W. Edwards Deming is Not a Method or Program

Guest post by Edward Martin Baker

Dr. Deming became widely known outside of Japan beginning in 1980. Since then, consultants, authors, managers, and others have compared their programs and methods to his. Many have tried to link his work to their own in order to add credibility to their own efforts or out of ignorance of the scope of his teaching. Dr. Deming has, for example, been assumed by some to support TQM, Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing, and other programs promoted to improve quality and productivity, particularly in manufacturing. Even though he never supported such programs, his name has been, and continues to be, associated with programs and methods with which he has denied his association and, in some cases, has criticized. For example, when managers told Dr. Deming that their TQM program was based on his work, he asked them, “What about the management of people and their relationships?”

Comparisons don’t work

It is a gross misunderstanding of Deming the person and his aims when his name and teaching are compared to someone’s method, program, and to other individuals and organizations.  This in itself shows a failure to understand Deming’s thinking about comparing the performance of individuals and organizations to each other and to artificial and arbitrary standards. Through his use of relevant theory and demonstrations such as the Red Beads, he showed that typically led to wrong conclusions and harmful actions to those individuals and organizations.

Comparison of methods also is a failure to understand that Deming’s teaching was not focused on methods but on the theory, thinking, and purpose of using specific methods. Methods, of course, must be based on sound logic and theory. Then they provide an orderly and disciplined approach to action. His System of Profound Knowledge is not a collection of methods that he applied, but rather it is a system of thought and a moral philosophy relevant to living our lives within organizations and within society.

Unique thinking

Deming was a unique thinker who wanted to share his insights with the world. His way of thinking requires a different worldview, a different mental map, one that comes with an understanding and appreciation for his System of Profound Knowledge. He was not part of any common cause system of thought. Rather, he had what he called an outside view, a special cause view that he wanted to share with others who were serious about learning from him. Through his teaching, he would make it possible for his special cause thinking to become common cause thinking that would be shared by the wider population.

Throughout history, philosophers, teachers, and other profound thinkers saw how human ignorance enables the creation and perpetuation of life’s problems. It is helpful to learn by examining the thinking of others. However, the comparison of Deming’s teaching with other methods and programs without understanding his mind, knowledge, heart, values, intentions, and theories that shaped his worldview and informed his work does not lead to an understanding of him or his thinking. It is his values, thinking, and the theories he relied on, not any specific method, that make his teaching so powerful.

When people dissect, take apart, break down Deming’s whole system approach in order to make comparisons to their methods, they attribute something to Deming that he did not create. His thinking came from a synthesis of knowledge, not a collection of methods. For example, his application of certain statistical methods came from statistical theory and thinking.

Unique human being

His teaching and practice cannot be separated from Deming the person—his genius, knowledge, values, and experiences over a long life. “I was there,” he often said about how his stories and examples got into his books and teaching. “Deming” is not the name of a method or program; it is the name of a unique human being who offered a holistic system of thought to help managers become leaders of people and for the rest of us to become leaders of our own lives. This is something very different from the aims of typical programs to improve quality and productivity.

W. Edwards Deming was a doctor who was able to diagnose and cure organizations and humanity of what he called “deadly diseases.” In his book Out of the Crisis, Deming diagnosed the deadly diseases and the interrelated management practices that afflict most businesses, as well as other organizations in the Western world. He sought to bring organizations to economic health and individuals to spiritual and psychological health by attaining dignity and joy in work. The physician understands the body as a system where the health of the whole body depends on the healthy functioning of the parts and their relationships. Likewise, the health and proper functioning of the organization as a whole, especially as a social system, depends on the functioning of individuals and the quality of their interactions with each other.

Traditional practices create internal conditions that present obstacles to the organization’s potential for success. They produce competition between individuals and units that interfere with the cooperation and sharing necessary for an organization to perform as a unified whole. They cause loss by degrading the organization’s ability to optimize its resources.

When someone says that Dr. Deming supported some program, method, or fad, what is the basis of their claim? Do they have a statement, public or private, from Dr. Deming that their program or method is aligned with his teaching? Do they understand Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge well enough to make that claim?

About Ed Baker: Ed was with the Ford Motor Company for twenty years. This included five years as Corporate Director, Quality Strategy and Operations Support, where his responsibilities included the management of Dr. Deming’s consulting to the company. He assisted Dr. Deming in many public and private seminars. Dr. Baker is a Fellow of the American Society for Quality, which has honored him with the Deming Medal and the Ishikawa Medal. Ed shared his own understanding of Dr. Deming’s wisdom in his book, The Symphony of Profound Knowledge: W. Edwards Deming’s Score for Leading, Performing, and Living in Concert.

2 thoughts on “W. Edwards Deming is Not a Method or Program”

  1. Ed, very well explained. I very much like the explanation that Dr. Deming offered an outside view, a special cause view. Profound, once again.

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