Sustainable Development the Deming Way

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Paul Beshah

Deming said that systems must be designed and led so everyone can win, says Paul Beshah, once a refugee from Ethiopia and now a professional in the United States. In this week's The Deming Files, Beshah argues that emerging economies would do well to apply Deming principles to development to avoid the degradation of their people and resources.

"Let Him Speak Who Knows" –an African Proverb

Developing nations face challenges on many fronts as they strive to improve living standards for their peoples by adopting modern means of production and services. They can also destroy their people and their resources if their activities of rapid development are focused only on GDP numbers.

These nations have great opportunity to learn from the experiences of the more developed nations that went through similar growing pains. Because we can learn from the examples of others, we have the opportunity make the journey faster and with greater ease, although "ease" is probably not the word.

I say that because the most common trend in developing nations is the overcrowding of cities. There is no "ease" related to that. The cities are bursting at the seams because of an influx of people from rural areas who are looking for work and better living conditions. It is evident from data on public health, for example, that there is need for breathing room in these crowded cities.

Indeed, there is the need for open spaces to be carefully and thoughtfully set aside for human activities such as parks and playing fields. It is also necessary to address such needs and figure out a way to balance them with the development of infrastructure and industry. If done well, development and green space allocation will be complementary.

I included the African proverb because those of us from developing nations would do well to listen to the words of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. When I first read his books I thought to myself, "He knows." He knows about systems and systems thinking. He knows about broken systems and how to repair them. Studying Dr. Deming’s writing changed my life.

A Refugee’s Story

My knowledge of broken systems comes from first-hand experience. In Ethiopia I lived through civil wars and other types of internal upheavals. These were caused in part by systems breaking down. A refugee develops a deep understanding of broken systems. There are many of us, from many countries, and we know that broken systems lead to displacement and becoming a person –or a non-person—without a home or address. We become stateless nomads. I was lucky enough to escape from a ruthless military dictatorship. I wandered across many lands while I was young, scared and impoverished before finding a home in the United States.

A refugee leaves not only things behind but also the people near and dear, family and friends. Like many Ethiopian families, mine was deeply affected by the upheaval, turmoil and bloodshed. Of course, we were devastated. When I came across Dr. Deming’s books I knew immediately that he knew me, knew refugees, and knew what happened in nations that have broken systems.

Connecting The Dots

A developing nation would do well to recognizes that it is a "system" –and the leaders would do well to learn from Dr. Deming about how to how to lead a system. Understanding what Dr. Deming meant by "a system must have an aim" is crucial to public policy. When he said that systems must be designed and led so everyone can win, I believe he was saying that win/win and sustainable success are interwoven.

Development of industrial base is only one component of growth –and it must be supported by the development and well-being of people, their health, and their living conditions.

Dr. Deming pointed out that the components of a system cannot be left to optimize their own area because when they are left unmanaged –and are not led by people who have insight about systems—then the individual components tend to become myopic and selfish. Thus, they must be lead so they contribute to the aim of the overall system –in this specific case, an aim would be to incorporate the green aspects of cities and nations into economic development, for the long term health and prosperity of people and for the wise use of resources. Wild areas, meeting places, creative spaces, getaway spaces, livable spaces are as important to sustainability of a nation as office parks and industrial areas. Balance. Win/win. Complementariness.

When I mentioned that the cities in developing cities need "breathing room", I was speaking both literally and figuratively. Severe air pollution causes many health problems, such as asthma. Health problems put a strain on resources. Constrained resources slow down development... you see the cycle, the system.

Speaking of systems, Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK) has three components in addition to the "systems thinking" component which has been so meaningful to me. The other three components are: understanding that variation, understanding the psychology of human behaviors –and what affects it, and understanding a theory of knowledge about how we learn and assure that what we learn is relevant. These components are equally as important as systems thinking in regard to the making of public policy and actions in developing nations.

For example with "Understanding Psychology" open spaces help counteract the cramped conditions, trees help clean the air. Side benefits from both improve the quality of life, health and wellness. From the point of view of Deming’s SoPK component of "Understanding Psychology" people are more likely to exercise by going for walks when trees and open spaces are near. Celebrations and public, community-building activities are more likely to take place in venues that are esthetically pleasing and that invite a range of activities including fun, relaxation, the mingling of generations, and places to chat as well as to run and play. Such places reduce violence and crime (and the costs of policing cramped neighborhoods) and help reduce stress, while building a sense that "we are all in this together." Thus, with an understanding of the psychology, there are many benefits that come from a public policy as the simple planting of trees and the setting aside of land for public use help to make the system, the interconnections stronger.


Perhaps more mundane, but of great importance (and related to Dr. Deming’s SoPK component about "Theory of Knowledge" and the importance of what is known and proven vs. just accepting commonly accepted beliefs): It is known and proven that trees provide canopies that keep the ground cooler and help to retain moisture. It is known and proven that rapid development without appreciation for unintended (but known) consequences often results in soil erosion. This can be a serious problem for growing nations that are short of food. Trees and ground covers help prevent erosion. Also mundane but important: designated wetland areas that can capture runoff. They also can help sequester pollutants from contaminating drinking water sources.

By applying the deep understanding of what is known and proven about unintended consequences, developers can avoid creating tomorrow’s problem as they go about their development work, today. The costs of not paying attention to unintended consequences typically are much higher than identifying and mitigating them from the start. Again, Deming’s urging about understanding and having a reliable Theory of Knowledge is invaluable.

The Lifelong Challenge

It seems harder to build a healthy, balanced, robust system with appropriate aims –and much easier to build an unbalanced system – or even to break or destroy a system. Dr. Deming knew that, too, I would submit. Considering that he devoted his life to it until he died at age 93, I believe he felt it was worth it to work on the building rather than the destroying. I agree.

For a full copy of the complete research paper from which this column was written, send an e-mail here.

Copyright 2011 by Paul Beshah

Editor’s Note: The columns published in THE DEMING FILES have been written under the Editorial Guidelines set by The W. Edwards Deming Institute. The Institute views these columns as opportunities to enhance, extend, and illustrate Dr. Deming’s theories. The authors have knowledge of Dr. Deming’s body of work, and the content of each column is the expression of each author’s interpretation of the subject matter.