Dr. Deming on Innovation

By John Hunter, founder of CuriousCat.com.

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

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