Quality Beginnings: Deming and Madison, Wisconsin

This post in an excerpt from The Quality Leadership Workbook for Police by Chief David Couper and Captain Sabine Lobitz.

While the intense focus on quality movement in the 1980s did not become the dominant way to run an organization like many of us thought it would, it still became one of society’s major influences. Culturally, we can see it in current television episodes of ‘Undercover Boss’ and ‘Bar Rescue.’

The idea that how we work (even how we live) should be a process of continuous and constant improvement is not new. Many of the values inherent in the quality movement are the values of America. For example, to manufacture a product that is of high quality, durable, and sold at a fair price is the basis of our economic system. It also applies to the delivery of services.

Service, like a product, can be delivered to a customer with the intent to not only meet but exceed a customer’s expectations. None of us like to receive shabby services that fall far below our expectations. The value that ‘the customer is always right’ continues to be important in our nation’s manufacturing and service sectors.

Moreover, the delivery of high quality police services needs also to be a working value in our nation. Of course, it is a lot easier to generate customer appreciation when police do something for a person versus something perceived to be against their interests like issuing a traffic ticket, telling someone they cannot do something, or arresting them.

But we must understand this: police are more effective in their difficult work when citizens support them. And any measure of police effectiveness is always dependent upon whether citizens perceive their police to be fair, honest, and controlled in the use of force.


Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s ideas first took root in Japanese industry after World War II. Many years later there began a growing movement in our own country to use his methods not only in American industry and business, but government as well. The City of Madison and its police department were part of that national movement.

Deming’s teachings had a strong influence in Madison. Under Mayor Joseph Sensenbrenner (1983-1989), there was a near-total involvement by city employees in applying Deming’s work to city government. These were Madison’s golden years as government, business, and educational institutions worked together to make quality an organizational lifestyle in Madison. Deming helped us to see police work as a system capable of being improved.

We also learned the value of collaborating with and learning from others outside of law enforcement. We came to see that the systems for which we were responsible, were dependent on others around us (like when we realized the important systems-link between poverty, jobs, education, and crime). Most of all we saw the work we did as a system – and a system that could be improved.

Deming believed that a worker’s lack of information profoundly hampered the process of improving products and delivering services. Along with Dr. Walter Shewhart, he developed an improvement cycle that will be familiar to anyone who has studied problem-oriented policing: Plan, Do, Check, Act. They believed that if this cycle of improvement is maintained, and if leaders are willing to disregard unsupported ideas, the quality of work, products, and services will consistently improve, customers will be satisfied, and costs will be reduced.

Until this time, Deming’s work was rather unnoticed except for a few Japanese industrialists. Then in 1980, Deming was featured prominently in the legendary NBC documentary titled If Japan Can…Why Can’t We?

The documentary lit a fire in America. It was a question many asked, and it deserved an answer. Why couldn’t we? The program that night highlighted the increasing industrial competition we were facing overseas. It documented how Japan had gone about a process of continuously improving their products, reducing their costs, and dramatically improving the quality of their products. America took note and so did we.

As a result of that documentary, the demand for Deming’s services exploded.

Ford Motor Company was one of the first American corporations to seek help from him, and Prof. Bill Hunter, at the University of Wisconsin, came to understand what Deming was teaching*. He brought those ideas to the City of Madison, Mayor Sensenbrenner, and then to the police department. The rest is history.

photo of Police Chief David Couper in uniform with photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi on his office wall.
David Couper as the Madison Wisconsin chief of police.

David Couper served over three decades as a police officer, detective, training officer and police chief. Over 20 of those years were served as Chief of the Madison, Wisconsin police department where he lead a major organizational transformation involving mission, leadership style, and collaboration both inside the department and with the communities he served.

He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology and Public Administration. This is his fourth book on improving policing and he authors a blog: Improving Police. He lives west of Madison with his wife (and collaborator), Sabine Lobitz, who retired as a police captain with the State Capitol Police. He is passionate about police and their continuous improvement.

Related: Transforming a Management System, A Case Study From the Madison Wisconsin Police DepartmentThe System Will Produce What It’s Capable of ProducingCan Deming Save Us Again?

* Just a note on this sentence. I (John Hunter, the primary author of this blog) am Bill’s son and he was writing back and forth with Dr. Deming soon after Dad got his Ph.D. in statistics (since at least the late 1960s). This included discussing how to bring better management ideas to Singapore and Nigeria (Dad took several years as a professor teaching statistics, chemical engineering and industrial engineering overseas). I would say Dad took advantage of the increased notoriety that came with the NBC white paper to expand the scope of his efforts into new areas (such as the business school at the UW-Madison and Madison city government).

3 thoughts on “Quality Beginnings: Deming and Madison, Wisconsin”

  1. I’m curious about the naming of Deming Way in west Madison/Middleton, WI. Is it related to this story or is it separate and named after a different Deming altogether? Thanks for any insight you can give in this curiosity.

    1. Christina Dragonetti

      Hi Joel,
      We don’t have any evidence that Deming Way in Madison is named after Dr. Deming. We know he worked with the Madison city government, including police and other departments, for several years, so it would make sense if the street were named after him.

    2. It is my understanding that the street “Deming Way” was named after Dr. Deming. I think the developer of that commercial area was a Deming disciple. I may be wrong, but at the time (1990s) that was my understanding.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top