Why Dr. Deming’s Work is So Important to Me

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Guest post by Mark Graban,  founder and lead blogger and podcaster at LeanBlog.org,

While my work is usually associated with the term “Lean” and the lessons from the Toyota Production System, some of my earliest learning and inspiration for improvement came from the work of W. Edwards Deming. I don’t think I learned anything about Deming or his work as an undergraduate Industrial Engineering student from 1991 to 1995. I do remember my statistics professor saying something in class, in early 1994, right after Dr. Deming passed away. I think I was the only one to raise my hand after he asked who had heard of him.

Why had I heard of Dr. Deming? I was fortunate that my father had an opportunity to be a student in the famed Four-Day Seminar, while working as an engineer at the Cadillac division of General Motors, in the late 1980s. I don’t remember getting too many details from my dad about the class, other than Dr. Deming chastising some executives who showed up during the last hour of the last day. But, I was curious enough to check out the copy of Out of the Crisis that was on my dad’s bookshelf. I first read the book during a break between quarters during my junior year in college.

Out of the Crisis resonated with me – not because of statistics, but because of the human factors, the psychology, and the workplace dynamics that I already recognized from the workplace, having worked a few part time retail jobs at that point. For example, I had experience with one bullying boss who didn’t listen to his employees.

Thankfully, I also had some very good managers who still fell victim to conventional wisdom management ideas, such as a store manager creating special sales incentives and contests that seemed silly and unnecessary. My co-workers and I didn’t understand why we had to be motivated to sell video game systems during the holiday shopping season, since that’s what we already enjoyed doing (read more about it in this post from my blog). It was one of my first experiences with teamwork and intrinsic motivation being squashed by extrinsic incentives and competition.


During my junior year in college, I was running for leadership positions in my fraternity. One long-standing issue had been relatively poor attendance at weekly chapter meetings. Occasionally, a brother would get voted out of the chapter after a period of excessive absenteeism.

In my campaign, I suggested that punitive measures (or the threat thereof) only made the attendance problem worse and went against the spirit of brotherhood. I proposed that we scrap our existing points-based attendance system and the requirements to attend. Our job, as chapter leaders, would be to understand why some brothers weren’t attending and to improve the system in a way that would make people want to attend, by their own choice and intrinsic motivation. Brothers could still be removed from the chapter, if deemed necessary.

This approach was too radical compared to “the way we’d always done it.” Oh well. I tried. I learned that I’d have to do a better job, in the future, of making a case of challenging an existing, deeply engrained system, if I was going to change how things are managed.

When I searching for my first full-time job, General Motors wasn’t initially high on my list for several reasons. I did interview with the company and learned that there was a factory that was supposedly managed under a version of The Deming Philosophy. They called this “The Livonia Philosophy,” as the plant was in my hometown of Livonia, Michigan. The factory promised a different culture, a different way of managing, and a different relationship with the union.

Excited, I showed up for work and quickly realized that “The Livonia Philosophy” had, unfortunately, completely degraded. The culture had slipped back to “the way it had always been” with all the dysfunctions that one would expect in a GM plant of that era. Ironically, the Deming approach had been reduced to a bunch of meaningless slogans and posters on the wall. Workers were blamed for quality problems after management had told them to keep the line running instead of properly gauging parts or changing tools. There was no opportunity for pride and joy in work there. More about that in a later post in this series.

After escaping GM, I had an opportunity to attend graduate school at MIT, to study operations management, system dynamics, and other topics. I remember a few of my classmates from the auto industry joining me to take issue with an economics professor who was trying to teach us that there was an economically optimal level of quality for a business – the idea that better quality cost too much beyond a certain point.

We argued with him, citing our understanding of Deming and the modern quality approach, including the Taguchi loss function, as we had studied in our TQM class. Rather than defeating our argument, the professor eventually just shut off the debate so he could continue with his lecture. You might argue I went to the wrong business school. I do recall re-reading the sections of Out of the Crisis where Dr. Deming criticized MBA programs… and he was right.

After business school, I ended up in organizations that didn’t understand or didn’t subscribe to the Deming philosophy and approach. I remember a colleague, also in her first year out of MIT, feeling crushed when her boss at Dell told her in her first annual review, “You deserve a ‘1’ (the highest rating), but nobody is allowed to get a ‘1’ in their first year, so you get a ‘2.’” Later at Johnson & Johnson, I was a victim of “stack ranking,” where my earned rating of a “7” (out of 9… who dreams up these systems?) was knocked down to a “6” because too many people had been given a “7.” I asked, for my future improvement’s sake, what I’d have to do to earn a “9” and was told by my manager that “nobody ever gets a 9.”

These different situations illustrate the “forces of destruction” that Dr. Deming wrote about so vividly. I was deeply saddened when I saw how General Motors employees, hourly and salaried alike, were so unhappy at work in my plant. At least the salaried employees had options to leave; the hourly workers were basically stuck there (think Mr. Burns telling Homer Simpson “Don’t forget. You’re here forever.”) since they couldn’t find a similar job at those wages.

It became my mission and driving focus – to help create better workplaces that didn’t beat people down, crushing their spirits. Sadly, these same forces of destruction exist in too many healthcare organizations today. That’s also something I will cover in a future post, along with my reactions to Dr. Deming’s “Notes on Management in a Hospital,” as John Hunter blogged about earlier.

To this day, I say (only half-jokingly) that learning about Deming was both the best thing and the worst thing that ever happened in my career. It’s the best thing because it opened my eyes to a better way of leading people. It’s the worst thing because I’d be happier in the “prison” and the “tyranny of the prevailing style of management” if I had never been exposed to Deming.

photo of Mark Graban
Mark Graban

Mark Graban is author of the book Lean Hospitals: Improving Quality, Patient Safety, and Employee Engagement (Productivity Press), which was selected for a 2009 Shingo Research and Professional Publication Award (3rd Edition, 2016).

Mark also co-authored Healthcare Kaizen: Engaging Front-Line Staff in Sustainable Continuous Improvements, which was released in June 2012 and also a Shingo Research Award recipient in 2013.

He is the founder and lead blogger and podcaster at LeanBlog.org, started in January 2005.

Mark is also the Vice President of Improvement & Innovation Services for the software company KaiNexus.

Related: The Real Lessons of the Red Bead FactoryWe are Here to Learn, to Make a Difference and to Have FunPodcast with Clare Crawford-Mason Discussing Dr. Deming’s Ideas on Management

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