Guest post from Edward Martin Baker, author of The Symphony of Profound Knowledge: W. Edwards Deming’s Score for Leading, Performing, and Living in Concert
As we get older, more experienced, and maybe wiser, some of us may reflect on what we could have done differently when we were younger – if we knew then what we know now. This idea has been expressed in popular music and even in some advertising. I remember Dr. Deming saying in seminars how he would like to apologize to his physics students for his teaching of the subject at the young age of 23 when he was a graduate teaching assistant. Of course, when I heard him say that I thought “you knew more at age 23 than most people ever do” and that he had a value system that enabled him to act wisely. Still, I understand his regret.
I have recently been reflecting on my teaching of introductory statistics when I was a graduate school teaching fellow in the distant past. I taught the standard material just as I had learned it. Material that was, and still is, covered in most, if not all, introductory statistics texts: histograms, the normal distribution, skewed distributions, statistical hypothesis testing, definitions of probability, confidence intervals, etc. All are based on theory and, as Deming would say, correct in their own world; but how useful are these theories and methods to business, science, and all of the other aspects of living?
How much more useful would it have been for my students if they had learned Deming’s concepts of variation and systems thinking? If only they could have learned about common and special causes of variation, about the information in the time-ordered data of statistical control charts, about the difference between enumerative and analytic studies, about the importance of practical significance over statistical significance…and all the rest of Deming’s teaching embodied in his System of Profound Knowledge.
I think we all know about the idea of degrees of separation between people. I first met Dr. Deming at Ford Motor Company in February 1981. It turns out I could have met him years earlier. In the early 1960’s there were two degrees of separation between Dr. Deming and me. I found that out in the 1980s when Dr. Deming told me that in the 1960s he had done consumer research for Pepsi Cola and I asked him if he knew Harold Shapiro, the director of marketing research for Pepsi at that time. Hal was my Master’s thesis advisor at Baruch College in New York City, and yes, Dr. Deming knew him. Unfortunately, I don’t remember if Dr. Deming’s name ever came up in my discussions with Hal or in his class. If it did, I wasn’t wise enough to see the opportunity to meet him.
When I think about this early missed opportunity, it strengthens my appreciation for the practical importance of Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge, not only for business, education, government, science, and other organizations and institutions but for generally living a richer life. I reflect on what it could have meant to the individuals in my statistics class if I knew then what I later learned from Dr. Deming. How might their lives have been changed with an understanding of Deming’s philosophy? My concern also applies to educational institutions from elementary school to college, graduate school and professional education. There is something in Dr. Deming’s knowledge and worldview that everyone can learn and benefit from, particularly Deming’s approach to statistical thinking and reasoning. I can only hope that these students learn about Deming sooner rather than later.