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 Deming published over 170 articles, wrote numerous unpublished papers for his students and clients, and conducted hundreds of studies for clients.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

Theory of Knowledge

By John Hunter, author of Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

The System Of Profound Knowledge® (SoPK) is the culmination of W. Edwards Deming’s work on management. The four areas of the system are: appreciation for a system, knowledge of variation, theory of knowledge and psychology. This post explores the theory of knowledge in the context of Dr. Deming’s management philosophy.

“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge.” – Daniel J. Boorstin

What do we know that isn’t so? How can we avoid the mistakes we are in danger of making in our thinking? How can we improve the learning process?
These are some of the questions that led Dr. Deming to include the “theory of knowledge” in the System Of Profound Knowledge.

While many of his ideas have found their way into other management theories (focus on the customer, variation, systems thinking, innovation, continual improvement, data based decision making, the importance of psychology…) you rarely hear about the importance of understanding how people think, and act, based on what they believe they know to be true. That is core to a theory of knowledge.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is one such important concept; it means that we tend to latch onto evidence that supports our beliefs and ignore evidence that undermines our beliefs. In order to more effectively adjust our beliefs to reality we are well served to question whether we are falling for confirmation bias.

Experiments, Prediction and Learning

To the extent possible it is best to gather evidence based on experiments to support your theories. The model used within the Deming System for Managing to gain evidence and insight is the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle. The PDSA cycle is a process to improve based on an understanding of the theory of knowledge.

People learn better when they predict. Making a prediction forces us to think ahead about the outcomes. Making a prediction also causes us to examine more deeply the system, question or theory we have in mind. Also we learn about our understanding of the management beliefs we hold as we examine the results of our predictions.

For example from your predictions (and from the PDSA experiments which test them) you might discover that:

  • You are often overly optimistic (or pessimistic).
  • You are extremely effective at predicting change related to information technology improvements but poor when predicting the results when psychology plays a big role in the change.
  • The impact is often as you predicted for the projects during testing (using PDSA) but attempts to actually standardize the improvements across the organization fail.

Learning about your ability to predict (and your organization’s ability to predict) is a key part of the theory of knowledge.


People believe there is much less variation in systems and processes than there is. This underestimation of variation causes people to believe normal variation is not normal, which in turn causes them to search for special causes for the variation. Doing so is a very low yield strategy for improvement. (See more on Deming’s view on tampering).

Again, the Deming System for Managing seeks to avoid this trap in how we think about variation by adopting sensible strategies. One of these strategies is to use control charts to show exactly what is reasonable variation for a process. Another sensible strategy is to examine the process and environment in which a person works first, rather than to blame the person (as a special cause), first.

Psychology and the theory of knowledge

As stated previously the four components of SoPK are interrelated. Here is an example of how psychology interacts with the theory of knowledge.

The way we evaluate an idea is not based on the cold logic we may like to believe it is. If we hear an idea from someone we don’t like and then two days later we hear the exact same idea from a friend we respect, we tend to react very differently.

As I started to understand the theory of knowledge and apply what I suggested above, I began to question why I believed certain things and how I responded to ideas that were presented. In examining my own reactions, I noticed that I far too heavily weighed the source of the idea in evaluating the idea, myself. By examining my thought process I could see I was being overly influenced by factors that shouldn’t be so important. And then I started to look at others and it amazed me how often I would hear someone criticize an idea from one person and then praise the same idea a week later from a friend.

This also shows one of the real weaknesses in performance appraisals. When a manager likes a person, the manager is much more likely to appreciate the person’s work, ideas, and contributions and thus give a higher rating to that person.

Operational Definition

There is no true value of any characteristic, state, or condition that is defined in terms of measurement or observation. – Dr. W. Edwards Deming

The “value” is in the context for a given operational definition. Understanding that a value must be interpreted via context, leads us to question any data that doesn’t provide the operational definition for how the data was created. And this leads to better understanding. Otherwise, without having the operational definition we are likely to draw incorrect conclusions from data. Let’s look at a simple example:

Misinterpretation and Misunderstanding

The height of senior executives is much greater than the average population. Are tall people inherently much better leaders in organizations? It may have made some sense historically to have the biggest people in the group lead the hunt but it sure doesn’t seem like there is a good reason to believe height is a great value for leaders in contemporary society. You could take from that data about tall senior executives that in fact height is a “value” of great value. Or you could take from it that we continue to make judgments based on unimportant factors because unconscious evaluation criteria (such as height is better) are baked into our psychology and those criteria shape what we believe.

Next Steps

Understanding the theory of knowledge within the context of the Deming’s System for Managing helps us more effectively and consistently learn and improve the processes and systems we work with.

Gaining an understanding of how the theory of knowledge is integrated into Deming’s system for managing is easy for some people, but not easy for others. As stated in previous posts these posts can get you started along the trail of discovery but they only scratch the surface of what four components of Deming’s management system offer.

Related: How Do We Know What We Know? – Deming’s SoPK by John Hunter

Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge

By John Hunter, founder of

The System Of Profound Knowledge® (SoPK) is the culmination of W. Edwards Deming’s lifelong work. The SoPK ties together Dr. Deming’s seminal theories and teachings on quality, management and leadership into four interrelated areas: appreciation for a system, knowledge of variation, theory of knowledge and psychology.

image of the Understanding Profound Knowledge, Deming Library video

Over the next four days we will dedicate a post to each of the four areas of Dr. Deming’s management system.

He laid out this view in his many four day seminars, over the decades and on the Deming Library videos. The New Economics also goes into detail on these topics. While he taught that this system view was the key to implementing his ideas, often minor pieces of what he taught are presented as the total of what he taught. One of our goals with the blog is to make it easier for people to learn about not just a few tools that he helped popularize, but to help people adopt the whole management system he presented.

Related: Four Days with Dr. Deming by William Latzko and David SaundersDeming Library starter collection

Deming Scholars MBA Program at Fordham University in New York City

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

Update: The Deming Scholars MBA Program is no longer active.

The Deming Scholars MBA Program [the broken link was removed] aims to build a foundation for leadership in the new economic age. It provides a small group of highly motivated students with a unique opportunity to develop expertise in Dr. Deming’s teachings and to build leadership skills within the framework of an outstanding program.

The program combines rigorous classroom study with an intensive practicum experience. Practica provide students with an opportunity to test theory, learn by doing, experience leadership and practice teamwork.

Each student spends a total of 28 weeks on site with one or more participating companies. Faculty and sponsoring executives work together to guide the students through their learning experience. As interns, students are expected to learn to apply systems thinking and methods to help the enterprise achieve its business objectives. Initially, their responsibilities revolve around listening, observing, learning and communicating. Later in the program, these responsibilities expand to include analyzing and coaching. Students receive $10,000 in stipend-scholarships from sponsoring organizations. Participating companies have included: ABC (New York), American Express (New York), Coach Leather (New York), Corning Life Sciences (New Jersey), GE Capital (New York, Connecticut), Henry Ford Health Care Systems (Michigan), Johnson & Johnson (New Jersey), McKinsey (New York), NASA (Washington, D.C.) (see more companies [the broken link was removed]).

The program includes 6 group projects and an 18 month research project that ties management practice and issues into academic literature. Students plan, facilitate, conduct and present at a symposium on Dr. Deming’s analytic papers.

The program is designed around 5 learning cycles [the broken link was removed]. In between each cycle is a practica working at an organization to provide real organization learning experiences.

The Deming Files @ The Process Excellence Network

By John Hunter, author of Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

The W. Edwards Deming Institute is working with the Process Excellence Network to publish articles on Deming’s ideas: The Deming Files. The first article was published in early 2011.

A 4 part series looked at Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge:

The articles cover a wide array of topics including:

The articles are a good source of insight into the application of Dr. Deming’s ideas today. If you missed any of those published already, head over the site and learn from some wonderful articles.

Deming Chain Reaction

By John Hunter, founder of

From Out of the Crisis

Image of Deming Chain Reaction - text: Improve Quality —> Costs decrease because of less rework, fewer mistakes, fewer delays, snags, better use of machine-time and materials —> Productivity Improves —> Capture the market with better quality and lower price —> Stay in Business —> Provide jobs and more jobs

The prevailing action during the crisis Dr. Deming alluded to in the title of his books was to cut costs to improve profits. Massive layoffs of employees would get executives big bonuses and send stock prices up. Sadly, focusing on cost cutting and layoffs is too often still the way some executives think.

There has been more acceptance, though, of the idea that to improve, the focus should be on continual improvement, not cost cutting. By focusing on continual improvement you are able to remove waste, reduce errors, and remove delays. Reducing costs through process improvement, and at the same time improving productivity and product effectiveness, allows a company to benefit from the positive chain reaction Dr. Deming explained.

The chain reaction lets you reward workers as the company prospers, instead of seeking to prosper on the backs of workers. Flipping the means and the ends does not work. Reducing costs as the result of process improvement is effective management. Reducing costs based on a spreadsheet sent down by executives – and then hoping that the cuts don’t do too much damage to the value provided to the customer – is a recipe for disaster.

Video of Dr. W. Edwards Deming: Deadly Diseases of Western Management

By John Hunter, author of Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

Dr. Deming added 2 diseases to the lists after this video. He was always learning and updating his thoughts and recommendations. As we have stated earlier, this blog attempts to continue that practice by examining Dr. Deming’s ideas and also looking at how those ideas have evolved as they have been applied.

List of the 7 deadly diseases of western management (the last 2 were added after this video):

  • Lack of constancy of purpose
  • Emphasis on short term profits
  • Annual rating of performance “it is purely a lottery”
  • Mobility of management
  • Use of visible figures only
  • Excessive medical costs
  • Excessive legal damage awards swelled by lawyers working on contingency fees

I believe the practice of management has improved to make a bit of progress on a few of these diseases; but the diseases remain significant problems. They also have become larger problems internationally since this video, as other countries have adopted bad practices.

Where do you think we are today on dealing with these diseases of management? Have we made good progress on eliminating any of these diseases? Have any gotten worse? Are there new diseases you would add to this list (diseases that have become deadly since Dr. Deming added the last 2 diseases to the list.)? I wrote a blog post discussing 2 new deadly diseases that I have seen.

Some of Dr. Deming’s quotes from the video

  • On Management by Objective, Dr. Deming says “someone in Germany called it management by fear (which is still better).” Dr. Deming is saying this because often management by objective boiled down to a supervisor telling employees what their numerical targets were, and woe to them if those numerical goals were not met during that period.
  • On unknown and unknowable figures: “what is the multiplying effect of a happy customer? How much business does a happy customer bring in to you?”
  • “schools of business have done their work, they are not teaching transformation, they’re teaching use of visible figures, creative accounting, how to maximize the price of the companies stock”
  • “American industry is up against competition with the Japanese that have not these deadly diseases”
  • “When you think of all the under-use, abuse and misuse of the people of this country, this may be the world’s most underdeveloped nation. Number 1… for under-development; our people not used, mismanaged, misused and abused and underused by management.”

A related Dr. Deming quote: “A goal without a method is nonsense.” Without a method to improve, a goal is dangerous.

Related: Performance Without Appraisal: What to do Instead of Performance Appraisals by Peter ScholtesManage what you can’t measure

2012 Deming Prize Winners

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

image of the Deming Prize medal

The 2012 Deming Prize winners were announced today by the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers (JUSE).

The companies awarded the Deming Prize this year are:

This continues the recent trend of organizations based in India receiving the Deming prize. Since 2000, organizations based in India have received 19 prizes while organizations based in all other countries combined have received 21 (Thailand 10, Japan 7, USA 1, Singapore 1, China 1 and Taiwan 1).

3 years after a company has received the Deming Prize they may apply to the top prize. That prize has been named the Japan Quality Medal but has been renamed, this year, to the Deming Grand Prize.

This year 3 Deming Grand Prize winners were selected, all are Indian companies:

Only 20 companies had been awarded the prize previously. Toyota was awarded the first award in 1970. In 1997 the first award for an organization based outside Japan was awarded to Philips Taiwan.

Related: Mahindra’s Farm Equipment Sector receives the Japan Quality Medal [link was broken so it was removed]

Dr. Deming on Innovation

By John Hunter, founder of

Dr. Deming is well known for urging companies to bring scientific rigor to their management practices. For that reason, some people remember his primary emphasis being on control charts and PDSA and using data to validate decisions and drive improvement. It is true that he preached the importance of using this thinking to improve. However, that was only one aspect of his teachings.

You will run across writing online discussing the need to move beyond limited focus on the numbers as a reason to “move beyond” Dr. Deming. This makes little sense. Dr. Deming understood the importance of innovation and creativity. His management system emphasized the importance of focusing on these areas. His thoughts on that importance was not hidden away, it was at the core of what he taught. For example, on page 10 of the New Economics:

The moral is that it is necessary to innovate, to predict needs of the customer, give him more. He that innovates and is lucky will take the market.

No defects, no jobs. Absence of defects does not necessarily build business… Something more is required.

From page 7 of the New Economics:

Does the customer invent new product of service? The customer generates nothing. No customer asked for electric lights… No customer asked for photography… No customer asked for an automobile… No customer asked for an integrated circuit.

Dr. Deming was not focused solely on improving the efficiency of a manufacturing plant. No matter what you read online, just a few pages into his book it is obvious he saw the need for a much different vision of leadership. In this blog we hope to continue to explore the full scope of his management philosophy.

Walter Isaacson wrote the biography of Steve Jobs last year. His recent Harvard Business School article, The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs, includes several interesting quotes, including:

Caring deeply about what customers want is much different from continually asking them what they want; it requires intuition and instinct about desires that have not yet formed. “Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page,” Jobs explained. Instead of relying on market research, he honed his version of empathy—an intimate intuition about the desires of his customers.

This is exactly how Dr. Deming felt. People that attempt to view Dr. Deming as the management expert that focused on the importance of data find this confusing. They figure Dr. Deming would support using a completely metric driven approach to judge what the company should be doing. That isn’t what Dr. Deming taught though, as the quotes above illustrate and as the entire management system makes abundantly clear.

What you need to do is know your customers (and potential customers) and business so well that you can innovate to meet their unmet needs (even when those potential customers can’t give voice to what they would like to see).

This post is expanded from my previous article: Dr. Deming on Innovation

The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

By John Hunter, author of Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

The W. Edwards Deming Institute is proud to announce our first blog. The aim of The W. Edwards Deming Institute® is to foster understanding of The Deming System of Profound Knowledge™ to advance commerce, prosperity and peace. With the blog we aim to further the aim of the institute.

Dr. Deming’s personal aim was to advance commerce, prosperity and peace. This is a lofty goal and provides insight into his motives.

I, John Hunter, will be writing and editing this blog. In doing so, I will be trying to explore Deming’s ideas through his work and through the application of his ideas in organizations. In doing so, my opinions will influence what I write. My goal is to stay true to his ideas and thoughts while also seeing how those ideas have been applied, interpreted and extended by others.

Dr. Deming kept learning and modifying his management philosophy throughout his life. He continued to learn and travel to present seminars until weeks before he died at the age of 93. In my view the drive that kept him going was his commitment to his aim.

To many of us today that aim may seem lofty and disconnected from our day to day lives. Dr. Deming was born in 1900 in Sioux City, Iowa. He lived through World War I. He lived through the depression. He lived through World War II. He was asked to go to Japan to aid in the recovery efforts. In my, opinion, if you live through those conditions and are a systems thinker it is very easy to understand the enormous hardship people face when commerce fails to provide prosperity and the devastating tragedy of war is made so real. It may be hard for people with indoor plumbing, heating, air conditioning, safety, security and a fairly strong economy to appreciate how difficult life can be without prosperity. But I think it is much easier for someone who has lived through 2 world wars, a depression and then spends a great deal of time in post war Japan to understand this importance.

I didn’t live through those events, but I also can see that importance. I lived in Singapore and Nigeria as a child. And I traveled quite a bit and was able to see that there were billions of people on the earth that more than anything struggle to get food, clean water and electricity. To me the importance of advancing commerce, prosperity and peace was easy to see and when I first saw his aim it struck me. It took a few more years to appreciate how the aim is made real and moved forward by his ideas.

Most of the posts will be on much more focused management ideas. But I think this is an appropriate beginning to the exploration of these ideas. He had many specific thoughts on topics managers face everyday. Those ideas were part of a system. And that system had, at the core, making the world a better place for us to live in.

It may be hard to appreciate why this matters. And you can make progress without appreciating this idea at first. But you can learn how to adopt Deming’s ideas for management much more quickly and effectively when you understand that the ideas exist within a context that puts respect for people at the core. If respect for people is missing, that means something is missing in the understanding or application of the ideas.

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