Twenty-five years ago today, William Edwards Deming (October 14, 1900 – December 20, 1993) passed away. He greatly influenced the management of quality in Japan, where he is still revered as one of the great gurus in manufacturing. Through his influence on Toyota, his ideas are now common in the lean world. Time to look back at his life.
Deming was the eldest of three children of William Albert Deming and Pluma Irene Edwards, born in October 14, 1900, in Sioux City, Iowa. His name is a combination of his father’s first name and his mother’s last name, and he was called Edwards to avoid confusion with his fathers name, William. His dad was an insurance broker and his mom was a piano teacher. He had a brother Robert (1902) and a sister Elizabeth (1909).
While he grew up rather thrifty on a farm in Polk City, Iowa, and later in Powell, Wyoming, his parents were both well educated and valued the education of their children.
He married his first wife, Agnes Bell, in 1922, and they adopted a daughter, Dorothy, in 1924. However, Agnes died in 1930, and he married again in 1932 to Lola Elizabeth Shupe, a mathematician. They had two more girls, Diana (1934) and Linda (1943).
Deming obtained a bachelor’s in engineering at the University of Wyoming in Laramie in 1921. He also taught briefly at that school.
In 1922 he became an assistant professor of physics at the Colorado School of Mines, while simultaneously obtaining a master’s degree in mathematics and physics at the University of Colorado in 1924.
Afterward, he worked briefly as an hourly worker at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works in Chicago. Maybe you have heard about the famous Hawthorne Experiments. These studies by Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger analyzed the influence of different factors such as illumination on work performance. Surprisingly, the performance increased regardless if they made it brighter or darker, no matter what they did, as long as they paid attention to the workers (although modern researchers are much more critical about the quality of the study). While Deming was not involved in the study at all, the calculation of the payments he received from his manual work set his opinion firmly against financial incentives of any kind.
In 1926 he went to Yale, and received his Ph.D. in 1928 for “A Possible Explanation of the Packing Effect of Helium.”
Afterward he worked for the United States Department of Agriculture, first as a mathematician and later as a lecturer. During this time his career took a turn from physics to quality control. It was also at this department where he met Walter Shewhart (1891–1967), which developed into a flourishing professional exchange over the next decades. Shewhart is considered the father of statistical process control, and he developed a cycle for quality control in his book edited by Deming in 1930. Later Deming updated this to the Deming Cycle, which slightly modified made its way into Japan, and now is known as PDCA, although Deming disliked the PDCA version (see here for more).
In 1939 he switched jobs and joined the Bureau of Census. There he developed statistical survey methods that significantly influenced the 1940 census.
The War Years
In 1942, Deming was asked to help with statistical training to help the war effort, and he soon trained engineers, inspectors, and industrial people in an intensive eight-week course. The impact of this course on the war is disputed; you can find a lot of praise but also some critical voices.
After the war was over, his work was no longer needed, and he worked as a consultant for some time. A lot of the productivity and quality achievements during the war were now on the back burner or even forgotten.
Deming in Japan
In 1946, Deming was asked to come to Japan to support agriculture production, and in 1947 to help with the 1951 census. He and Joseph Juran were part of a group of experts of the U.S. Headquarters in Japan tasked with improving productivity and (the back then still arguably shitty) quality of Japanese products, although Deming only got on board because the first preference declined to go to Japan. Unlike many other experts, Deming and the Japanese got along well. He became a frequent visitor of Japan.
The Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers (JUSE) tried to understand the U.S. concept of statistical quality control, but got stuck in some theory. Hence, in 1950 they asked Deming to come back and help them. Deming developed and held numerous lectures and seminars on statistical quality control, which were well received and very well attended. His courses were subsequently also taught by others. Other courses on sampling methods had much less popularity.
Deming did not accept royalty payments for his course. As a sign of gratitude, JUSE established the Deming Prize for Quality in 1950, with the first awards given in 1951. This is by far the most prestigious quality award in Japan. Nissan won the price in 1960, and as a response Toyota introduced Total Quality Control (TQC) in 1961, also winning the Deming Prize in 1965. In 1950, Deming also met with twenty-one of Japan’s most important industrial managers, which was a turning point for his influence. Overall, Deming is still revered in Japan.
Re-Import of the Japanese Methods to the United States
This changed in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis that seriously hurt the Western automotive industry but apparently not the Japanese. Besides the study of “the machine that changed the world,” another landmark was the 1980 NBC documentary If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?, which talked about and with Deming for fifteen minutes.
As part of the wave of lean manufacturing, quality control and Deming’s ideas made their way back to the United States. A lot of the methods that the United States developed during the war and pretty much abandoned afterward were re-introduced through Japan. During this time, Deming also rose to industrial superstar status in the United States and the Western world.
He died on December 20, 1993, in Washington, DC, aged 93.
A Demigod of Quality?
As Deming rose in prominence in the United States, the media outdid itself with praising his achievements, making him appear much larger than he truly was, and calling him “the man who discovered quality” and “founder of the third wave of the Industrial Revolution.”
If you believe in Deming as a flawless demigod of quality, you better stop reading. He achieved a lot, but this is nowadays often exaggerated. He even made it on a mural of a church as a (sort of) saint. Selected sources are below.
From 1964 onward, JUSE started to believe that while Deming was excellent in statistics, he lacked practical industry experience. Also – and this is common with successful people – he valued his own achievements while overlooking all the people who contributed. While he developed the courses for statistical quality control in Japan, the method originated from Walter Shewhart, and Shewhart should get the praise for that.
Another common flaw of people who are praised excessively is to eventually believe the praise (just ask your CEO how wonderful he is …). And Deming as an academic with many publications was just much more accessible than Homer Sarasohn, who also taught statistical process control in Japan, but as an industrialist and with a much higher focus on practicability.
Deming once dissed the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award, since he believed it should have been named after him. He also believed that he alone made the difference in Japan’s success. Personally, I believe Joseph Juran (1904–2008) had a much bigger influence in Japan in particular and on quality management in general. Deming also gave his name to the American Society for Quality (ASQ) for an (U.S.) Deming Prize. This greatly offended JUSE and their (Japan) Deming Prize, and they were not consulted on this second prize with the same name. Deming opposed Total Quality Control (TQM), stating that Statistical Quality Control was all that is needed.
On the other hand, there are also numerous reports and anecdotes of his kindness and helpfulness. He was also known for his humor and consideration of others. Overall, he was the right person at the right time and helped to spread the valuable tool of Statistical Quality Control in Japan and later in the rest of the world.
Deming is known for spreading statistical quality control in Japan and the world, as well as helping to put quality on the agenda of industry. He is also the author of 14 key principles for Total Quality Management (not to be confused with the 14 Management Principles of The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker). These principles are, in my view, sound and good common sense, although Deming took a lot of inspiration from other sources for that list. (Source for the two lists below: Wikipedia article on Deming.)
- Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive, to stay in business, and to provide jobs.
- Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for change.
- Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for massive inspection by building quality into the product in the first place.
- End the practice of awarding business on the basis of a price tag. Instead, minimize total cost. Move toward a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.
- Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.
- Institute training on the job.
- Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets do a better job. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers.
- Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.
- Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and usage that may be encountered with the product or service.
- Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the workforce asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the workforce.
- Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute with leadership. [Please note that I am a fan of standards, but not a fan of pay-by-piece. I believe Deming here means pay-by-piece rates]
- Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers and numerical goals. Instead substitute with leadership.
- Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality.
- Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objectives.
- Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.
- Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.
He also created a list of the “Seven Deadly Diseases,” which are also sensible.
- Lack of constancy of purpose
- Emphasis on short-term profits
- Evaluation by performance, merit rating, or annual review of performance
- Mobility of management
- Running a company on visible figures alone
- Excessive medical costs
- Excessive costs of warranty, fueled by lawyers who work for contingency fees
So, here you have it. Overall, I like Deming and his contribution to Japan, although I am a bit skeptical of his glorification. Now, go out, improve your quality, and organize your industry!
- Juran, Joseph M.: Architect of Quality. McGraw-Hill, 2003. Especially pages 300–306 have a critical view on Deming.
- Hopper, Ken, and Hopper, Will: The Puritan Gift: Triumph, Collapse and Revival of an American Dream, I. B. Tauris 2007
- Murals of Deming can be found in the St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, along with Anne Frank, Mahatma Gandhi, and many others (and yes, I know that neither Anne Frank nor Gandhi were Christians … don’t ask me to explain religious logic …)