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Davis Balestracci

Quality Insider

No Wonder Executives Hated Deming

And in a way, I don’t blame them

Published: Monday, July 30, 2012 - 11:52

“If Japan Can… Why Can’t We?” was an American television episode that aired on June 24, 1980, broadcast by NBC as part of its show, NBC White Paper. That episode is often credited with beginning the quality revolution and introducing the methods of W. Edwards Deming to American managers.

In the mid-1970s, bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in hand, I remember my initial eye-opening experience of being exposed to applied statistical methods. I realized that, as an engineer, how could I not use them? It inspired me to get a master’s degree in statistics and become a member of one of the ubiquitous internal statistical consulting groups for major corporations that existed at that time—groups that have, sadly, long since disappeared. As a relatively new and very excited industrial master of science statistician, I was consistently mystified by the fierce resistance I encountered to the obvious need to use applied statistics to improve the quality of manufacturing products and the research in their development.

And then I got introduced to W. Edwards Deming’s statistical approach to improvement in 1983 through his book, Quality, Productivity, and Competitive Position (MIT, 1982). But Deming went far beyond statistical methods and developed his famous 14 points. He, too, had encountered similar frustrations and saw the need for management to embrace a statistical approach not only for manufacturing products, but also the processes used to lead people. Little did I realize that it was only the beginning of a l-o-o-o-n-g journey.

A lot of people (including me) jumped on the Deming bandwagon, became somewhat outspoken, bordering on evangelistic, while suffering from what I call “Steve Allen syndrome.” Allen was a famous comedian who hosted a show in the very early days of television. He was a master of ad lib and would banter with audience members. One famous exchange:

Audience member: Mr. Allen, do they get your show in Philadelphia?

Steve Allen: Well, they see it... but they don’t “get” it.

It took five years of hard work and a seminar with Heero Hacquebord in 1988 for me to even begin to “get” Deming’s message—and 20 subsequent years of relentless studying of all its subtleties. A lot of damage was done, and continues today, by well-meaning people because they did not truly understand the message. And the subsequent (and even today, ongoing) mass training in “statistical methods” continues to undermine Deming’s true message. It’s not the “methods” but the underlying context for using (or not using) them that is important—and must be understood by everyone, not just a Ninja-like cult of “belts.”

It’s not “all management’s fault”

Two “universal truths” of improvement are often confused because they both contain a similar number:
1. Deming insisted that 85 to 97 percent of problems in an organization are the responsibility of management.
2. Joseph M. Juran developed the “80/20 rule,” which he named the Pareto Principle: In any given situation, 20 percent of the process causes 80 percent of the problem.

These two concepts are very different, but over the next few columns, I will make a subtle link between them.

As we all know, control charts are a major component of Deming’s philosophy. Another crucial piece that follows from the use of control charts is the need to distinguish between common and special causes of variation.

One of the biggest traps to someone new in the Deming philosophy is to see a control chart that exhibits common cause and quickly declare (often with glee), “It’s common cause and you have to accept that level of performance until management does something about it.” An increasing smugness ensued in such declarations (Mea culpa!) as well as a chance to finally point a finger at the frustrating and rampant “Theory X” management style.

Deming was indeed passionate about not “blaming” workers for poor quality when so much of it was “a fault of the system.” He demonstrated this in his numerous four-day seminars via the Red Bead Experiment. With only this one seminar under their belt, many well-meaning people went ahead and did this for executives, as well as bring quincunx boards into meetings to demonstrate Deming’s four “funnel rules.” Ironically, Funnel Rule 4 (“Make each one just like the last one”) applied: No one could “copy” Deming without deeply understanding his theory. Rather than being enlightening, such demonstrations were often agonizing for the audience.

What I now call “Deming Sunday school disciples” were boring executives to death and blaming them for almost everything—self-righteously quoting Deming “chapter and verse,” and missing no opportunity to say “gotcha!” Deming then evolved his 14 points even further to their deeper underlying theory, which he termed “A System of Profound Knowledge.” The “disciples” then jumped on this and added “You need profound knowledge” to their demonstrations for executive audiences—a term which, even now, can come across as too pretentious for words. An ASQ fellow I encountered even handed out three two-sided pages of statistical definitions to such audiences. These are great strategies to convince executives to change, eh?

To executives, Crosby and his simplistic “Do it right the first time” message with “accountability” was far more appealing. Or there was also the option of using Juran’s approach—which allowed them to go on managing the way they were currently managing and hold someone (else) accountable for quality improvement.

After many industries’ initial jump on the Deming bandwagon, I saw increasing hostility to the Deming message, and when Deming died in 1993, most of his message died with him. Even Heero Hacquebord said to me, “You mention Deming? That’s death to you as a consultant.” (See my article, “Deming Is Dead... Long Live Deming.”)

Salvaging a missed opportunity

My point? A lot of damage was done and major opportunities were missed. This was brilliantly rectified by Brian Joiner in his book, Fourth Generation Management (McGraw-Hill, 1994)—via his common cause strategies. There were indeed things people could do before “blaming” management, and management would have had every right to fire any member of the “Deming Sunday school cult” for quality improvement incompetence. (Mea culpa!)

A bit of clarification: Deming did not say that 97 percent of the problems needed to be fixed by management, but rather that 97 percent of the time it was due to bad processes, not people. Yes, some of these are the responsibility of management, but good statistical thinking can use a common cause strategy with data to solve a lot of these problems—and managers can then remove barriers to implementing the solutions.

Things have now come full circle: Deming’s theory, implemented as he intended, underlies and has the potential to unify all the current improvement fads du jour. (See also: “TQM, Six Sigma, Lean, and... Data?”) The problem? Given the last 30 years, still no progress has been made on what was the bane of Deming’s existence: Failing to design improvement approaches that require the active involvement of top management.

Maybe it’s time for quality professionals to take some responsibility for this and stop playing the victim. It’s time to evolve to what my respected colleague Ron Snee calls holistic improvement: “a system that can successfully create and sustain significant improvements of any type, in any culture, and for any business.”

Snee also states that every organization has a cash cow, and it’s called “continuous improvement.” Maybe a timeout is called for: Stop teaching people statistics, and teach them instead how to solve their problems. Or, even before that, maybe solve some high-level executive problems ourselves?

Heero Hacquebord once said to me, “It’s not the problems that march into your office that are important. The important problems are the ones of which no one is aware.”  Talk about opportunity....

Maybe this would help quality professionals get “unstuck”—and get the respect they deserve, which is what Deming would have wanted, at least for the non-hacks. (As anyone familiar with Deming knows, he hated statistical hacks.) So, applying the 80/20 rule, take a look at “Is the Pareto Principle Coming Home to Roost?” for what I see as the needed evolution of the perception of the improvement professional’s role from its current state. Until that perception changes, the improvement profession is going to stay stuck and be glacial in needed progress—sort of like the graph this professional uses in the following clip to show how effective he is:


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.


Deming Redux

You got a loud "Amen" on thet piece, Davis.  Extremely well-said. Been there ... done that and  survived. The work  we  do now in the buldling industry (www.TrueN.com) has its roots unquestionably in Deming, but we don't talk about him any longer (that is regrettful) and  we always involve senior mangement directly in the projects. Guess what ... it works!

Your observations are  very much appreciated.  Sending this to our entire  team.  Scott Sedam, TrueNorth Development.

Statistics and Six Sigma

Six Sigma has been sold as something of a "cure all" when most companies still don't have good foundations in basic quality assurance practices and quality controls!

Speaking of QA -- and, implicitly -- standards...

Thanks for the feedback -- Good point! But what about improving the "quality" of the QA practices...many of which involve documentation -- where any resemblance between what it documented and what really goes on is purely coincidental? In line with that, here is Ron Snee's "holistic improvement" put in that context: http://qualitydigest.com/inside/quality-insider-column/don-t-create-stan... http://qualitydigest.com/inside/quality-insider-column/don-t-create-stan... Davis


You suggest "Stop teaching people statistics".  I would correct that statement and say it's time to stop teaching the statistical utter nonsense of Six Sigma classes and get back to Deming.

Good point!

Thanks for the feedback. I agree. My respected colleague, Donald Wheeler, coined a great term yesterday that applies -- it's time to stop teaching the "superstitious nonsense." If nothing else, everyone needs to know about the power of simply plotting data over time and how to determine common and special causes...in the context of "process" (analytic statistics). See my articles on the wisdom of David Kerridge: http://qualitydigest.com/inside/twitter-ed/wisdom-david-kerridge-part-1.... http://qualitydigest.com/inside/twitter-ed/wisdom-david-kerridge-part-2.... Davis