Lessons From the Red Bead Experiment with Dr. Deming

By John Hunter, founder of CuriousCat.com.

The lessons that can be illustrated using the Red Bead experiment are too many to include in this post. But we can touch on a few of the ideas. The value of the Red Bead Experiment is to provide focus to your thinking.

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It is hard to believe what the full Red Bead Experiment is like for many people. For many participants the psychology gets to them even while they can understand rationally the constraints placed on them. The letter Dr. Deming reads is a common reaction.

For those that say the red bead experiment is unrealistic and therefore can’t be of value. Of course it is unrealistic. It is a simplification. But the lessons don’t rely on the exactness of the illustration to a real organization. The lessons are illustrated by this simple construction.

Llyod Dobbins, states in the clip included here: “They wound up frustrated by a system that would not let them do their work and in which they were powerless to change.” This is a very common experience. The red bead experiment takes it to an extreme but the point is being forced to work in a broken system that you are powerless to change. Sadly, that is a common fate of many workers. Blaming workers in such situations is obviously pointless.

Dr. Deming reading from the “willing workers” letter:

People wished to do their best. I though about my own work situation, how often people are in a situation they cannot govern but wished to do their best, and people do their best. And after a while, what happens to their drive, their care, their desire? For some they become burned out, tuned out. Fortunately there are many that only need the opportunity and methods to contribute.

This is very true.

Llyod Dobyns provides some more lessons

Workers will try to do a good job even when they know they cannot. Doing your best doesn’t matter, unless you know what to do, why you are doing it, and how to do it.

I would add that he left out unless the practice that is what you are suppose to do is effective. And that the system must allow those who are doing the work to continually improve the process. These are true no matter what the work it: manufacturing, policing, engineering, nursing, etc.. I include the knowledge, time, tools and authority to continually improve the process as necessary. Providing people authority without the knowledge (training if necessary, which it usually is) and ability is not helpful.

Another important lesson from the Red Bead Experiment is the importance of understanding variation – the importance of drawing accurate conclusions from the data you have. So often we have people drawing faulty conclusions from data because they don’t understand variation. They make claims that are not supported by the data. But since so few understand how to analyze data those claims are accepted as evidence.

Data very similar to that provided by the Red Bed Experiment is used everyday in businesses to reward and punish people. Data is used to blame those who fall short of expectations and reward those who have good numbers. In the Red Bead Experiment we know the numbers are not a sensible measure of value provided by the employee. But in our organizations we accept numbers that are just as unrelated to the value provided by the employe to rate and reward employees.

There is a powerful need to improve the numeracy (literacy with numbers) in our organizations. It isn’t a matter of complex math. The concepts are fairly simple. Most people need not even use a formula at all (even though the formulas are simple). They just need to understand variation. A control chart provides an easy way to see what is the natural variation of the system and highlight when there is a special cause. An organization needs some people that understand the statistics at a higher level (still mostly simple stuff) but most people can just use the charts and understanding of variation to make judgements that are consistent with the available evidence.

Dr. Deming: “They [willing workers] conformed to procedures but there was wide variation from one worker to another.” The data provided by the Red Bead Experiment is often much more convincing than the data we get from our organizations. One lesson I think is underplayed is the lesson that data that seems very clear, is not providing the evidence we think it is. I think because we can easily see this data can’t be providing value we discount it. But I think in many organization if they looked at data like this they would have easier decision than the data they actually have. The Red Bead data seems to be showing clearer difference than the data we normally view. This isn’t the case if you have knowledge about variation, but without that knowledge the data can be deceiving.

Dr. Deming also says: “The system is the responsibility of management. Workers work within the system, management is responsible for the system.” In The Red Bead Experiment that is shown in the extreme. I think in our organizations it is a shared responsibility but management has the most authority and therefore the most responsibility, it seems to me. Management also sets the conditions within which everyone participates. If the structure does not allow workers to question and improve their ability to work on the system is non-existent. If they have very limited real opportunities then they have a very limited share of the responsibilities for the system. I’ll probably talk about this more in another blog post.

Dr. Deming: “costs are not causes, we need to work on the causes.”

Instead of working on the causes of the red beads the company just blamed workers and went out of business. Instead our companies need to have a system that supports and encourages those doing the work to continually improve. How can we remove the red bead from getting to us? Failing that, would it be cost effective to inspect and pull them out (this isn’t a great solution, but it might be better than what else we can do, right now – perhaps there are traits that would help, maybe the red beads are a bit more magnetic, or we could use an optical scanner to sort out the red and white beads)? Can we modify the paddles to favor selecting white beads? The important lesson is that if you don’t let those doing the work address the problems your business suffers.

Dr. Deming: “The performance of anybody, almost anybody, is governed almost totally by the system he works in… In actual life it may be that 98% of performance comes from the system. Most of what we observe comes from the system… their output is governed by the system.”

Related: Knowledge About Variation (Ian Bradbury)Is the Result Due to Mathematical Probability or Individual Merit?

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