Would Deming's Phone Still Ring Today?

Kelly Allan

On June 24th 1980 the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) broadcast a white paper documentary in the United States entitled, "If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?" The Japanese quality revolution had been seriously upsetting the economy of the United States for almost a decade. Japanese products were of high quality and low cost –and the low cost could no longer be explained away by an argument that Japan had cheaper labor costs. Japan, an island nation with few resources was becoming the second largest industrial power in the world. Something fundamentally different was going on in Japan, and the producer of the white paper, Clare Crawford Mason, had set out to find out what it was.

In her background research for the white paper Mason interviewed, people in the know, and they kept telling her, "You need to go talk to Ed Deming. He created the Japanese miracle." She was astonished: An American created the Japanese miracle?

With her interest elevated she went to find Ed Deming and when she found him she was amazed. Dr. W. Edwards Deming was a quiet, rather deaf man who turn 80 years of age in 1980. "This was the man who created a miracle?" was one of her first thoughts. Self-deprecating, Deming would minimize his role in the Japanese miracle, although the Japanese did not. And they were not alone. Still working hard at 80 Dr. Deming was in demand as a consultant in companies and countries around the world, and until this project Mason –and most people in America-- had never heard of him.

"If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?" changed all that. Mason featured Deming extensively in the whitepaper, and even before the television program was over that evening in 1980 Deming’s telephone was ringing. It rang for days. It rang for years.

That was then, this is now. Would Deming’s telephone still be ringing? Is Deming still relevant in a world which is as much about service as manufacturing, is licking its wounds from an economic meltdown, is seeing power shifts from Western nations to those in the Far East, and is influenced by internet and mobile technologies that are reshaping how people interact –and the speed with which they do it?

Dr. W. Edwards Deming was a renowned statistician and management expert. His management method shaped much of the world in the latter part of the 20th century. In January 2010, some 16 years after Deming’s death in 1993 we set out to discover if Dr. Deming’s body of work was still considered relevant and applicable to today’s business practices and thinking.

As a part of our research we looked at how often Dr. Deming was cited in books and articles during the 5 years from January 2005 through December 2009. We found an astonishing number of works published during those five years that cite Dr. Deming and/or suggest people rediscover him. In fact, Dr. Deming’s ongoing relevance is attested to in more than 258 books, 172 article citations, and hundreds of internet/blog-only references that provide evidence of Deming’s influence.

We also analyzed the qualitative nature of what was written about Deming in the citations. For example, the citations we found include a large number which relate to Deming’s proven foundation for leadership and management approaches –not just to "quality". Furthermore, and perhaps most relevant, the citations spanned fields such as finance, engineering, international business, software development, sales, entrepreneurship, marketing, government, education, healthcare, service industries, manufacturing, and not-for-profits to name but a few.

Deming, himself, directly connected management approaches to quality outcomes, and therefore he focused on the management of organizations rather than on the "tools" of operations alone. In fact, he created an entire body of leadership knowledge, The New Philosophy of Management, which did and does transform organizations to be more competitive locally and internationally.

The research was presented in February 2010 at the 16th Annual International Deming Research Seminar at Fordham University in New York City. From that research paper we have selected a few authors to highlight (from hundreds we found in the research) because they are especially eloquent in pointing out what makes Deming is as relevant as ever. In fact, it becomes clear from their words that Deming is even more relevant than ever because he provides a solid, proven foundation for management that works better than any other –and does so in a world that is even more chaotic, unstable, fractured and faster moving than it was in 1980. We think the words of the authors speak for themselves as to Deming’s relevance. See if you agree:

In "CHASING THE RABBIT" Steven J. Spear argues vigorously for paying attention to Deming because Deming (and a couple others) confronted conventional wisdom of how to manage. Although Spear wrote the book before the economic crisis that started in 2008, Spear was prescient in his warning that we ignore the truth and alternatives that Deming provided "at our own peril." Spear was certainly right about the peril and about the danger of managing via the conventional wisdom. An example of that conventional wisdom is to determine how well you are doing by looking at just the visible numbers –a belief he maintains is rooted in a perverse combination of arrogance and pessimism. Yet that is what so many business schools teach.

Deming was the first and the loudest to label management by spreadsheets and visible numbers alone as a "deadly disease." That conventional practice kills companies, and contributed to almost killing our economic world, as well. Interestingly, Deming pointed out the perils of conventional management practices more than 30 years ago and warned that survival was not guaranteed if we continue with our old beliefs. We ignored him. Will we continue to do so?
In "HOW THE MIGHTY FALL" Jim Collins expresses his concerns that "hubris born of success, undisciplined pursuit of more, and denial of risk," have caused leaders to lose their way. Collins urges leaders to look outside their own beliefs and experience for knowledge and to review the classics, including Deming.
Collins is a long-time fan of Deming and has written many times about Deming’s wisdom. I take my hat off to Mr. Collins because few gurus of his stature are self-secure enough or generous enough to recommend studying anything but their own work.
In "IF WE CAN PUT A MAN ON THE MOON: Getting Big Things Done in Government" William Eggers and John O’Leary explain the importance of systems thinking and urge governments to look for the underlying systemic reasons for shortcomings. They refer to Deming’s genius and talk about Deming’s message in regard to complexity and the interrelated nature of processes. Deming argued that leaders should examine a business process as a unified whole. Outcomes are generated by people working together within a system.
As the world has become more connected and interconnected, a systems view is mandatory. Deming may be best known for his work on quality, yet he told interviewers that one of the most powerful elements he taught was systems thinking. Traditional tools to determine what was really going on in a system were and are inadequate. Deming taught more insightful ways to see into a system to analyze what is really going on. And perhaps most important he taught how to lead the system to make sustainable success even in an unpredictable world.
In "TOYOTA CULTURE: THE HEART AND SOUL OF THE TOYOTA WAY" Jeffrey K. Liker and Michael Hoseus (and in Liker’s series of books on Toyota), Liker makes clear Deming’s influence on Toyota. Liker writes, "When I think about Toyota and how it operates, I keep on coming back to the quality guru W. Edwards Deming’s famous edict about constancy of purpose." Liker says it is Deming’s concept of constancy of purpose that explains why in any given year, if you bet Toyota will make a profit, you’ll probably win. This is constancy of purpose which goes beyond short-term profits and enriching a few executives.
Akio Toyoda, President of Toyota, indicated publically in 2010 that Toyota had strayed from the company’s roots and core values. Deming’s teachings were cornerstones of those values, and many people have speculated that Toyota is now returning to them. Public announcements indicate that the company is once again rejecting many of the tenets of the typical western management behaviors that Deming abhorred, but which had crept into the company’s psyche.
In "HARD FACTS, DANGEROUS HALF-TRUTHS & TOTAL NONSENSE: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management" Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton counsel us to look at which management practices have stood the test of time, have been thoroughly studied, and that contribute to optimizing the overall system/organization rather than just benefiting the success of one area of a business. Dr. Deming’s management approach gets attention in HARD FACTS because it meets the criteria the authors establish for looking at hard facts and avoiding half-truths and total nonsense.
The authors skewer many management gurus who supposedly provide a more "contemporary" view than Deming. It’s obvious their research indicates that if you want to succeed you should first thoroughly understand the genius of what Deming wrote before you think you can improve on it. They make the case that Deming’s approach is as fresh as ever and that most leaders have yet to embrace it.
In "SYSTEMS THINKING IN THE PUBLIC SECTOR: The Failure of the reform regime...and a manifesto for a better way" John Seddon talks about eliminating waste in government by using systems thinking. Deming pointed out that the present style of management is something that needs reinventing: the systems approach represents a fundamentally different and more effective way to design and manage work. Moreover in the world of today in which resources are diminishing systems-thinking will help us increase capacity to use our resources more wisely.
Seddon is known for his razor-sharp and stinging criticisms of leaders who want to coast along by just thinking and doing things in the same old way. They would do well to follow his advice in regard to "What should you do tomorrow? I’ll tell you what to do: study something useful. Study something fresh. Study something proven. Study something that is revolutionary. Study Deming!"
Our conclusion from the research is that the body of work of W. Edwards Deming continues to influence the way business authors, thought leaders, and journalists write about the best way to lead and manage organizations. Further, many of the most well-known and distinguished business practitioners, business thinkers, academics, and historians cite Dr. Deming as a man of great insight, even genius, and they advise us to return to studying what Deming taught.
In a world that looks so different from what it did in 1980, so many of today’s thought leaders –and indeed hundreds of authors—find things in Deming’s work that have a universal appeal and power to provide insights into human nature and how things work –and could work. Indeed, Dr. Deming continues to inspire leaders to transform their management beliefs, to innovate, and to increase their competitive advantage as they foster joy in work.
Author's note: Research contributions by Poorani S. Jeyasekar.
If you wish to receive a copy of the complete research paper presented at the 16th Annual International Deming Research Seminar at Fordham University, e-mail us here. Copyright 2011 Kelly Allan Associates.

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.