directly from a text book. A typical lesson in his class included a teacher-led review of the previous day’s lesson, the teacher-led new lesson, worktime and questions. He believes that students would likely have described his classroom as a boring “sit and get” teacher-led experience, in which they were passive recipients of the planned lesson and given little opportunity to interact beyond the traditional question/answer portion of the lesson (S. Mefford, personal communication, September 21, 2020). Despite this, I also happen to know, based on my role in the district, that Steve’s evaluations indicated he was an effective and successful teacher. His results were typical of what we would expect in Urbandale; but then, something happened. . .

In 2010, Urbandale began its transformational journey through what we called Q/CI: Quality and Continual Improvement, informed and influenced in large part by the work of people “outside” of the K-12 educational system: Dr. W. Edwards Deming and Dr. Peter M. Senge. The initial step in our approach was to expose and educate our people to new and transformational concepts and practices, which included three consecutive years of hosting David Langford’s Four-Day Quality Learning Seminar (based on the work of Dr. Deming) in which over 250 of our teachers and administrators (about 72%) voluntarily participated. At this point, we did not force our staff to implement, but rather we “taught the masses and worked with the willing,” encouraging and supporting those who wished to operationalize their new learning. Steve was one of those early adopters, and this became the point at which his personal transformation began; for as he says, he was given the opportunity to experiment in his classroom without external pressures for how his classes needed to run. He was able to “focus on improvement with freedom and a safety net, free from fear of failure” (S. Mefford, personal communication, September 21, 2020).

With a new theory to guide his work, over the course of the spring and summer of 2011, Steve began thinking about how to improve his classroom environment in order to provide students more voice and choice relative to their learning and sketched out how this would look in his first three units of study (the “plan” phase of PDSA). He began small by providing students choices of learning opportunities relative to the content being covered and then sought their feedback regarding their levels of engagement and enjoyment in this new learning environment. As time progressed, he offered a full menu of choices and encouraged students to work collaboratively.  Over time, Steve’s role transformed from being the traditional “sage on the stage” to being a facilitator of learning by effectively designing and managing a dynamic, student-focused learning environment. He discovered that by managing his learning system in this manner, he was freed up to better meet individual student learning needs through “on-time” instruction/intervention. He also learned that student behavior was no longer an issue, for students were actively engaged in meaningful learning opportunities about which they provided ongoing feedback to continually improve the system. In short, this newly designed system of learning turned over greater control and responsibility to students for their learning.  To reference the wisdom of ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, rather than “feeding” students, Steve “taught them to fish,” so that they could “feed” themselves.

To accomplish this, structures and processes needed to be developed and operationalized. They included:

  • The development of student learning requirements that included what students needed to know and be able to do as a result of being in class, written in “student-friendly” terms
  • Learning goals, which described how students would meet or exceed learning requirements
  • A classroom mission statement, developed with student input to establish an agreed upon purpose
  • Posting classroom learning results (with no individual students identified), in graphical form to chart results and progress on learning goals throughout any given learning cycle

To support their newly gained autonomy as learners, each student was provided a capacity matrix; a charting tool created by David Langford that is used to break down topic areas into steps for achieving a specific result (see example below). This tool allows students to track their own learning; another method to engender ownership.

Capacity matrix utilized in Steve Mefford’s science course

Steve also taught/reinforced the use of additional learning strategies that included summarizing and note-taking, cooperative learning, homework and practice, use of manipulatives, and developing their scientific vocabulary.

As a result of this transformation, many improvements were noted:

  1. Student achievement rose dramatically. The Iowa Science Assessments showed an improvement from 77% student proficiency to 90% proficiency. On district science assessments, student proficiency rose from 81% to scores in the 90’s.
  2. Student engagement improved as well, with the percent of students with a negative experience in science class dropping from 6% to 1%.
  3. Parent satisfaction rose from 85% to 90%.


  • Late work decreased as did student behavioral issues.
  • Other teachers, observing the success of the transformation “got on board” with the new principles
  • Students formed their own study groups

A true team-player, Steve admits that administrative support was key to his success. This support included:

  • Opportunities to learn through conferences, workshops, and professional development
  • Supports, not mandates: “seeds were planted”
  • No fear existed and permission was given to “fail forward”
  • Ongoing feedback was provided
  • Structures were put into place to support the transformation process

Steve learned a great deal as well, including:

  • Students can learn what to do and how to do it and will make good choices when the system is designed and managed properly
  • Students are honest and will provide feedback to improve
  • Students can help each other
  • A teacher can “let go” of external control and still be successful

Through this experience, Steve was transformed as a teacher and as a result:

  • Became a more effective teacher
  • Designed and managed a better learning environment
  • Provide greater student ownership, giving them “voice and choice”
  • Developed a greater ability to increase student learning
  • Saw the system and how everything impacts everything else
  • Learned about the importance of “up-front work”
  • Was able to provide students “on-time” support because there was time in the new system which he established
  • Realized, in a profound way, that “once transformed. . . one cannot go back”
  • Became a leader and role model in the district

Steve Mefford now serves as the Facilitator of Curriculum and Professional Learning in Urbandale, a position that allows him to nurture transformation at the district level. His experience is a shining affirmation that educational transformation is possible, for the principles he applied in his classroom can be applied at all levels throughout the entire system. However, transformation is not based on the newest fad or any single program.  Rather, it is a process that requires a significant shift in mindset rooted in Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge and requiring vulnerability, constancy of purpose, and a willingness to put in the work necessary to make transformation a reality.

Do you believe transformation is possible? I do, for I have seen and experienced it myself and, like Steve, can never go back to my old way of viewing education and learning. I believe we can all do likewise for the betterment of our students if we follow Steve’s lead and develop a profoundly new mindset and new approach to our work.

To learn more about transforming your classroom school, or district please contact Dr. Doug Stilwell, Assistant Professor Educational Leadership, Drake University at:


Ackoff, R. 2010, October 23). If russ ackoff had given a ted talk… [Video file]. YouTube.

Clark, A. (2010, January 14). A timeline of major educational reform since 1958. Racing to the Top: All about the race to the top education reform initiative.

Covey, S.R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change (1st ed.). Simon and Schuster

Higgins, T. (Host). (2017 July/August 2017). New economics study session, episode 5 [Audio podcast]. Deming Institute.

Langford, D. (2015). Tool time for education: Choosing and Implementing Quality Improvement Tools. Langford International.

Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Currency Books.

2020 Deming Prize Winners

Guest post by John Hunter, author of Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

The Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers (JUSE) has announced the 2020 Deming Prize winners.

Image of the Deming Prize medal (profile of Dr. Deming)

One of the good aspects about how the Deming Prize is managed is that each year it is awarded to those found worthy. There are no minimum or maximum number of awards to be given each year. This year only 1 organization received the Deming Prize (in 2019 5 companies did).

Since 2000, organizations based in India have received the most Deming Prizes (Japan is second and Thailand is third).

Distribution of winning organizations since 2000 (including prizes for 2020):

  • India – 32
  • Japan – 21
  • Thailand – 12
  • China – 3
  • USA – 2
  • Indonesia – 1
  • Singapore – 1
  • Taiwan – 1

2020 Deming Prize for Individuals:

  • Mr. Shinichi Sasaki – Former Executive Vice President, Toyota Motor Corporation
    President and CEO, Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers

No Deming Grand Prizes were award in 2020. An organization may apply for the Deming Grand Prize three years or more after it has received the Deming Prize.

Learn More

Related: 2020 Deming Prize application guide2019 Deming Prize Winners2014 Deming Prize Winners

Deming on Management: Customer Focus

Guest post by John Hunter, founder of the

Our Deming on Management series provides resources for those interested in learning more about particular topics related to W. Edwards Deming’s ideas. View our previous Deming on Management posts, including: leadership, psychology and the PDSA cycle.

As I stated in Creating a Deep Commitment to Delighting Customers:

Those organizations that can delight customers today and take the steps today that position the organization to delight customers in the future will prosper and grow. But building and maintaining a management culture that reinforces delighting customers and long term thinking is quite difficult.

Successfully delighting customers requires much more than a wish that customers were delighted with our organization. It requires knowing what your customers want and creating system that can reliably delivering that to customers. It requires insight into the changing marketplace and evolving customer needs so that you can create what will be desired in the future. It requires creating an organization that people who are committed to delighting customers want to work for. It requires a sustainable business plan that is robust and able to succeed over the long term. It requires a management system is designed to allow those interacting with customers to delight them. It requires knowing how to use data to continually improve (which requires an understand of variation).

Creating such an organization is not easy but it is possible and the resources listed below can help.

quote image - text: New product and new types of service are generated, not by asking the consumer, but by knowledge, imagination, innovation, risk, trial and error on the part of the producer, backed by enough capital to develop the product or service and to stay in business during the lean months of introduction.

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Deming Institute Podcast: Deming Guide to Layoffs

Guest post by John Hunter, author of the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog (since 2004).

The Deming Institute Podcast is hosted by Tripp Babbitt. A recent podcast looked at the Dr. W. Edwards Deming Guide to Layoffs.

what Dr. Deming said about layoffs and downsizing, that if you face a decline, that there’s five steps in essence that you need to take.

Tripp Babbitt: [00:05:42] And the first is that you cut the corporate dividends or you cut them out. The second is salaries and bonuses of top management are cut. The third is management. Salaries of top to middle management are cut. The fourth step is rank and file are asked to accept pay up pay cuts. And the fifth is reduction in workforce through attrition, voluntary discharge and early retirement.

Deming Institute podcast icon

I have written about how to manage when layoffs may be necessary, most extensively in: Bad Management Results in Layoffs. I think you will see similarity in my posts to what Tripp discussed.

You will also see some different focuses between Tripp’s podcast and my post, and even between my posts. Partially this is because with podcasts, blog posts, articles and presentations taking on complex topics, you can only address a small part of the topic. Hopefully the material is helpful but you cannot expect it to be comprehensive (similar to the ideas I expressed in: Don’t Expect Short Quotes to Tell the Whole Story).

Also, in my opinion, each situation is unique and exactly what is called for depends on that situation. I think all those practicing Deming’s idea would agree the company should take significant efforts to care for those employees (offering them jobs in a different part of the company, etc.). I can imagine cases where layoffs make sense without cutting dividends. One of the features of Deming’s management ideas is that while there are principles that are consistent, they must be applied by thinking people to the specific situation. This is one of the reasons this blog, Tripp’s podcasts, conference presentations, books, etc. are so valuable. Reading about how numerous people who are applying Deming’s ideas think about the application of Deming’s ideas is important to figuring out how to apply them to your unique situation.

In another recent podcast, Tripp listed his Top 5 Favorite Deming Institute Podcast Episodes. The Deming Institute podcasts can be used in a similar way to the conference presentations I mentioned recently in the post on creating your own virtual management conference. A few additional podcasts I recommend: Process Behavior Charts are the Secret to Understanding the Organization as a System, Using Dr. Deming’s Ideas at Baptist Memorial Health Care and Ron Moen and Cliff Norman Discuss the Evolution of Deming’s Management Ideas.

And those Tripp and I have highlighted are just a few of those available. Take a look at the existing catalog to expand your understanding. Remember to subscribe to the podcast. Also if you haven’t subscribed to our blog yet, you can subscribe to our blog (note that your subscription might have been broken when we moved our blog to a different server).

But it Doesn’t Mean Anything

Guest Post by Dr. Doug Stilwell, Drake University

In my last paper, I wrote of a 1994 exchange between myself and my then supervisor, Dr. Doug Buchanan, in which during my evaluation at the end of my first year of being a principal, I shared I wanted to “change the educational world.” He paused and insightfully and correctly said to me I “needed to know something first” in order to have anything of value to share with anyone.  While I believe Dr. Buchanan was telling me I needed “profound knowledge,” the notion of “knowing something” also suggests having some degree of knowledge about, in my case, the world of education, specifically the school I was leading at that time.  Knowing things – possessing knowledge – helps one to begin the process of inquiry and improvement.

But what type of knowledge must one possess in order to make improvements, say, in student learning?  The universal mantra of being “data-driven” can lead one to believe that if we simply accumulate data, we will somehow divine what to do next.  But data or information according to Dr. W. Edwards Deming, is not the same as knowledge; something he tells us for which there is no substitute.  Quantitative data, the type we typically collect and analyze in education, is simply a set of numbers/values – results of some sort of assessment – and means, on its own, absolutely nothing.  The reader may disagree, but let me make my case for this by making a connection from a scene from the classic musical, The Sound of Music.

If you have seen the movie, or the play, you will recall the scene where Maria was attempting to teach the seven von Trapp children to sing; something that had been missing from their home since the death of their mother.  During the “Do-Re-Mi” sequence Maria sang a series of notes, “do, so, la, fa, mi, do, re,” based on a musical theory known as “solfege,” in which every note in the major scale has a certain unique syllable (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do), and asked the children to repeat what she had sung.  Maria continued to build on the complexity of her sequence, which the children, of course, repeated beautifully.  It was at the height of this complexity of seemingly disconnected notes that the youngest of the von Trapp children, Gretl, tugs at Maria’s skirt and bravely announces, “But it doesn’t mean anything;” and she was correct.  What the children were singing appeared to be random notes (data) that lacked meaning. . . until Maria emphasized this was a melody made up of the notes and then added the lyrics, “When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything.”  In other words, Maria provided a context through which to understand and make meaning of the data (notes).

Educators are asked – no; directed – to be “data-driven,” and I have come to believe that this mantra may be the wrong approach to advocate, for while it is well-intended, without a deeper understanding and appreciation for making meaning of data, it may result in “doing the wrong things ‘righter’” (see previous article with the same title).  We might look at the data, sometimes just one or two data points, believe we understand what it means (which may be a dangerous assumption) and then take action to improve the data.  This observation is not a criticism of educators, but of the educational system; one that is too heavily driven by numbers without context and meaning, and one that may not prepare educators to be “meaning-makers” of data.  As an example of the latter, in graduate school there is typically some requisite course in “educational research” and through the experience, educators learn how to manipulate statistical data using descriptive and inferential statistics employing statistical tools and processes that support their formal research.  And while these tools and methods have value in undertaking academic research, there is a question as to whether they prepare educators in the field – on the front lines – to make sense of student data.

So, “by what method” might we pragmatically develop knowledge and make meaning that leads to action and improvement when confronted with student data that we collect?  Let me offer two examples.  One method comes from category seven (Results) of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Framework, communicated in the form of an acronym – LeTCI (pronounced “letsee” – emphasis on “lets”).  The “LeTCI” framework focuses on the following:

  • Le – current levels of performance
  • T – Performance trends over time. In Baldrige, a minimum of three consecutive data points, at minimum, in any direction is required to be considered a trend.
  • C – Making Comparisons with like students or groups
  • I Integration, to determine to what degree our results measure what matters.

Through the LeTCI method, educators determine at what level a student, or group of students, are performing.  They would then look at multiple data points to determine if any trends, positive or negative, are present.  Then, they compare the data with “like” students or groups, being careful not to use the data to rank, sort, or judge students, but rather, as Dr. Deming reminds us, to use results to help us coach and improve others’ performance.  And, finally, determine if what is being measured is actually what is important to the school district and its customers – parents and the community.  Through this examination and “meaning making” of the data, we can better understand what the data means in order to develop, implement, and monitor effective improvement plans.

Another method to assist in bringing meaning to data is through Walter Shewhart’s control chart and understanding the concept of variation.  In a control chart, data plotted and calculated over time returns three important results: the mean score of the data set, the upper control limit (three standard deviations above the mean) and the lower control limit (three standard deviations below the mean).  When results lie within the upper and lower control limits, the data, or system, is said to be stable.  When the data/system is stable, it tells us that the results/data are caused by the system.  When data lies outside the upper or lower control limits, there is something outside the system – something special – that has caused those results.  As an example, if student tardy data were entered into a control chart and one student’s tardies exceeded the upper control limit, it would be necessary to investigate the reason the student was so often late.  The investigation might uncover the fact that the student’s parent works the “overnight shift” and has difficulty getting up in the morning, causing the student to come late to school.  Understanding whether results are caused by the system (common cause) or something unique (special cause) then leads to either focus on improving the system or giving special attention to a special cause.  Without understanding what is causing the results (the system or a special cause), we may incorrectly attempt to either intervene our way out of a systemic issue or change the entire system for one unique situation.  Either way, our efforts toward improvement will likely fail.

Let me provide an example of a control chart and how it might be interpreted.  Below are 13 years’ worth of annual reading data results from different years of students at the same grade level in a school district in Iowa.  Note that the mean score is approximately 292 while the lower control limit is approximately 281 and the upper control limit is 304.

First, notice that all data points fall between the upper and lower control limits, which means the system is stable.  Without understanding variation while interpreting the data, focusing solely on the results from 2004 might provoke the following inquiry:  “What happened in 2004 and what was done to correct course?”  An understanding of variation tells us that while 2004 had the lowest result, it was still within the upper and lower control limits; meaning there was nothing particularly “special” about this group of students and their results.  In truth, no corrective actions were taken in response to the 2004 results, for what we see in this control chart is “normal variation,” caused by the system.  To have the system respond to a single data point, such as 2004, by changing the entire system – particularly since it falls within the upper and lower control limits – would be known as “tampering” with the system and might do more harm than good.  That said, because the 2004 group was close to being below the lower control limit, I would pay attention to the group as they moved through the system to ensure they were making adequate progress.

Keep in mind that having a stable system does not mean one must be satisfied with the results.  In the control chart above, there should be two goals over time:

  1. Raise the mean
  2. Reduce the amount of variation between results (aka reduce standard deviation)

The theory behind the control chart relates directly to what educators know as MTSS (Multi-tiered Systems of Support), which is based on the theory that:

  • 80% of students (Tier 1) will have their instructional needs met, will be met through whole-class “universal instruction”
  • 10-15% of students (Tier 2) will require small group interventions and
  • 5-10% of students (Tier 3) will need intensive, individualized support

In other words, the vast majority of student needs will be met by the “system” (Tier 1).  Some will require a bit more support (Tier 2), and a very small percentage will receive more than the system provides in tiers one and two.  To make the control chart connection, students in Tiers 1 and 2 will have their needs met by what typically happens in the system, while Tier 3 students would be characterized as “special cause” requiring special supports that go beyond what the systems offers to everyone.

Control charts also help us to highlight the misunderstood and misapplied concept of “average” and that of being above or below average.  Notice two things about the data in the control chart in this light:

  1. Not one data point lies exactly at the mean.  This supports the thesis of the book The End of Average in which author Todd Rose (2016) explains in greater detail that “average” is a mythical concept; an arithmetic calculation that leads to what he refers to as “averagarian” thinking, which espouses that we can understand individuals by looking at averages.  In other words, “The mathematical concept of averages has its purposes, but it’s irrelevant when applied to human nature.” (
  2. The reality is that some student and/or group results will be above and some will be below average, a fact that makes sense. . . once you think about it.  When data from which the mean is derived are plotted relative to the mean, arithmetically approximately half of the results should be above average and half below.  In the example above, six data points out of 13 fall “below average.”  What does it mean? – certainly not as much as we make of it, for if the entire population of the world was given the same assessment on any given day, approximately half of the world would score “below average.”  However it can be devastating for parents to hear their children are labeled “below average.”  The reality here is that the only place where “all children are above average” is in Garrison Keillor’s mythical town of Lake Wobegon.

So what can we do to make better sense of data to help guide our decisions as educators?  Here are some simple questions that may guide meaning-making of data:

  1. Have we collected the “right” data?  In other words, are we actually measuring and collecting data based on what we value and wish to improve?
  2. Have we collected ample data?  During my own tenure as a school principal, I can attest to the practice of developing annual building goals around student achievement by typically looking at the results of the most recent set of standardized tests, a practice in which I know I was not alone.
  3. Do we have an assortment of data that helps to paint a more complete picture of performance?  One data source tells only part of the picture.
  4. Is the system stable or unstable and how volatile is the variation?  If the system is unstable, a leader’s first job is to make it stable.
  5. Can we determine root cause from the data?  The data are merely symptoms.  Simply examining scores and results does not tell us what caused the results.  Determining root cause of the results will direct improvement efforts at fundamental causes rather than symptoms.  Lower-than-desired results is not the problem; they are a symptom of a problem.  It’s like understanding that a high pulse rate taken on the wrist does not mean there is a problem with the wrist; it’s merely a symptom of something else, in this case, the heart.

Improving learning results, or any results for that matter, requires that that we know something first.  The first thing we need to know is that despite a call to do otherwise, data should not drive decisions in schools.  Dr. Deming would likely tell us that we need to go deeper than being “data driven.”  Data is simply information, and Dr. Deming tells us that what we need is knowledge.  At the most fundamental level we need to be able to answer the question, “What did the data help us to learn?”  The answer to this question then helps us to develop and operationalize an improvement theory.

What education needs is two-fold:

  1. Adequate training for educators to make better sense and meaning out of data.  This will lead to…
  2. Individuals who have the knowledge to understand what the data does and does not mean in order to inform decisions that are made regarding potential actions to be taken to improve student learning results.

Relative to these recommendations, I encourage educators to become familiar with Baldrige’s LeTCI and Shewhart’s control charts, for they can be key to developing the requisite knowledge to make wise decisions relative to improving student learning and will eliminate “knee-jerk” reactions to data that “doesn’t mean anything.”

To learn more about making meaning of educational data and the Drake Continual Improvement Network, contact Dr. Doug Stilwell at


Deming, W. (2018). The new economics for industry, government, education (3rd ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for Advanced Educational Services.

Rose, T. (2016). The end of average: How we succeed in a world that values sameness. New York: HarperCollins.

Rose, T. (n.d.). The end of average summary and review. Retrieved from

Wise. R. (Producer and Director). (1965). The sound of music [Motion Picture]. United States: 20th Century Fox.


Create Your Own On-Demand Management Conference

Guest post by John Hunter, author of Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

The Covid-19 crisis has created many challenges to standard ways of working. Attending conferences provides a useful way to learn and improve your management understanding. Given the challenges of 2020, I would like to remind you that we make many of our past conference presentations available online for free.

I invite you to take advantage of these great presentations to create your own personal conference. Or set aside some time each week to watch one presentation; don’t forget to include some time to think about how you can apply the ideas to improve management in your organization.

Here are some options to get you started:

Who’s Got Profound Knowledge?

Guest Post by Dr. Doug Stilwell, Drake University

Let me share a true story with you. It was late spring in 1994. I was nearing the completion of my first year as a principal in the West Des Moines Community (Iowa) School District and it was time for my end-of-year evaluation. I sat in the office of my supervisor, Dr. Doug Buchanan, where we reviewed the marks and explanatory comments he had given me on the evaluation.  Whew…most items “met the standard” with a few “exceeding.” At the completion of the formal portion of the review, Dr. Buchanan pushed back from his desk and asked me the following question: “What are you thinking about for the future?” I paused for a moment, thinking somewhat deeply about what he asked. “Well,” I responded confidently, “I think I would like to start doing some speaking and presenting at workshops and conferences.” Dr. Buchanan paused and then responded with six simple words that stick with me to this day.  “Doug,” he said leaning back in his chair and looking directly at me, “….you have to know something first” (C.D. Buchanan, personal communication, 1994).

“I have to know something first?” I thought angrily. “I have to know something first? You’ve got to be kidding!” I was coming to the end of a pretty successful school year in my rookie year as a principal, a position I had been hired into directly from my role a classroom teacher, in this highly-respected district in Iowa and I thought I was ready to do some “big things” moving forward.  His words cut through me, deflating the bravado that had led to my response to his question.

Those six words, “You have to know something first,” have stuck with and driven me the past 26 years, so much so that I was honored to have Dr. Buchanan serve as a member of my doctoral dissertation committee in 2004. Upon the successful defense of my work, he said to me in good humor, “Well, you finally know something!” for I had reminded him many times over the years of his “need to know something first” comment.

When I think of those six words and the sentiment behind them, I now think that Dr. Buchanan’s urging me to “know something” was likely intended to go far beyond the requisite content knowledge needed to be competent in one’s career. Without using the exact words, I now think Dr. Buchanan was telling me that what I needed was “profound knowledge” before I would ever be able to share anything of importance and relevance. The aim of this writing is to examine and build an understanding of profound knowledge, in perhaps some unique ways, and to ask and answer whether, and to what degree, it is needed in education.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming is renowned for developing the “System of Profound Knowledge.”  It was the result of his own learning and thinking and, while always under his own scrutiny, served as the theoretical  framework for his work. It consists of four interrelated components: appreciation for a system, psychology, variation, and theory of knowledge and is operationalized in many ways, including through his “14 Points for Managers.” However, it is his use of the term “profound” that often created a sense of consternation for me.  What causes an understanding of systems, psychology, knowledge of variation, and theory of knowledge to be considered “profound” knowledge?  When asked this question Dr. Deming simply answered, “Because it is profound” (Baker, 2017, p. 94). Enough said?  Well…not yet.

Beyond its application to Dr. Deming’s work, what is meant by the term profound? In his book, The Symphony of Profound Knowledge: W. Edwards Deming’s Score for Leading, Performing, and Living in Concert, Edward Baker provided a background for understanding by asking and answering the question, “Why did Deming call his system of knowledge ‘profound’?” (2017, p. 94):

Religious scholars and wisdom teachers have used the adjective to characterize knowledge that reflects a way of being.  Profound knowledge was viewed as a guide to daily living, to the thinking and values that are manifested in the daily conduct of one’s life…The term ranges in application and characterization from broad, total knowledge to deep, specialized knowledge. The term has been used to refer to wisdom and morality (p. 94).

In the book The Improvement Guide: A Practical Approach to Enhancing Organizational Performance (2009), the authors tell us that the word profound signifies deep insight and knowledge. defines profound as “penetrating or entering deeply into subjects of thought or knowledge; having deep insight or understanding.” But now let’s move beyond definitions and operationalize the term by examining a couple of examples.  One is from children’s literature and the other from the world of comedy.

From his fantasy novel series, The Chronicles of Narnia, in the book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, author C.S. Lewis wrote about a magical land called Narnia. When the pivotal conflict occurs toward the end of the book, the story’s antagonist, the White Witch, acted upon her knowledge of the “deep magic” of Narnia, killing the story’s protagonist, Aslan.  However, Aslan possessed knowledge of the Narnia’s “deeper magic,” which resulted in “death working backwards,” restoring him to life. In this context, Aslan possessed profound knowledge while the White Witch did not.

Comedians Abbott and Costello’s classic “Who’s on first” routine demonstrates the need for profound knowledge and exposes what can happen when one tries to meaningfully engage in a system without it.  In this timeless comedy routine, Bud Abbott plays the role of the manager of a baseball team who shares current players’ names with Lou Costello, whose character is a player new to the team.  Based on the premise that baseball players on the team have unique names – “Who” is the name of the first baseman, “What” plays second base, and “I Don’t Know” is at third – the routine relies on clever wordplay about which one of the actors (Abbott) possesses profound knowledge and the other (Costello) does not.  Here is brief excerpt from the beginning of the act:

Costello:  Well, I never met the guys, so you’ll have to tell me their names, and then I’ll know who’s playing on the team.

Abbott:  Oh, I’ll tell you their names, but you know strange as it may seem, they give these ball players nowadays, very peculiar names.

Costello:  You mean funny names?

Abbott:  Strange names, pet names. Like, Dizzy Dean, and…

Costello:  His brother Daffy?

Abbott:  Daffy Dean.

Costello:  And their French cousin.

Abbott:  French?

Costello:  Goofe’.

Abbott:  Goofe’ Dean, oh I see! Well let’s see, we have on the bags, we have Who’s on first, What’s on second, and I Don’t Know is on third.

Costello:  That’s what I want to find out.

Abbott:  I say, Who’s on first, What’s on second, and I Don’t Know’s on third.

Costello:  Are you the manager?

Abbott:  Yes.

Costello:  You going to be the coach too?

Abbott:  Yes.

Costello:  And you don’t  know the fellow’s names?

Abbott:  Well I should.

Costello:  Well then who is on first?

Abbott:  Yes.

Costello:  I mean the fellow’s name.

Abbott:  Who.

Costello:  The guy on first.

Abbott:  Who.

Costello:  The first baseman.

Abbott:  Who!

Costello:  The guy playing first base.

Abbott:  Who is on first.

Costello:  I’m asking you who’s on first!

Abbott:  That’s the man’s name.

(Who’s on First, n.d.)

Throughout the entire routine, with Abbott doing his best to share the unique names of the players on the team, Costello is in a constant state of frustrated confusion. However, toward the end of the routine, he believes he has finally caught on and attempts to “play the system.”  Yet, what we find is that Costello, recognizing a pattern in the banter, applies his “working knowledge” incorrectly, revealing once again his lack of deep understanding – aka profound knowledge:

Costello:  Now, the heavy hitter bunts the ball. When he bunts the ball, me being a good catcher, I want to throw the guy out at first base. So I pick up the ball and throw it to who?

Abbott:  Now that’s the first thing that you’ve said right.

Costello:  I don’t even know what I’m talking about!

Abbott:  Well that’s all you have to do!

Costello:  Is throw the ball to first base?

Abbott:  Yes.

Costello:  Now who’s got it?

Abbott:  Naturally.


Costello:  Look, if I throw the ball to first base, somebody’s got to get it. Now who has it?

Abbott:  Naturally.

Costello:  Who?

Abbott:  Naturally.

Costello:  Naturally?

Abbott:  Naturally.

Costello:  So I pick up the ball and throw it to Naturally?

Abbott:  No you don’t! You throw the ball to Who!

Costello:  Naturally.

Abbott:  That’s different.

Costello:  That’s what I said.

Abbott:  You’re not saying that.

Costello:  I throw the ball to Naturally?

Abbott:  You throw it to Who.

Costello:  Naturally.

Abbott:  That’s it.

Costello:  That’s what I said!

Abbott:  Listen, you ask me.

Costello:  I throw the ball to who?

Abbott:  Naturally.

Costello:  Now you ask me.

Abbott:  You throw the ball to Who?

Costello:  Naturally.

Abbott:  That’s it.

Costello:  Same as you!

(Who’s on First, n.d.)

During this exchange, Costello caught on to a pattern and came to believe the first baseman’s name is “Naturally” and although he believes he finally understands, the misapplication of his new yet incorrect insight reveals that nothing could be further from the truth. And, unfortunately, for the unknowing Costello, he never gains the profound knowledge necessary to fully understand what was going on with the baseball team.

I have enjoyed the “Who’s on First” routine many times since I first stumbled upon it in high school, and it has become a wonderful example of the consequences of not possessing the profound knowledge necessary to fully understand what is causing behaviors – or results – in any given situation.  Without this depth of understanding, actions taken will merely address observable, or surface behaviors/results/symptoms that may likely repeat themselves over and over again until root cause is identified and addressed. “Who’s on First” offers a superb lesson about how even looking one level below observable behaviors – recognizing patterns – does not necessarily result in or guarantee profound knowledge.  One must dig deeper.

When I think about the term “profound knowledge” of any sort, I think about knowledge that goes “beneath” that which we observe.  It is knowledge that equates to an understanding of what Dr. Stephen Covey referred to as “principles” in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  Principles, from Dr. Covey’s perspective, are “deep, fundamental truths that have universal application.” (Covey, 1989, p. 35).  He wrote that they are both universal and timeless; that they produce predictable outcomes and are external to ourselves.  Further, he believed they are natural laws that operate with or without our understanding or acceptance and are “essentially unarguable because they self-evident” (p. 35). It would seem that if someone possessed profound knowledge about anything, they would understand the principles that undergird what I would refer to as their working or practical knowledge.

Author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek talks about the need to “start with why,” in other words, developing a compelling reason for doing something before moving to “what” and “how.” This holds true for educators; for without understanding the “why,” or possessing profound knowledge behind our practices, we may be forever caught in an endless cycle of “doing,” waiting for the next “silver bullet” to come around, something which nearly every educator I have ever talked with despises, yet ironically, also participates in, for it is the way in which the “system” seems to work.  Without developing a theory based on principles – or profound knowledge – on which to develop and base actions, we are unable to learn from either our mistakes or successes, for as Dr. Deming tells us, experience is not enough. “Without theory, experience has no meaning. Without theory, one has no questions to ask. Hence, without theory, there is no learning” (Deming, 2018, p. 70).

Educators, in my opinion and based on my 40 years of experience in the field, must possess profound knowledge if we are to ever reach what I refer to as the “escape velocity” required to break loose from the gravity of our current system. But what sort of profound knowledge? A few ideas: 1.) A grasp of how brain research, learning theory, and instructional practices work interdependently to achieve the aim of improving student learning (appreciation for a system);  2.) An understanding of how students and staff are motivated and how they respond to the change that is necessary for improvement (psychology); 3.) An understanding that no two children are the same and the ability to discern when differences in achievement results are caused by the environment (aka the system) versus when they are a result of something unique (variation); and 4.) The ability to construct new knowledge using rigorous strategies such as the plan-do-study-act learning/improvement cycle, and understand information is not knowledge and that knowledge depends on theory (theory of knowledge). In short, I believe a solid grounding in Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge would serve education and educators well. For when understood and applied, it can serve as the vehicle for transformation, transformation from a system well-designed 150 years ago to meet the needs of the time, to one which prepares students for a world yet to exist. Its understanding and implementation will result in classrooms, schools, and school districts where joy in learning, teaching, and leading can be achieved and maintained.

Dr. Buchanan is as right today as he was 26 years ago.  As educators, we really do “need to know something first” and I would like to imagine that Dr. Deming would agree. And while it is certainly important to possess content knowledge, skills and strategies relative to our profession, it is even more important – in fact crucial – that individually and collectively we engender and develop profound knowledge, lest we fall into the trap of never fully understanding that “Who,” rather than “Naturally,” plays first base.

For more information about how the System of Profound Knowledge can be applied in education and the Drake Continual Improvement Network, contact Dr. Doug Stilwell at


Baker, E. (2017). The Symphony of Profound Knowledge: W. Edwards Deming’s Score for Leading, Performing, and Living in Concert. iUniverse.

Covey, S. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. Simon & Schuster.

Deming, E. (2018). The new economics for industry, government, education. MIT Press.

Langley, G., Moen, R., Nolan, K., Nolan, T., Norman, C., Provost, L. (2009). The improvement guide: A practical approach to enhancing organizational performance. Jossey-Bass.

Lewis, C.S. (1950). The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. Geoffrey Bles.

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Penguin Group.

Who’s on First (n.d.). Baseball Almanac. Retrieved August 23, 2020 from

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