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 Deming published over 170 articles, wrote numerous unpublished papers for his students and clients, and conducted hundreds of studies for clients.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.

Seeking Systemic Improvements: Root Cause

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

The idea of looking beyond the most visible problem when seeking to improve is important. If you just address the most visible issue, you often fail to improve the system and instead just add some work to smooth things over if that problem crops up again. You often don’t fix the system to prevent the problem from reoccurring.

A good concept that helps focus efforts on systemic improvement is asking why 5 times. The idea is to get to a “root cause.” Address the root cause and, in so doing, not just reduce the symptom seen in this instance, but improve the overall system so that the specific problem is less likely to occur, but also many other related problems that all stem from that same weakness in the system that leads to many other problems.

I have seen an increasing amount of criticism of fixing the root cause over the last few years. The arguments put forth in these criticisms is that there is no single root cause, that the result is due to a system with many different variables acting together. So, a “root cause” is not really an accurate description. This is true, but I don’t agree with the conclusion that therefore attempting to improve by using the idea of “root cause” is wrong.

I think seeking to find a “root cause” can give focus to us and help us seek underlying systemic problems. In an organization that is applying Deming’s management system well, I don’t think the mistaking of “root cause” separate from a systemic view is a real problem. The problem comes in using the root cause analysis concept when the organization doesn’t have an appreciation for systems. While this is a problem, I think even in that case, “root cause” analysis is a useful concept to focus efforts. Using that idea in a context where systems thinking is not common is best done with a heavy dose of focus on appreciation for a system.

Organizations applying Deming’s ideas often have differing weaknesses in their application of those ideas. That means, when working within an organization, the strengths and weaknesses of that specific management system must be considered (as Deming emphasized). I do believe those criticizing the simplistic application of seeking a “root cause” make a good point when you look at most organizations. My solution to that would not be to get rid of efforts to find a “root cause” (using 5 why analysis, cause and effect diagram, stratified data…) but when using those concepts, to emphasis the importance of an appreciation for systems and interactions.

For me, the effort to find a “root cause” is an effort to seek out underlying systemic opportunities to improve. It isn’t about seeking a root cause for the specific problems that have been observed, but to seek out underlying systemic issues important enough to address. The focus is on such issues that impact the specific problems that sparked this effort. Sometimes the result is finding a systemic issue to address that will also prevent the problems from reoccurring. Other times, it may result in 2 or 3 improvement PDSAs to address system improvements.

The idea that there usually isn’t really a “root cause” that resulted in the specific problem is accurate, but that doesn’t mean the concept behind “root cause” analysis is not useful. Sure, maybe not using the term “root cause” would be a bit better. But for me, the important points to remember are: seek underlying systemic issues to improve; asking why 5 times is a useful concept to seek out those underlying causes; an appreciation for systems thinking and an appreciation for interactions are critical to these efforts.

Related: Optimize the Overall System Not the Individual ComponentsRoot Cause, Interactions, Robustness and Design of ExperimentsDistorting the System, Distorting the Data or Improving the SystemImproving Problem Solving

The Democratic Corporation

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

This video shows part 4 of a Russell Ackoff presentation from 2003 on Systems Thinking and Management.

In this part of the presentation, Ackoff discusses the difference between authority and influence. In complex organizations, trying to rule by authority is difficult and ineffective. To lead organizations, we must understand systems thinking and the implications of influencing the system throughout the system. In addition, he discusses the idea of the democratic corporation; he wrote a book about that concept.

It is absolutely essential that the people that have to implement a plan do the planning.

Planners (people with specific expertise) should help those that have to plan to do so effectively.
As usual, Ackoff packs wisdom into his presentation. The democratic corporation ideas presented in this part of the presentation are pretty radical. If you find them interesting, the book provides more detail and explanation. Enjoy watching this presentation.

Focus on Addressing the Right Problem

Guest post by John Hunter, founder of the

Have you ever tried running through water?  You don’t get very far very fast.  If you have water up to your waist, and you try to run, your progress is very slow.  Sure, you could put in more effort and maybe try to improve your technique to run faster through water.

Swimming through the water could be another option for improvement. If your goal is to move faster, it is likely better to get out of the water and run without the resistance of water. In some cases, a better way to look at the situation might be that you first drain the water and then run.

To improve, it is important to understand what you are trying to achieve. Then you need to think properly about the systems you are in, and what systems you are interacting with, to figure out how to go about improvement. Trying to solve the wrong problem makes improvement much more difficult.

Looking at the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the economy and thinking you need to accept the prevalence of COVID-19 as a given and just trying to think of how to “run faster,” is not an ineffective way to improve the economy (to say nothing of all the lives that will be lost and all the long-term health consequences of those who recover from a bout with COVID-19). Looking critically at the problem, it seems to me that the correct strategy is to focus on how to remove the resistance of the “water” (COVID-19).

While that means the progress is slowed while you address the COVID-19 problem, you will then create conditions that allow for success. Also by acknowledging the priority, you can then spend your efforts on dealing with the problems of getting the countermeasures to COVID-19 successfully implemented. The failure of the USA to properly use masks, eliminate indoor gatherings (such as bars, restaurants…) and to react to new infections quickly (which requires enough testing, that provides accurate results within 24 hours and with proper contact tracing and responses to what it learned to reduce spread) has caused great harm. And we have learned that getting the sensible measures adopted will take much more effort than we might have thought before we had seen how we have behaved the last 6 months.

To focus on improving the economy,  the primary focus has to be on reducing the presence of COVID-19 (removing the water). No matter how you try to run faster while in the water, it is just not possible to be very effective. If the water is up to your ankles, you can run nearly as well as if there was no water. But with it up to your waist, it doesn’t really matter how much effort you put into running better; you can’t be effective.

Knowing what problem you need to work on solving is often more difficult than it seems. You need to understand the systems that are involved and how they interact to know where you should focus your efforts. It seems to me we are making a big mistake by not putting nearly all our focus on trying to improve the economy by focusing on reducing the prevalence of COVID-19. Just like someone trying to run better through waist-high water, it is much more effective to put efforts into reducing the resistance the “water” creates, even if that means you make little progress for awhile. You just won’t be effective until that condition is changed. And putting your efforts into running better or harder instead of changing the situation is the wrong strategy.

Related: Improving Problem SolvingThe Importance of Critical Thinking and Challenging Assumptions

Restoring Joy in Mudville

Guest Post by Dr. Doug Stilwell, Drake University

In his famous 1888 baseball poem, “Casey at the Bat,” poet Ernest Thayer tells the story of a fictional baseball team known as the “Mudville Nine” and its last-ditch effort to win a ballgame, attempting to come back from a two-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth inning. The success of the team, in the mind of the fans, lay in the hands of Mudville’s star player Casey, who is scheduled to be the fifth batter that inning, but with little hope of getting a chance to bat based on the quality of the four teammates batting ahead of him. But, miracle upon miracle, with two outs in the ninth, two of his teammates make it to base and Casey, in all of his glory, comes to the plate as the potential winning run. As fate would have it, despite his heroic status and after letting two strikes pass by without swinging, Casey swings at the third, and the result is penned in the final poignant stanza of Thayer’s poem:

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
but there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.

The aim of this paper is to examine and discuss joy in education and while offering “Casey at the Bat” feels like “rounding third” to do so, it offers at its conclusion a keen insight for consideration. In the final line of the poem, Thayer doesn’t close by telling us the Mudville Nine lost the game, although readers certainly infer this outcome. Rather, he highlights the lack of joy in Mudville as a result of Casey striking out and Mudville losing the game. In other words, joy was the outcome hoped for, while winning answered the question, “By what method?”

Before I go any further, let me be clear here about what I mean by “joy.” For the purpose of this writing, I will operationally define it as a sense of deep pleasure attained by the satisfaction of participating in meaningful and purposeful activity. Further, I offer for the readers’ consideration a question that I believe serves as a crucible for all of us in the field of education. It is one with which we should wrestle and reach a conclusion, for our responses to this question, individually and collectively, may reveal fundamental beliefs that drive how our education system has worked, currently works and, most importantly, will work in the future:

  • Do the students and adults in a school deserve to experience joy in their work, whether it is learning, teaching or leading?

I have asked this question of many educators, some of whom are students in our Educational Leadership program at Drake University, and the vast majority (approximately 99%) answer the question to the affirmative. If there is a level of agreement that learning/work should be a joyful experience, as defined here, then the next logical question specifically focused on students may be, “To what degree do students experience joy in their learning?”

In his book Optimize Your School (Corwin Press, 2016) Dr. Lee Jenkins, author, speaker and recognized authority in improving educational outcomes, included research from over 3,000 teachers who were asked the following two questions:

  • “What grade level do you teach?”
  • “What percent of your students love school?”

The sobering results from this survey are presented below in the “Jenkins Curve,” a title bestowed by John Hattie:

The first time I saw these results, I was taken aback, for as a former elementary teacher I assumed students would love their elementary experiences. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case. Likely these results are not what we would hope to see as educators and I am afraid that if this survey was shared with the general public, fingers would immediately point in the direction of teachers in order to place blame, which is exactly the wrong conclusion to draw. Over the course of my 40 years in education, I do not know of any teacher who purposely stated that it was his or her intent to drive out children’s joy for learning. Rather, I believe this is a systems issue, not a people problem, for Dr. Deming tells us that approximately 95% of the results produced in a system are a result of the system itself, not the people working in the system. In his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Dr. Peter Senge, American systems scientist, also tells us that in a system, “there is no blame;” for the cause of results, both desirable and undesirable, come from the system in which people work. In short, the rapidly decreasing joy for learning year-by-year, as noted in the Jenkins Curve, is the result of our current system of education.

Unfortunately, simply saying, “The system did it,” not only sounds like an excuse for a lack of high performance to those “outside” the system, but also sounds as though “the system” is some ethereal entity that came into being on its own with the purpose of subjugating those who work within it. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth, for education, as we know it today, is a socio-cultural system developed during the industrial age to prepare students to work in factories. This “factory model” mindset drove and continues to drive schools, and to this day many educational environments still resemble factories; not so much physically, but in the way they function: students come to kindergarten and we “apply” certain parts called learning objectives. They then move to first grade, then second, then third and so on, with each grade level adding its own unique “parts” to prepare students for graduation. In addition to the way schools are structured, and despite new and exciting knowledge developed through research and experience over the years, education is still heavily influenced by the beliefs and mental models from the past. These archaic paradigms have created and continue to perpetuate the educational system that exists today. In short, well-intended people created the system based on the needs, knowledge, and attitudes of the time and to this date, contemporary education and its leaders cannot seem to reach the “escape velocity” necessary to transform our systems to better align with what we now know about learning and motivation and what is needed to prepare our students for a world that has yet to reveal itself.

But, back to the point, exactly how does “the system” destroy joy in learning for students? From his book, The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (bold added for emphasis), in Chapter 6 entitled, “Management of People,” Dr. Deming identifies what he describes as “forces of destruction” (Deming, 1994, p. 122), those that come from the present style of management and their effects. Take a look and see how many of these forces apply to our world of education:

Based on Dr. Deming’s work and the work of psychologists Drs. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, intrinsic motivation and joy appear to be clearly connected, for Deci and Ryan define intrinsic motivation in their article “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions” (2000) as “the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge entailed rather than because of external products, pressures, or rewards” (p. 56). Oudeyer and Kaplan, (2017) further reinforce the work of Deming, Deci, and Ryan when they write “People certainly can be motivated externally — by money, or grades in school, or a desire for social approval, for example—but Deci and Ryan say that type of controlled motivation can actually taint a person’s feelings about the basic worth of the project and undermine intrinsic motivation” (Bold added for emphasis). In other words, extrinsic motivation, found so often at work in schools, can actually undermine intrinsic motivation and joy in learning.

Based on the premise that joy in learning is a desirable condition and outcome for students, outside of the work of Dr. Jenkins and the Gallup Student Poll, I have begun to wonder where in our system joy is promoted, reinforced or measured. Using the old saying, “What gets measured gets done,” which connotes “measurement equals importance,” I took a moment to examine the Iowa School Performance Profiles to see what gets measured. The areas of performance in the summary view include:

  • Assessment Participation English/Language Arts
  • Assessment Participation Math
  • Average School Achievement English/Language Arts
  • Average School Achievement Math
  • Conditions for Learning
  • Graduation Rate 4-Years
  • Graduation Rate 5-Years
  • Growth in Reading
  • Growth in Math
  • Percent Proficient English/Language Arts
  • Percent Proficient Math
  • Post-Secondary Readiness Composite
  • Progress toward ELP Composite

Unfortunately, “joy” is nowhere to be found on this summary list or on the “Learning Measures” and “Additional Metrics” lists, although the category “conditions for learning” in the “Learning Measures” list includes adult-student relationships, emotional safety, expectations/boundaries, physical safety, and student-student relationships. Rather, what we find is a list of measures focused mainly on the academic performance of students.

This lack of attention to joy in learning in our public schools, a governmentally created and bureaucratically reinforced system of education, may have serious and long-lasting effects on the children we educate. Are joy and academic achievement at different ends of the educational spectrum? Must they be? What consequences are there, if any, when people, especially children, do not experience the joy that comes from authentic, meaningful, and engaging learning? In a recent discussion with one of my colleagues, Dr. Randy Peters, about this topic, he offered the following regarding the connection between joy and learning: “An area of study that may further link joy and learning is Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory, which exhibits the following characteristics: complete and utter immersion in a task, obliviousness to the outside world/focus only on one’s own progress and what’s going on right here and now, doing something you love and losing all track of time. It is one of life’s most enjoyable states of being, helping us be more creative, productive, and happy. How often do students (or teachers or administrators) have such experiences in school in spite of the fact that they appear to impact both joy and success in learning?” These are important concepts to consider.

What systemic structures exist that may thwart “joy in learning?” Two examples may be statewide assessments and the accompanying school and district rating systems intended to display how public schools perform in compliance with requirements of the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA). In Iowa, particularly at the elementary level where I spent my time as a teacher and principal, there are multiple assessments in literacy required by the state. I believe these assessments, the results of which are reported to the state, are well-intended, for their purpose is to determine whether students are making adequate progress in reading, something critical to their success. However, I have also wondered, if and when we get all students up to grade level, whether we will have nurtured children’s joy for reading, or if the methods used to move students along will have the opposite effect. With the pressure to meet arbitrary standards in order to avoid the embarrassment and stigma of being ranked at the lower echelon of the state’s school rating system, might educators be influenced to employ methods that result in academic gain but produce a generation of children who may not enjoy reading and think of it merely as a mechanical process whose purpose is to show gains and proficiency on a state and federally required assessment? This is a plausible hypothesis, for based on the book, Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon, a “market-based” environment, one that emphasizes competition, may have the potential to wreak havoc on both excellence and ethics.

I can attest to the influence of state testing, the undue stress that can come from arbitrary standards, and the role leadership must play in protecting children from an “achieve at all costs” mindset. The year was 1998 and I was the principal at Phenix Elementary in the West Des Moines Community School District. That year we received the devastating news that we were being designated by the state as a “school in need of assistance” based on our students’ performance on the reading portion of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. This was demoralizing news for us a school, especially since just two years before Phenix had garnered accolades by earning Iowa’s F.I.N.E. (First in the Nation in Education) award. Worried about the performance of our students and the standing of our school (and my own job security), I remember sitting down with then-Superintendent Dr. Les Omotani to discuss the situation. In a fashion true to his character, I recall Dr. Omotani saying that, while he certainly understood and appreciated my concern, he wasn’t worried to the degree I was. He asked if I had ever experienced undue pressure from central office to produce higher levels of performance. No. He continued saying he believed in our approach, one based on the principles of educating the “whole child” using “learner-centered” methodologies. He then said that if forced, we could find ways to “make” our students “learn” in order to meet the arbitrary standards established by the state. But in so doing, we might make the experience miserable for our students and that was not something he would expect or support. In other words, Dr. Omotani believed, as did I, that that learning should be a joyful experience (“inspiring joy in learning” is still a part of the district’s shared vision) and that working toward high levels of learning does not exclude the need to ensure that joy is a part of the learning equation.

State testing and ranking systems are just two examples of systemic structures that may contribute to a loss of joy in learning for children. There are likely others, including grading, but that is a topic for a different paper. Uncovering and eliminating these structures might lead to the restoration of joy in learning. The challenge here may be that while some of the systemic barriers to joy in learning are self-imposed, others come from the government itself.

Dr. Deming believed that people are entitled to joy in work and that there should be, “a system of education in which pupils from toddlers on up through the university take joy in learning, free from fear of grades and gold stars, and in which teachers take joy in their work, free from fear in ranking” (Deming, p. 62-63). Without this sense of joy and wonder about their learning, students may simply go through the motions of so-called “learning,” doing what’s required/expected of them without a sense of meaning directly connected to their own lives or interests. Even worse, without nurturing joy in learning in the short term, we may be extinguishing the flame of learning in the long term. Learning, something we are designed to do by nature, is far too important to be perceived as drudgery.

So, let’s begin to think about how to restore joy in “educationville.” This is the work of leadership, whether it be at the classroom, building, or district level; for in his lectures Dr. Deming routinely stated that “Management’s overall aim should be to create a system in which everybody may take joy in their work.” I fear that if we do not heed Dr. Deming’s words, it will be our children who “come to the plate and strike out.” But rather than pointing fingers at individuals, let’s identify existing structures in our system that lessen joy in learning; eliminating and replacing them with new structures and practices that engender one of the most natural of human tendencies: the desire to learn.

For more information about a leader’s role in educational transformation and the Drake Continual Improvement Network, please contact Dr. Doug Stilwell at

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Deming, W. (1994. The new economics for industry, government, education. Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for Advanced Educational Services.

Gardner, H., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Damon, W. (2001). Good work: When excellence and ethics meet. New York: Basic Books

Iowa Department of Education.  (n.d.). User Guide: Iowa Schools Performance Profiles. Retrieved from:

Jenkins, L. (2016), Optimize your school: It’s all about the strategy. Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Publishing.

Jenkins, L. (2019). How to create a perfect school: Maintain students’ motivation and love of learning from kindergarten through 12th grade. USA. LtoJ Press.

Oudeyer, P. & Kaplan, F. (2009, November 2). What is intrinsic motivation? A typology of computational approaches. Frontiers on Neurorobotics.

Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: classic definitions and new directions. Contemp. Educational Psychology. 25, 54–67.

Thayer, E. (1888). Casey at the bat. poets.og.

Avoid Doing the Wrong things Righter… But, “By What Method?”

Guest Post by Dr. Doug Stilwell, Drake University

Julie sat in the last row on the right-hand side of the classroom near the window, two or three seats from the front.  Having just finished what I thought was a pretty good math lesson, I asked the class if there were any questions.  Julie’s hand immediately went up in the air.  “Yes, Julie, what can I help you with?”

“Mr. Stilwell,” she responded, “when am I going to ever use this?”

This was not the technical sort of question I was anticipating and taking a fleeting moment without reflecting on the depth of what she was asking me, I glibly responded, “Julie, you will use this when your ‘real life’ begins.”  I recall feeling pretty good about my response, smugly thinking it was an adequate answer for a 12 year old.  I retreated to my desk, turned to sit back down and saw Julie’s hand vigorously raised one more time.

“Yes, Julie?” I asked with some frustration in my voice.

“But Mr. Stilwell, this is my real life, right now.”

Pause… “I guess it is,” I replied.  End of conversation.

I share this story with students in the courses I teach and I jokingly tell them, as I finish the story, that I learned one valuable lesson that day….not to call on Julie anymore!  However, all kidding aside, there was a powerful lesson here to be learned; one that may have transformed me as a teacher… and I missed it.  Rather than seizing this as an opportunity to develop a new theory on which I might improve student engagement and learning, I focused not on what was on the minds of my students but on improving my pedagogy; reinforcing, perhaps, how to continue to do the wrong things – things that had no relevance for my students – better.

Dr. Russell Ackoff is renowned for the adage, “Stop doing the wrong things ‘righter’” and this motto has perfect application to my interaction with Julie that day, approximately 30 years ago.  Technically, my lesson was sound.  Unfortunately, it did little to connect with and have meaning for students, for I assume Julie was the only one brave enough to ask such a challenging question, while others, likely focused on “teacher pleasing,” may have been wondering the same thing.  It is a lesson that highlights the wisdom needed to determine what the “right” things are in our work as leaders.

In one of his conversations found on YouTube and posted on January 11, 2010 (the year following his death), Dr. Ackoff provides the following insight about leaders doing the “right and wrong” things in the systems they lead:

Peter Drucker said, “There’s a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing.” Doing the right thing is wisdom, and effectiveness. Doing things right is efficiency. The curious thing is the righter you do the wrong thing the wronger you become. If you’re doing the wrong thing and you make a mistake and correct it you become wronger. So, it’s better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right. Almost every major social problem that confronts us today is a consequence of trying to do the wrong things righter” (Haynes, 2010).

The following matrix may make simpler sense of this concept.  Note particularly the significant and profound difference between quadrants three and four.


Effectiveness/Efficiency Matrix


Learning to do things “right” is important and all sorts of training exist for doing so, including Lean Six Sigma, Kaizen, Plan-Do-Study-Act, Statistical Process Control, and ISO certifications, to name just a few.  I do not believe Dr. Ackoff was downplaying the need for efficiency, but rather was saying that it may be counterproductive to do things right if we were not doing the “right” things.  In fact, he makes the case that we will likely make things worse (or, “wronger”) by doing the “wrongs things ‘righter,’” yet another method to sub-optimize a system.  This was certainly the case in my own example above.

Doing the “right things” may well tie into what Daniel Pink describes as the “purpose motive,” one of the three key attributes (autonomy, mastery, purpose) necessary to ignite intrinsic motivation.  Simon Sinek refers to this as well when he describes his “golden circle” concept, telling us that working and leading from “why” (the reason an organization exists) is deeply rooted in our biology, as it connects deep within people’s brains – their limbic systems – the seat of basic human emotion.  Stephen Covey similarly described this concept using the metaphor of a ladder, stating, ”Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall” (Covey, 2011).

It is likely that few would argue the importance of focusing efforts on the “right things.”  However, while it may be a fairly straight-forward task to teach a management or improvement process to someone, the real challenge may lie in first determining what is “right” to do in any given context.

Dr. Ackoff indicated that wisdom is necessary in determining the right things to do.  However, while some individuals may be imbued with wisdom inherently or through their own life’s experiences, paving the way for making wise personal decisions, this may not hold as true when leading a complex organization.  To that end, Dr. Deming might well ask, “By what method” can we determine the “right” things to do?   Wisdom, from this perspective, may be in discerning the need for a process, without which we may be forced to rely entirely on one’s intuition.

I want to share one process used by a friend and former colleague during this, his first year as school superintendent, to determine “what’s right” for the students, district, and community.

Mark Lane is the superintendent of the Decorah Community School District in Decorah, Iowa.  Mark possesses a great deal of profound knowledge, having dug deeply into Dr. Deming’s work over the past ten years.  That profound knowledge combined with a command of the Baldrige Excellence framework has helped Mark to lead and facilitate the district’s work to determine “the right things” for the Decorah schools.

To answer the question, “By what method,” Mark has responded with the following powerful statement:

Listen to the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the people closest to the work, and then make that desired state seem possible.

(Mark Lane, 2019)

Based on that mindset to drive the work, upon his entry into the district Mark used the bone diagram process in his Baldrige-based entry plan to “listen” to those people closest to and most directly impacted by the district’s work in order to get a sense of the district’s current state.  In doing sohe found there were well-meaning, hard-working people working without a clear aim and implementing random acts of improvement, resulting in frustration, blame, animosity and resistance among professionals.  He then used the bone diagram process to again listen to stakeholders to determine their desired state for the district.  The desired state included well-intentioned hard-working people functioning interdependently with clarity and coherence to optimize and achieve the aim of the system and to develop a sense of pride and joy in work, innovation, and collective efficacy.

The next step in the process was to engage a representative group of district stakeholders, the School Improvement Advisory Committee (SIAC) in answering the following questions over the course of two meetings:

  •  Meeting One:
    1. How might a public school monitor excellence in educational and operational service?
  • Meeting Two
    1. What are we trying to achieve in key focus areas?
    2. What promises are we making to our key stakeholders?

Using quality tools including the affinity diagram and P3T (paper, passing, process tool) processes, the SIAC committee developed the following strategic pillars and promises:

Next, the pillars and promises (customer requirements) were shared with staff who then responded to a mission-vision-values (M-V-V) survey.  Once the survey feedback had been gathered and analyzed (Mark is a doctoral student at Drake University and utilized qualitative research methodologies including in vivo coding, theoretical coding, and member checking), the new mission, vision, and values were crafted and ultimately approved by the school board.  In other words, through this process and under Mark’s leadership, the Decorah Community School District uncovered what the “right things” were and encoded them into its:

Shared Mission:

Learning – Thriving – Creating our Legacy


Decorah Community School District will be a collaborative, innovative, learning-centered organization empowering students to embrace their personal strengths and create their future.


Collaboration and community; curiosity and creativity; engagement and excellence; equity and well-being; integrity and humility; stewardship and sustainability

Following an examination of the pillars, promises, and M-V-V, there is little question in my mind regarding what the Decorah Community School District values and what they have determined to be “right” for them.  Wisely, Mark did not come into the district with his own ideas regarding what was most important for the district, but rather relied on his background with Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge, his knowledge of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Framework, and his experience with process improvement to engage the district and community in a well-planned process to uncover what was most important for those he is charged with leading.  Is Mark Lane’s approach the only way?  No, for as the saying goes, “There is more than one way to skin a cat.”  However, the principles that guided the district’s work are universal and the manner in which they were operationalized in Decorah have proven to be a very effective technique that certainly address Dr. Deming’s question, “By what method…?”

How much better and more meaningful might my sixth grade students’ learning experiences have been had I possessed “profound knowledge” and provided a better response and method to process Julie’s heart-felt math question of “When am I ever going to use this?”  My woeful response those 30 years ago haunt and compel me to carry forth with this profound work, “preaching to the masses and working with the willing” to transform learning and education.  Working to discern the “right” things is the role of leadership and, as we have seen from Mark Lane’s example, there are effective methods that can be employed to unlock what is in the hearts of people who have a stake in a school, school district, or organization of any type.

Let’s learn to do the “right things ‘righter’.”

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Covey, S. (2011). “Leadership and Management.”  Retrieved from

Haynes, P. (2010, January). Russell Ackoff / Studio 1 Network [Video File]. Retrieved from

Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverside Books.

Richardson, W. (2016, March 17). “We’re Trying to do the ‘Wrong Things Right’ in School.”  Modern Learning. Retrieved from

Richardson, W. (2015, November). “The Surprising Truth about Learning in Schools” [Video File]. Retrieved from

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



Mary Jenkins: Statistical Approach to HR Systems

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

Mary Jenkins gave this presentation on Statistical Approach to HR Systems at the Ohio Quality and Productivity Forum in 1992.

In the presentation, Mary provides a view of the organization as a system and the existing and possible systems to manage personnel. She details the poor ability we have to accurately evaluate people. Our psychology results in many biases in how we evaluate the performance of others. And our failure to understand the organization as a system often results in us crediting or blaming people for results they did not create.

Mary then shows that beyond our poor ability to evaluate people’s performance is our poor ability to effectively create systems that could use those evaluations to improve (even if we could correctly evaluate people’s performance).

The research would indicate that the environment a person is working within has far more to do with controlling their ability to expend effort than the person themselves. In a good working environment, people will naturally spend a great deal of effort. In an environment where they can’t to that — it is oppressive or they feel at risk to be able to be able to do that — that far more controls what an individual is able to contribute. And yet this is the thing that we think: by rating and ranking people we can motivate people to push up or push down.

This whole area of rating and ranking people is one that is very difficult for people to appreciate. Understanding the organization as a system, psychology, and variation make it much easier to comprehend how important it is to understand this issue for management. Some resources for more information on these ideas: Peter Scholtes on Managing People and Motivation, Performance without Appraisal, Total Quality or Performance Appraisal: Choose One and Dr. Deming Called for the Elimination of The Annual Performance Appraisal.

This is a valuable presentation. 30 years later we still need to understand the points she makes and apply them to the management of our organizations. I hope you take the time to listen, understand, and figure out how to apply the messages she provides to improve the management of your organization.

In the presentation, Mary also provides good thoughts on how to provide feedback effectively.

Related: Human Resources in the Post Deming Era

Deming on Management: Joy in Work

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

This is the seventh post in our Deming on Management series. This 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, Appreciation for a System and the PDSA Cycle.

Joy in work is likely not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of W. Edwards Deming’s ideas on management. But this concept is as important as any of the others. Statistical tools are critical to help understand and evaluate continual improvement efforts. And Dr. Deming also emphasized the importance of managing with the appreciation for the humanity and psychology of those working in the organization.

image of quote by Dr. Deming: People are entitled to joy in work.

Only by creating a management system that supports and respects people working in that system can an organization reach its potential.

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Russell Ackoff on Learning, Risks and Development

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

This video shows part 3 of a Russell Ackoff presentation from 2003 on Systems Thinking and Management (see our previous post on part 1 and part 2).

An organization that wants to survive in a dynamic environment has to continually educate its members so they can [retain] their effectiveness under changing conditions.

(I substituted “retain” for “contain” in the quote above; I think he misspoke when saying contain.)

Ackoff spends a great deal of time in this presentation on the importance of learning for the long-term success of organizations. He discusses the importance of development versus just growth.

Being taught is one of the worst ways to learn anything.

If the students want to learn, what should they do? Teaching.

Faculty ought to be a resource to students who are teaching to give them the backup and support they require to learn effectively.

This idea is powerful. It relates to one of my favorite ideas; I learned it from David Langford and wrote a post on it on this blog in 2015: A Powerful Tool: The Capacity Matrix. The capacity matrix is all about learning to different levels: awareness, knowledge, know-how and mastery. It echoes Ackoff’s ideas in that basic knowledge is very different from mastery. In my opinion, the capacity matrix could be even more valuable in business and professional organizations than it is for schools.

In this presentation, Ackoff also provides a great explanation of one reason why change is often so difficult in organizations: Errors are punished. But only error of commission are punished, while errors of omission are not. Therefore, taking action to change is risky; the safe course of action is to avoid change. To develop organizations we need to understand this tendency and learn to allow taking risks, and avoid creating the fear of the consequences when things don’t work out.

We also need to learn to appreciate the high costs of errors of omission (to understand that those costs when we fail are aimed at reducing the high costs of errors of omission, if risks are taken sensibly). There are wise and unwise ways to take risks. It isn’t enough to accept taking risks: taking risks must be done wisely, with an understanding of systems thinking.

Related: Profits, Pragmatism, and the Possibilities of Possessing “Other Eyes”Organizations as Social Systems

Deming Company was Ahead of COVID-19

We recently sat down with Dick Steele, Chairman of Peaker Services and a Deming Institute Trustee, to talk about how his company is adapting to the new reality of how to keep an industry functioning – and employees safe – during a pandemic. What we learned was astonishing, but not exactly surprising!

Forward Thinking

Peaker Services, now in its 50th year of operation, remanufactures the diesel engine that goes into a locomotive. They also provide solutions for industrial customers that need to control large energy consumption, such as major hospital systems and power plants. They began the transformation to a Deming organization over 30 years ago. “Our understanding of Deming is the basis for what we do,” Dick says. “We’re thinking in terms of systems, and we’re constantly scanning the horizon. Part of our strategy discussions have to do with where we’ll be in the future and what it is going to look like.”

Preparing for the Future

Maybe that forward-thinking mindset explains why, when COVID-19 hit, Peaker Services already had a Pandemic Preparedness Plan in place. Remarkably, “that procedure was developed in 2012,” explained Dick. “That was three years before Bill Gates told us we should be looking at pandemics.” When asked what prompted Peaker to develop the plan, Dick responded, “It was actually part of Peaker’s Quality program. We get audited. And one of the [Quality] inspectors came in one time and asked us if we had a plan. I don’t think it was required, but Ian [our president] said, ‘I think that’s a good idea.’ I did not even know that we had it until COVID hit. But I was so proud to see that we had something that we could fall back on, and we were taking care of employees, customers, vendors, and the public. I think it’s doing a wonderful job.”

Ahead of the Curve

Indeed, about the time Michigan instituted a shelter-in-place order, virtually the entire Peaker Services office was working from home, and they were already implementing safety measures that other companies would soon scramble to put into place, such as contact tracing and temperature scanning. “Workers in the building itself have to come in through one door, and anybody that comes into the building gets a temperature scan and they have to fill out a little questionnaire – so that if something does occur, if somebody does show up with COVID-19, there’s a tracing mechanism to find out who’ve they’ve been in contact with. Where they’re building the engines, the buildings are quite large, so social distancing is pretty easy to do.” And Peaker is, of course, continuously updating the Pandemic Preparedness Plan in a plan-do-study-act cycle to make sure that the plan isn’t just a sign on the wall, but an actual procedure that the employees can and do effectively implement.

Making a Difference

“There’s no way of knowing if we’ve saved lives – I hope we have. But what’s more tangible – and also really important – is that I hope our employees feel empowered. We want them to have input into and control over how they look out for their own health and safety and the wellbeing of their families. In turn, we believe they are then better able to meet the needs of our customers. The aim of our organization is essentially to take care of the needs of our customers,” says Dick. “I’m paraphrasing, but that comes directly out of The New Economics.”

How Do I Apply New Management Ideas Without Executive Level Support?

Guest post by John Hunter, author of the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog.

Part 3 of True Improvement vs Illusion of Progress, a presentation by Peter Scholtes. Peter gave this presentation at George Washington University in 1990. See our previous posts on part 1 and part 2 of the presentation.

Peter addresses a common question for those seeking to improve the management of their organization: How do I proceed in the absence of executive level support?

Peter suggests finding an area where you have authority, as well as others interested in improving and apply Deming’s ideas in that area (David Langford discussed the same idea here: “You are the top of your system. Change your thinking, change your process – you change your system.”). Peter also advises trying to make improvements that will impress your boss’s boss.

Ultimately you have 2 goals in mind: you want to make improvement in whatever area you are making improvements, you want to please the customers. But also you want to let people in the organization know that this stuff works. It works here, and it’s important, and it’s worth all of us learning it to begin applying it.

I have seen an organization turn around when management sees the presentation by some project team. The management before that were skeptical. But there is something that happens occasionally when a group of people get up and say, “Here’s what we found out, here are the problems we started out with, we gathered this data, we found out this about the problems, here’s the changes we introduced as a result of our investigations, here’s the results that we got from it.

Peter provides an excellent response to that question. I also addressed this question in a previous post on this blog: Using Deming’s Ideas – When Your Organization Doesn’t.

Related: How to Start Applying Deming’s Ideas on ManagementHow to Get a New Management Strategy, Tool or Concept AdoptedThe Transformation is Everybody’s Job


Register now for “Leading With a Systems View” – our 2.5-Day Deming Seminar, now in a series of virtual sessions! Starts June 23!!

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