It Depends…

Post by Bill Bellows, Deputy Director, The Deming Institute.

“There is not a day I don’t think about what Dr. Deming meant to us. Deming is the core of our management,” proclaimed Shoichiro Toyoda, Toyota’s president between 1982 and 1992 and chairman between 1992 and 1999, at the 1980 Deming Prize Ceremonies in Japan.

One year earlier, in February 1990, Dr. W. Edwards Deming fielded questions from the evening audience at Western Connecticut State University. This would be his third lecture in a day that began with a session with students, followed by one with faculty and staff of the business school. I attended all three lectures, in which he frequently referred to notes that later became his book, The New Economics, published in 1993.

It was during these lectures that I was first introduced to his System of Profound Knowledge, the name he chose for his theory, yet deferred to each audience with a kind request – “If you have a better name, please help me,” he would say. These sessions also included ample time for questions and answers from the many newcomers who joined me that day. Approaching 90 years of age, Deming had no doubt heard many of them before. For me, in my first exposure, the questions and answers revealed both counter-intuitive perspectives and enticing possibilities. I sorted the questions and answers, like pieces to a greater whole, and began to arrange them in my mind. This is how my search for a pattern and a deeper perspective within the Deming message began.

I recall one attendee in the evening audience seeking insight on the issue of staff cutting. His question went something like this: “Dr. Deming, what do you think about the recent trend toward reducing the number of levels of management?” Although I was not a middle-level manager, I was captivated by the prospects of Dr. Deming’s answer, for it offered another piece to the puzzle. With little hesitation, Dr. Deming answered: “Why have more levels than you need?”

As for me, it was not the answer I had anticipated, nor the direction I had expected Deming to move. I was expecting a response with advice on how many levels of management were appropriate. Perhaps five. Perhaps three. Instead, Dr. Deming re-framed the issue with a question revealing a contextual appreciation of organizational interactions.

My interpretation of Dr. Deming’s answer was that the number of levels of management would be dependent on the specifics of the organization, not “one size fits all”. Given a specific situation or system, one would need an appropriate number of levels. More than this would be costly. Less than this would be costly. Trial-and-error often leads to an answer. Should the situation change, one might expect the solution to change as well. Instead of a “one size fits all” solution, this activity could be seen as managing the system, with its inherent interactions.

Does one size fit all?   It depends!

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