How Can Deming’s Management Ideas Help During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

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

When using Dr. Deming’s management ideas in your organization, the principles must be considered and applied to your organization. Those principles help create an organization that is adaptable – continually responding to changes in the outside world, continually experimenting and improving with an enduring respect for people.

Those characteristics, of organizations that use Deming’s ideas, are extremely useful in a pandemic where we must react to conditions that very few had the foresight to predict. Trying to cope with the pandemic is extremely difficult for any organization. But an organization that is rigid, and has a difficult time adapting, will struggle much more than organizations with a culture that is continually seeking to experiment, adapt, and improve.

Creating the conditions needed to effectively respond to enormous change is not easy. If you have to try and do that while the economy is suffering from radical changes brought on by a pandemic, it is much more difficult. If your organization has been applying Deming’s ideas, the task is still difficult, but the organization can take advantage of strengths that are useful to managing at any time, but are even more useful when conditions are as challenging as they have been during the last year.

As the risks of COVID-19 to employees became known, a Deming company would have taken action to learn about the risks and how to respond in a way to limit those risks. Familiarity and experience with the critical thinking needed to gather information, and learn from it what you can, is very helpful in navigating this challenging situation. Deming organizations are used to identifying where the evidence is unclear and important to understand. Those organizations then take action to gain more insight, often through experimentation. (Though in this case, of the risks from COVID-19 to employees, I think the more likely path is to seek out the evidence that public health experts were sharing).

The strength in experimenting comes to play as radical changes may be required to respond to the rapidly changing public health and business environment. And in this situation, the comfort and experience of using PDSA to rapidly test out alternatives and adjust is key.

Organizations applying Deming’s ideas have a cultural understanding of variation. I think the pandemic caused variation in economic conditions that were outside of what most organizations considered in any detail. However, a culture that understands that internal and external (macroeconomic, industry-specific, location-specific) variation are factors that must be considered to create systems that are designed to be robust and have the ability to survive shocks to the system.

And the knowledge about the variation that is most critical to consider is valuable, as the economy changes rapidly. The same knowledge of systems that was gained while consistently seeking to improve, is useful in having an understanding of the organization as a system and how responses to drastic changes are likely to be most useful in extraordinary situations.

Honestly, some Deming organizations (as have many others) may also be learning that they may not have been quite careful enough to build robust systems. We have a tendency to discount the risks of potential variation in our systems when we have gone through periods with great stability. It is somewhat natural to think that worrying about risks that haven’t caused issues recently are not worth spending time on. However, if your goal is the long-term success for your organization, your employees, and your customers, it is important to consider those risks that are not going to crop up every year, or even every 10 years. Then design systems that are robust and continually improving over time.

I may add some posts to our blog looking at some specific examples of using Deming’s ideas to help organizations cope and prosper since the pandemic began. If you have examples you would like to share, please contact me by adding a comment below. And if you would like to see such posts, please let me know.

Related: Deming Company was Ahead of COVID-19India Fights COVID-19 with Control Charts

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