BOOK REVIEW: Out of the Crisis

out-of-the-crisis-by-w-edwards-demingDAN’S SCORE: Stars 3.5
Out of the Crisis
by W. Edwards Deming

Agh. I hate giving my hero’s book 3.5 stars, but let me explain.

This is Deming’s first book published on his management philosophy (1982). I understand, of the two books he wrote on the subject (the other being The New Economics), this one is the most difficult to read. My feeling is Dr. Deming wasn’t used to writing toward the management audience (his previous books were geared toward statisticians) and was so darn brilliant he didn’t know how to ‘dumb’ down his message yet.

I was able to understand about 66% of it. However, I got lost when he delved into statistical analysis and when he gave examples from manufacturing. His style is also a little unusual: a mixture of dryness with flashes of absolute brilliance. Still, I can see why many people would just put the book down or not even bother. They would think its too hard or it doesn’t apply to their line of work. It might be a reason why many just don’t get the Deming message.

Don’t get me wrong. I got a lot out of this book and I did enjoy it. Here are some of the big take aways:

The report on Japanese Automotive Stamping was a very interesting read. It was cool to see what the Japanese manufacturer thought was important to their company (cleanliness, obsession with quality control, importance of training, belief that people are their most important asset, visual communication, etc.)

I enjoyed reading about Deming’s thoughts on goals, focusing on specifications vs. reducing variation, what an incoming manager must do (he must learn), how management tries to implement techniques instead of focusing on improving people, the concept of an immediate customer and an ultimate customer, the importance of learning from a master (and not a hack), why a customer may not have valuable feedback on a product until after using it for a long time (for example, an automobile), how some specifications are beyond the capability of a process (I started using this phrase), the importance of finding vendors and partners committed to continuous improvement, his emphasis on training, his warning against learning something solely by reading a book, and how its natural for people in a company to be suspicious of outsiders telling them how to improve their work (yet he stresses the importance of having outside help).

He introduced me to some new quotes from himself and others. One of my favorites was this one: “They will have courage to break with tradition, even to the point of exile among their peers.” I’ve felt this a lot since my Agile ‘conversion.’

Some of his points hurt. It made me realize how far I have to go. For example:

“Today, 19 foremen out of 20 were never on the job they supervise. . . They can not train them nor help them [their staff] as the job is as new to the foreman as it is to his people . . . He does not understand the problem, and could get nothing done about it if he did.” Ouch. I’m one of those foremen.

He bemoans the fact that the educational system is putting out math ignoramuses. I’m sure Deming would think this would apply to me. I’ve always found Math difficult. I actually have a fear of it.

I was surprised to hear him say that teamwork isn’t always the answer for achievement. He said there are some who are fine doing work by themselves, contribute to the organization, and should be supported. With agile being so team oriented, this idea made me think.

Something he said didn’t sound right: “A pupil once taught cannot be reconstructed.” Is he saying that once a person is taught how to do something, they are stuck doing it that way forever? I’m not certain I agree.

One of the things he talks about is how quality control circles must have management involvement and will eventually fail if they don’t. It made me think about retrospectives in scrum. By rule, management is not to come to these. The thought is that the team will not be open with each other if management is there and management will tell the team what they did wrong or fault the team for what they believe needs to be fixed. However during most of the retrospectives I’ve participated in, the team discussed things that were beyond their control and what frustrated them the most—i.e. things only management could fix! I think, ideally, a retrospective SHOULD have management involvement and would greatly benefit the team and the organization. HOWEVER– in order to reach this ideal state, a great deal of trust must exist between manager and employees. Fear must be completely driven out so the team feels comfortable speaking up. Management would also have to have a great deal of humility to listen to the lowly workers. Admittedly, this would have to be a very mature agile model for this to happen, but I think the agile community needs to promote this line of thinking.

Although, I learned a lot, I would not recommend this book for someone who is new to Deming. I’d recommend The Essential Deming, The Deming Dimension, or Fourth Generation Management instead. However, I think this is essential reading for any Deming disciple. Just wait a little while in your understanding before you pick it up.

Out of the Crisis can be bought here.



  1. The book “The Essential Deming” was interesting to me as a “Deming-head” or whatever, but it suffers from similar problems in terms of readability. It’s made a bit more challenging by the fact that much of the book was delivered as talks, not as the written word. Because it’s a compendium of talks, there’s a lot of repetition. That said, it’s an interesting historical collection.

    The book I recommend to people as an intro to Deming was written by Rafael Aguayo, who worked with Deming – a book ABOUT Deming’s philosophy. I found it to be much more approachable:

    Dr. Deming: The American Who Taught the Japanese About Quality


    1. Ah. OK. I’ve seen that one around, but you are the first to recommend it. Thanks a lot, Mark. I’ve been thinking about a book that would be a good place for people to start understanding Deming and of the books I’ve read (Out of the Crisis, Deming Dimension, and Essential Deming) I’m not sure I’d recommend any of them. I’ll add this one to “the list.”


  2. “Something he said didn’t sound right: “A pupil once taught cannot be reconstructed.” Is he saying that once a person is taught how to do something, they are stuck doing it that way forever? I’m not certain I agree.”

    I don’t think that’s true as an absolute statement. Of course, people are able to learn and improve upon a method.

    In Japan, there seems to be a stronger culture norm of having to strictly follow the way you were taught… a kata, if you will. In Japanese stores, there is a very consistent “standardized work” if you will around how they wrap up a purchase for you. Maybe Dr. Deming was reacting to that, given his time working in Japan.

    I’ve seen, though, in American organizations, many people holding to an outdated way of doing something (how to track performance metrics, for example) because “that’s the way I was taught” by some person they considered to be an expert. That creates a hesitancy to learn something new, even from a different expert, because they defer to the authority they learned from earlier?

    That’s not everybody of course, but some people (many?).


    1. Yes, I’d agree its harder to get people to change once they have learned how to do something a certain way. Maybe I am taking his quote as absolute, but it certainly is written as absolute. This is one of the few Deming thoughts that I’ve put a question mark next to. Most everything else is very spot on for me. Thanks for commenting!


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