Dr. Deming’s work lauded by world famous philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre

Guest post by Michael Godfried: planner and policy analyst in Washington State and Bill Bellows, Deputy Director, The Deming Institute

Alasdair MacIntyre is one of the most pre-eminent philosophers in the world. At 89, he continues to teach and write and learn. Like Dr. Deming, age is no barrier to his continued intellectual vigor. In his 2016 book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, MacIntyre cites Dr. Deming at length:

“Deming agreed with [Wendell] Berry that short-term profitability is the enemy of good productive work…Note that neither ignores the need to be productive, the fact that it is the production of worthwhile goods that gives productive work its point and purpose, but both take it that such work serves a common good to which the worker contributes.” (p171)

MacIntyre is what is called a ‘virtue ethicist.’ He is deeply informed by the work of the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who believed that a flourishing life was only possible by following the classical virtues that include wisdom, justice, courage and temperance. Aristotle also held that a flourishing life desires some ‘good’ and seeks to achieve excellence:

“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and human pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that which things aim.” (Nicomachean Ethics 1094a1-3)

Dr. Deming believed that organizations should seek excellence both in their outcomes and processes. At the same time, he valued employees as human beings and believed strongly in seeking their input and developing their abilities. Whereas modern economic theory sees people as isolated individuals only seeking pure economic gain, Deming saw employees as having diverse goals and desiring to make a contribution at work. In The New Economics, Dr. Deming declares ‘We must restore the individual…’ Later, in that same chapter, he discusses the role of the manager:

“A manager of people understands that people are different than each other. He tries to create for everybody interest and challenge, and joy in work. He tries to optimize the family background, education, skills, hopes, and abilities of everyone.” (The New Economics, p86)

As MacIntyre recognized, Dr. Deming excoriated how a focus on quarterly earnings distracts companies from long-term goals of achieving quality products and services and a quality workplace. In the recent bankruptcy filing for the ailing Sears company, there is yet another sad example of siphoning off the assets of a company while leaving stakeholders, such as employees and communities, out to hang. As Russell Ackoff comments:

“A corporation that fails to see itself as an instrument of all its stakeholders will probably fail to use them, and be used by them, effectively enough to survive in the emerging environment.” (Recreating the Corporation, p289)

There is no mistaking the ethical dimensions of organizational life. This is a point that Dr. Deming makes again and again in all his writings. It is likely one of the passions that drove him to work incessantly up until his death at the age of 93 to promote organizational renewal and the restoration of the individual.  This is a quality that MacIntyre recognized and celebrated in his most recent book.

Additional references:

A lecture by MacIntyre

Excellent, free lectures on Aristotle by Professor Gregory Sadler (who also studied with MacIntyre)

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