W Edwards Deming

The man who changed Western quality

The Importance to Managers of Dr W Edwards Deming

by Alan C Clark, 25 February 2004

Was the American Dr W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993) just another fashionable guru? The following essay looks at the evidence of his importance.

Neave (1990) relates how on 24th June 1980 a television documentary: If Japan can… why can’t we? was broadcast in the USA. The following day Deming’s telephone began to be rung continually by companies hard pressed by Japanese competition. Ironically it was Deming who had been the catalyst for transforming the quality and productivity of Japanese manufacturing after the Second World War. Companies such as Xerox, Ford, Proctor and Gamble and others can attest directly to his effectiveness as a management thinker, consultant and teacher.

A significant aspect of his thinking was how it evolved. Trained as an engineer, he obtained his doctorate in Mathematical Statistics from Yale, leading to his reputation as a statistician. Later, however, the key point he put across early in his epoch making presentation in Japan in 1950 was the importance of viewing production as a system, which included feedback, of which the customer was the most important part. Deming (1986) laid clear responsibility for the system with management. At the end of his life he said he wished he had more time to develop his knowledge of psychology.

He is most often associated with Statistical Process Control (SPC), which charts data for an objective understanding of the performance of a system. SPC is central to what is now known as continual improvement and was developed by Dr Walter A Shewhart (1931) from 1924. It was Deming who encouraged Shewhart to write his book and was instrumental in spreading the ideas during the 1930’s. During the World War 2, Deming was a prime mover in a programme teaching 20000 engineers SPC. This created the reputation that preceded him to Japan.

Central to what Deming taught was the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle developed by Shewhart. This is a basic learning cycle that is used to drive continual improvement and has universal application in learning and organisational life.

He destroyed the myth that the choice was productivity or quality with his chain reaction (1986), which showed that improving quality reduced waste and hence improved productivity and profitability. Deming (1993) himself advanced continual improvement proposing that understanding of a situation is most effective if looked at holistically, which he called a ‘system of profound knowledge’.

Continual improvement is not only for manufacturing sector having even greater potential in service industry and by extension, the public sector, see Deming (1986). Neave (1990) relates how in 1939 Deming himself applied SPC in the National Bureau of Census and improved productivity in some processes by up to six times!

Deming himself is also worth studying. His humility, commitment and spirituality are in marked contrast to brash the showmanship of some other management gurus and he never stopped learning. Travelling the World in his 90’s he still carried a notebook to record new ideas. He was a true lifelong learner.

Managers will find it worthwhile to learn and apply Deming’s ideas. They have been proven in the World’s greatest companies and transformed the manufacturing capability of a whole country, Japan. As a person, Deming provides a role model of humility, commitment and lifelong learning.

References & Bibliography

Deming, W E., (1986) Out of the Crisis, Cambridge MA, MIT CAES

Deming, W. E., (1993) The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, Cambridge MA, MIT CAES

Neave, H.R., (1990) The Deming Dimension, Knoxville TN, SPC Press

Shewhart, W.A., (1931) Economic Control of Quality of Manufactured Product, New York, van Nostrand; reprinted (1986), Milwaukee WI, Dover

Walton, Mary, (1994) The Deming Management Method, Chalford, Management Books 2000


World Wide Web References

http://deming.org (accessed 16 November 2000)

http://deming.ces.clemson.edu/pub/den/deming_map.htm (accessed 16 November 2000)