Isnt it time to finish the transformation of management that Deming started?

Tripp Babbitt

Reflections on the life and teachings of W. Edwards Deming

In the mid-1980s, I was taking classes for my MBA. In those days, Donald Trump and Lee Iacocca still ruled the business book market. As a gift, I was given a book called, The Reckoning by David Halberstam. This book followed the events that led to the rise of the auto industry in Japan and the fall of the American auto industry during the 1970s.

One particular chapter caught my attention, Chapter 17 – Deming Finds an Audience. I read about a man that had helped his country (the United States) during World War II with Statistical Quality Control (SQC) techniques that he learned from Walter Shewhart at the Hawthorne Works plant in Chicago in the 1920s.

Deming provided the spark to ignite one of the greatest upsets in economic history

After the war, W. Edwards Deming was busy trying to get the Americans apply and expand the use of SQC. However, the Americans were the beneficiaries of a world that was devastated by the war and had little left in manufacturing. While Dr. Deming was preaching quality, the wealthy and unchallenged Americans were busy with productivity and interchangeable management believing that quality would slow them down. The irony is that SQC would have increased both quality and productivity.

Dr. Deming found solace in the US Census Bureau and was asked to help Japan with their census. Virtually unknown in America, the Japanese were aware of Dr. Deming’s contribution to the war effort. On July 13, 1950 Dr. Deming was invited to meet with 21 presidents of Japan’s leading industries representing about 80% of the country’s capital. Dr. Deming told the Japanese presidents many things on this day, the most important being that if the Japanese followed his teachings that the world would be screaming for protection from their quality products within five years.

According to Dr. Deming, "they did it in four (years)."

Dr. Deming had provided the spark to ignite one of the greatest upsets in economic history. Japan - known for shoddy products and lacking in natural resources - created the Japanese industrial miracle. By 1965, Japanese manufacturing led in steel, automobiles, cameras, consumer electronics, motorcycles, optical instruments, pianos and watches. The Japanese were proficient in many industries, not just one company like Toyota.

In 1972, I remember my father who was Vice President for Diamond Chain Company -- a chain manufacturer in Indianapolis -- complain at family dinners about the Japanese "dumping" cheap chain products and capturing market share. He was constantly calling on his US customers to keep the business. It held for awhile, but the products the Japanese supplied kept getting better forcing Diamond Chain to seek profits from the customized and higher profit chain market. The high volume chain market continued to go to the Japanese. My Dad, like so many others in management, blamed low cost labor in Japan and unions.

The rise of Japan and the decline in the United States was so evident in the 1970s that the public and media started to make notice. On June 24, 1980 NBC aired a documentary about the Japanese success and the man that provided the spark – W. Edwards Deming. This launched a quality movement in the United States.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Dr. Deming worked with many manufacturers in the US and abroad. His famous four-day seminar, Deming Users Groups, and books written about and by him covered the landscape. His 14 Points and Seven Deadly Diseases aimed at management became a course of study. His System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK) helped provide a path for improvement in industry, government and education.

Other than SQC, Dr. Deming wrote and spoke nothing about tools but more about the need to reinvent management. Management thinking was the root of the problem as outlined in the 1994 book, Deming’s Profound Changes by Ken Delavigne and Dan Robertson. Our collective thinking was steeped in Taylorism and Neo-Taylorism.

I attended several of Dr. Deming’s four-day seminars in the 1980s and 1990s. The first was at the invitation of Allison Transmission as I worked for a supplier to them. I was fascinated by the contrast between the management style that Dr. Deming was advocating and the one I learned at my MBA program. The differences were stark, if not opposite.

Dr. Deming ran out of time to completely deliver on the transformation of management. Unfortunately, management the world over - for the most part - still have ignored his message. Quality and performance improvement are for the front-line, not for management. The management focus on financial markets still breed wasteful behavior in the form of short-term thinking and focus on who’s to blame to what’s gone wrong.

Because Dr. Deming was mortal, he left the job for us to finish. Just as the Japanese had to take action to complete their transformation in the 1950s – so do we. We have a lot of challenges to make this happen. Millennials, Digital Natives, and Generation Xers have not heard about Dr. Deming. This is not the main challenge. The main challenge is that they are not familiar with his philosophy and principles.

The Deming Institute has moved to rectify this problem. Kevin Cahill - Executive Director and grandson of Dr. Deming - has been instrumental in reinvigorating the message of Dr. Deming. A new website which includes a Deming Today section that shares stories of past and present practitioners applying Dr. Deming’s SoPK. There is outreach to the next generations through social media (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter).

In early June the Institute launched the Deming Institute Podcast ( For the nostalgic, you will hear from family members and those that worked with Dr. Deming. For the practical, you will hear from leaders and practitioners how his principles are being applied in global organizations.

What do you think? What impact has Dr. W. Edwards Deming had on your work?

If you’re interested in finding out more about Deming’s work, log onto to listen to the latest podcasts.Tripp Babbitt is moderator for the Deming Institute Podcast. He is creator of the 95 Method to assist service organizations in building customer trust, improving morale and giving management focus. His 4-day workshop helps executives and workers discover the opportunity for service performance through customer and culture. His website is Reach him on twitter or connect on LinkedIn