Myth: If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Manage It

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It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.”

– W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics.

One of the quotes you will see quite frequently “incorrectly” attributed to Dr. Deming is, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” I suppose you could say it is technically correctly attributed to him; after all, it is a direct quote taken from the quote listed above. However, I think it would be more accurate to say it is misattributed to him.

If you read the original quote carefully, it is saying the opposite of what most people think when they read the abbreviated quote. This is one of the dangers in using quotes without context. For that reason, we try to provide context for quotes by W. Edwards Deming in our quote database.

Why is the shorter quote used so often and (mis)attributed to Dr. Deming? My guess is that he did stress the importance of using data to confirm beliefs about which management strategies and practices are working and which are not. And he did so much earlier than it became commonplace to see things this way in relation to managing organizations. In addition, several of the tools he recommended involved using data (Plan-Do-Study-Act improvement cycle, control charts, etc.). And often when people are told about Deming they get a very short introduction, which leaves out most of what he said, and they get the idea he was just a statistician.

So when people see a quote emphasizing the importance of data attributed to W. Edwards Deming, it seems sensible that he said it. And it is likely shared so often because people notice that their organization is flailing away when they would benefit from using data to improve their management of the situation. So the quote appeals to people who think that their organization fails to use data when they should be using it.

Dr. Deming did very much believe in the value of using data to help improve the management of the organization. But he also knew that just measuring things and looking at data wasn’t close to enough. There are many things that cannot be measured and still must be managed. And there are many things that cannot be measured and managers must still make decisions about.

I wrote a post on my Curious Cat Management Improvement blog about how to manage what you can’t measure (in 2010).

Using data to evaluate what is working and what isn’t is a very valuable management practice. And it is still a practice that is used far too little (even though it is used much more than it was 30 or 50 years ago). But much more than managing what you can measure is needed to manage organizations well.

Related: Unknown and Unknowable DataVideo of Dr. W. Edwards Deming: Deadly Diseases of Western Management (one of which is “Use of visible figures only”)

3 thoughts on “Myth: If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Manage It”

  1. I’ve always seen data as the compass point. It is not the entire map and even today not fully turn by turn directions. You need to mix the anecdotal with the data to get the bigger picture. Anecdotal information may give you the better sense of the terrain where the data compass point is indicating you need to go.

  2. I’m not sure what in the world you are talking about. Is it a semantic comment on the wording of the quote? Especially today, with “big data” and rapid data processing, looking for critical manufacturing variables in a “meta sense,” without the intervention of a human, as they trend over high volume production is an invaluable proactive tool for keeping a process in control. Only after the system identifies in real time non-random behavior trending toward the upper or lower control limits would a human be notified; in time to find and correct root cause before defects are produced.
    In my opinion, Dr. Deming would salivate at this measurement opportunity and capability.
    Tom Borkes

    1. I suspect even with the wealth of data riches, Dr. Deming would recognize that not everything important can be managed. And that managers still have to make decisions in the absence of data… Data isn’t “meaning”…

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