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Davis Balestracci


‘Why Deming? Why Now?’... Why the Need for a Different ‘Method’

Out of the echo chamber

Published: Thursday, September 27, 2018 - 12:01

During the early 1990s, I was president of the Twin Cities Deming Forum. I had a wonderful board whose members were full of great ideas. One member, Doug Augustine, was a 71-year-old retired Lutheran minister and our respected, self-appointed provocateur. He never missed an opportunity to appropriately pull us right back to reality with his bluntly truthful observations and guaranteed follow through on every commitment he made.

After W. Edwards Deming’s death in 1993, we tried to keep the forum alive, but monthly meeting attendance started to drop off significantly. We were offering innovative meetings to grow in practice of Deming’s philosophy, but our members wanted static rehashing and worship of “the gospel according to Dr. Deming.”

The last straw was a meeting where a self-appointed Deming expert/consultant went too far: He lobbed one too many of his predictable, pedantic “gotcha! grenades” at the speaker for alleged deviations from “the gospel.” His persistence blindsided and visibly upset our wonderful guest speaker. I was furious and publicly told him to stop. It did not go over well—except with my board.

We discussed the incident at our next board meeting and, per usual, Doug nailed it: “Are we in the ‘entertainment’ business, or are we in the ‘changing the world’ business? I want the latter; our members want the former. If that’s what they want, I’m out of here. I say we pull the plug on the forum.” He was right, and we immediately and unanimously voted to shut the forum down, exactly one year after Deming’s death.

I have often used Doug’s “entertainment” vs. “changing the world” perspective to challenge groups, including The Deming Institute (no response). Bill Bellows’ recent Quality Digest article, “Why Deming, Why Now?” made me think of and slightly adapt a statement by the infamous Samuel Goldwyn (a fearsome bully known for his unintentionally humorous twists of phrases): “If Dr. Deming were alive today, he would be spinning in his grave.”

To quote from the article: “Now, 28 years later and 25 years after his passing in 1993, consider what questions one might ask Deming, were he alive today. Perhaps a series of questions, such as:
• ‘What do you think about the recent trend toward reducing the waste in our operations?’
• ‘What do you think about the recent trend toward reducing variation in our processes?’
• ‘What do you think about the recent trend toward reducing costs in our departments?’
• ‘What do you think about the recent trend toward standardizing our operations?’

Weren’t all of these questions continually asked in various guises while Deming was alive? They were, and triggered that famous glare while he growled, “Nonsense! What’s their theory?” and, flashing his knowing smile, “Off to the Milky Way!”

A more disturbing question: If people are naïve enough not to see asking such questions as a monumental waste of Deming’s time, might this explain the lack of traction of Deming’s message since his death?

The article continues, “Although introduced in the 1980s as a better way to manage product, process, and service quality, the Deming Philosophy is gaining momentum in the 21st century as a better way to manage systems, with applicability to any organization interested in the endless pursuit of ‘doing more with less.’” (My emphasis.)

I wonder whether anyone daring to use the phrase “doing more with less” to Deming’s face would have lived to tell the tale? Taken at face value, it is incomplete. Using the final piece of the Deming Chain Reaction, wouldn’t it be better stated as “doing more with less, with the intent to ‘provide jobs and more jobs’—while keeping people employable?”

“The Deming Philosophy is gaining momentum?” Only now, 25 years after his death? It never had momentum, except as a one-time, massive tsunami of awareness through his many four-day seminars during the last 10 years of his life. He was virtually unknown during the 1970s, but the perfect storm created by the U.S. auto industry crisis became a magnificent bully pulpit for his ideas. Sadly, many successes of Deming’s philosophy have vanished.

But that said, it is indeed every bit as relevant today. As Deming might have observed, it needs a new “method”—the bully pulpit has become an echo chamber.

If Deming and his message were brand new today in our “bigger, better, faster, more... now!” society, would anyone listen to him for four days... or at all?

“Knowing isn’t the same as doing; good intentions are too easily crushed by old habits. Theoretical or inspirational training approaches are where the rubber meets the sky.”
Jim Clemmer

Deming’s message had a small blip in healthcare during the 1990s, and it weakly persists, but it is up against healthcare’s historically unique, deeply entrenched, dysfunctional cultural issues. It’s easily being trumped by a “magic bullet” infatuation with lean Six Sigma. A prominent healthcare improvement organization naively believes it can teach how to “bolt-on” (i.e., retrofit) Deming’s inherent “built-in” (transformational) approach to such a culture; it’s a fool’s errand, but a very profitable one.

Blunt reality: Unless Deming philosophy adherents can move beyond armchair criticisms and patronizing demonstrations of the Red Bead Experiment while spouting, “Joy in work!” (“entertainment”) and demonstrate how to get actual eye-opening results that move “big dots” in board rooms (“changing the world”), attention-deficit executives won’t be interested. (See “No Wonder Executives Hated Deming.”)

Let’s consider some data: 2,000 members on the Deming Institute’s LinkedIn site (compared to several lean and Six Sigma LinkedIn groups that have more than 500,000 members) and excitement at 200 people registering for a “worldwide” Deming Conference in October. Does that sound like “changing the world” momentum in the midst of a Six Sigma/lean/lean Six Sigma tsunami? Or will it just be “entertainment” in an echo chamber?

Deming had two famous theorems:
• “Nobody gives a hoot about profits.”
• “We are being ruined by best efforts.”

Let me adapt them:
• “Nobody gives a hoot about improvement.”
• “We are being ruined by best efforts.” Beware of uneducated enthusiasm resulting from an initial exposure to Deming’s ideas. They require at least an initial five years of deep study, observation, and small applications before even considering teaching them—or making public declarations about “the prevailing tyranny of Western management.”

Bob Emiliani’s “The Seven Laws of Lean Disillusionment” are every bit as true about what has happened to the Deming philosophy, three of them especially:
• Dilution widens acceptance. Acceptance widens dilution
• Unanimity breeds narrow-mindedness
• Results that live up to expectations are an accident

Concerning the last point within the important perspective of “variation,” consider a success as “positive” variation manifesting on a situation.  Emiliani’s point is that many touted successes are primarily isolated special cause occurrences, which are the stuff of show-and-tell conference presentations and poster sessions.

As Deming often said, “Examples without theory teach nothing.”

True improvement’s goal should be to create a system where “big dot” successes are common causes, i.e., “perfectly designed” to be produced consistently.

Mariela Dabbah: “Enough of attending meetings that lead to building a bridge to nowhere. Enough of asking what I'm supposed to ask rather than what needs to be asked. Enough of praising people who are undeserving of praise. Enough of valuing form over substance. Enough of accepting good when what is needed is outstanding. Enough of enabling people to act as victims when they need to take personal responsibility. 

“Inevitably, this kind of shift doesn't happen unless a substantial number of leaders put their collective foot down and say ‘Enough!’ in unison.”  

Enough with the “entertainment” already!

Lest some of you consider me committing sacrilege, please resist the initial urge for gotcha! grenades and take these Deming quotes to heart (from Ron McCoy’s book, The Best of Deming, SPC Press, 1994):
• “We are being ruined by best efforts.”
• “Judging people does not help them.”
• “If you stay in this world, you will never learn another one.” (Entertainment vs. changing the world)
• “Does experience help? No! Not if we are doing the wrong things.”
• “There is nothing more costly than a hack.” (Both statistical and Deming theory)

At least give me the courtesy of an honest attempt to understand my theory, “method,” and vision for “changing the world”: Data sanity is a catalytic strategy to implement the Deming philosophy.

You might find the embedded article links and five-part summary below an hour or two well spent. My hope is to create a critical mass of people who will join me in my ongoing quixotic quest. Anyone interested?

Data sanity:
Part 1:  “Which of Deming’s 14 Points Should I Start With?” (Answer: None of them)
Part 2:  “Unknown or Unknowable”... Yet Shocking!”
Part 3:  “When the Indicators I Plot Are Common Cause, What Should I Do?”
Part 4:  “Vital Deming Lessons Still Not Learned”
Part 5:  “What’s the Hurry?”


About The Author

Davis Balestracci’s picture

Davis Balestracci

Davis Balestracci is a past chair of ASQ’s statistics division. He has synthesized W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy as Deming intended—as an approach to leadership—in the second edition of Data Sanity (Medical Group Management Association, 2015), with a foreword by Donald Berwick, M.D. Shipped free or as an ebook, Data Sanity offers a new way of thinking using a common organizational language based in process and understanding variation (data sanity), applied to everyday data and management. It also integrates Balestracci’s 20 years of studying organizational psychology into an “improvement as built in” approach as opposed to most current “quality as bolt-on” programs. Balestracci would love to wake up your conferences with his dynamic style and entertaining insights into the places where process, statistics, organizational culture, and quality meet.


Why Deming / Why Now

Davis, it was a pleasure to speak with you recently and gain clarification of your comments on my QD article.   We are kindred spirits with regard to how Dr. Deming's advice on improving organizational performance, as guided by his System of Profound Knowledge, could be misinterpreted.    As one of his former student's shared with me on several occasions, Dr. Deming was well aware of the difference, often dramatic, between what he labored tirelessly to express and what attendees of his seminars often heard, with the best of intentions.    Let us continue to work together, with others, to offer explanations of the distinctions of Dr. Deming's Philosophy and share examples of its widespread applicability.