My Journey to Understanding Variation- Part I


I know for a lot of folks, this quote doesn’t make much sense. Truth be told, it didn’t make much sense to me either until just recently. I am now just beginning to understand how profound it is.

Of the four principals of Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge, Understanding Variation has been the most difficult for me to learn, despite studying it the most. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Deming Disciples often bemoan the fact that the companies they consult for don’t use control charts. Joseph Juran lamented how the Hawthrone plant, the cradle of the quality revolution and here he and Deming learned about quality control, had stopped using control charts. I can’t help but think the reason for this is because its such a darn hard thing to understand!

I thought I would record my own journey of trying to understand variation. I’m hoping it will help me sort out my own thoughts, but also help others to understand as well.

When I first heard about how variation could help with management, I had a pretty negative reaction. These are the thoughts that went through my head:

  1. mathJust looking at the charts causes a phobia I have had since my school days. I failed algebra three times. In middle and high school, I had to keep taking basic skills math classes every year because I was so poor in the advanced classes. Math makes me feel very, very, very dumb.
  2. In my experience, only basic mathematics is ever needed in real life. Fancy equations and charts are for engineers trying to design the space shuttle.
  3. People are not sets of data. What do you think we are, robots pumping out numbers? This stuff dehumanizes us. Dr. Deming–you are a mathematical egghead who doesn’t get people.
  4. This stuff is going to take a long time to learn and time is not something I have a lot of. I need results now. I’ll go look for something else.
  5. It doesn’t seem obvious to me how plots on a graph is in anyway going to help me do my job better. At first gloss, this looks like a waste of my time.
  6. From what I have heard and read so far, it doesn’t make much sense. There is a lot of jargon I don’t understand. Its confusing.
  7. It seems like a lot of work for nothing.

Am I alone in these thoughts and feelings?

So, why did I continue?


  1. I trust Deming. He has a track record of great success. His other advice seems to be spot on. Why not take him up on what he believes is the most important element of all?
  2. I know from past experiences that at first things may not make sense to me, but after awhile it begins to click and I have a lot of ‘oh-my-god’ moments.
  3. I’ve heard from others that at first this stuff didn’t make sense to them either. Perhaps the same thing will happen to me.

During my next post, I will talk about my first experience with control charts. It didn’t go too well.




  1. Just an FYI. If your library doesn’t contain the latest editions of Dr. Donald Wheeler’s books (, you’ll be well-served to get them. His new terminology replaces things like control charts with process behavior charts:

    Sometimes it is eye-opening to reread from his later editions with this new terminology.


    1. Hi, Steve. Yes! Dr. Wheeler’s “Understanding Variation” is a great book. I posted a book review on it not long ago. I need to definitely check out some of his other books. He’s a good a writer and easy to read. I like the term process behavior chart better than control chart. Makes more sense. Thanks!


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