There was an article posted last year in Harvard Business Review about how Deming had been forgotten. I think this is a conundrum in the Deming community. Deming often talked about how we were in a new age and how we needed to transform. Yet here we are, 15 years after his passing and the transformation seems to have stagnated.
This post comes out of my own struggles with trying to influence people in the Deming way of management. Here are my thoughts and observations on why we are hitting a brick wall.
- Authoritarianism Still Seems to Work. Proof of this are the likes of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and others. Thank God for us Deming folks Agile is around and Toyota overtook the automotive industry a few years back. However, this year, Volkswagen became the #1 automotive producer. In the past they’ve been known for iron-fisted leadership. Despite having a new CEO, will people equate this management style to Volkswagen’s success?
- Disruptive Technology as the Strategy for Success. Silicon Valley has been an important business model for two decades. “Innovate!” my last company preached. “We must innovate to stay relevant!” Our management mandated that each of our product lines had to come up with at least one innovative solution per year (innovate or else!). I think too many modern businesses have become preoccupied with innovation and finding the next big thing instead of focusing on how to become more efficient. Now, Deming DID talk about the necessity of innovation, however, if folks do remember him they don’t remember him talking about it. Neither his 14 points nor the System of Profound knowledge mention innovation.
- Individualism over Systems. Alfie Kohn said Deming’s star died out in this country because he was a systems thinker and the West (particularity Americans) do not understand the importance of a system. We stress the individual’s contribution. We believe if there is progress and success, it can be attributed to some individual (or small group of individuals) and if there is a problem, then it must be someone’s fault. Kohn said it was inevitable that Deming’s ideas wouldn’t graft here.
- Short Term Results over Long Term Results. Deming’s way is long term. He even said it himself—it would take years or even decades to see results. No one wants to wait that long. I think people want the long term, but they also want the short term and that is where the emphasis continues to lie (because . . . well . . . its the short term).
- Tools/Techniques/Action over Theory. Over the years, I’ve heard so many people say, “Just use or do whatever works.” I think this is rooted in our belief that any problem can be resolved with the right tool (or technique). Deming stressed theory first and then use the right tools for the theory. However, theory is discounted in our society. I once had a manger tell me a theory didn’t matter if it didn’t work (he was quite derisive that I even mentioned the term ‘theory’). Action is valued in our society. I had our IT director tell me on my first week of my new job that I needed to understand that the Nike motto was important to him and to “Just do it.”
- We have no time. Our time is getting more and more squeezed. We have little time to think about new/different ideas (unless they are quick solutions promising immediate results). Its certainly true we are being asked to do more with less all the time. As a result, few are willing to invest time into reflecting, studying, and risking experimentation. I’d also add lack of time reinforces command and control. We need an answer NOW and we don’t have time to collaborate, so we rely on someone to direct us. I’ve certainly been guilty of this.
- Educated Idiots. Deming (and most other management scientists) never ran a business. Heck, Deming was never even a manager. I had a teammate look at the library on my desk and say, “I prefer to take advice from people who have actually ran a business.” I’ve heard people say we need to stop listening to “educated idiots.” I hate to say it, but I’m sure they would put Deming into this camp. Experience is valued over knowledge or theory in our society. Deming’s belief that our experience is wrong would simply be scorned.
- The Passage of Time. Many don’t know who Deming is. They might recognize PDCA or perhaps remember him as a “Quality Guru.” I was saddened when I told our PMO manager that my blog had been featured on the Deming Institute and he didn’t know who Deming was.
- Its no longer relevant. If a book was written just 5 years ago, many think it may not be relevant anymore. The world changes too fast they would say. I’ve certainly fallen into this trap. The same problem can be said with Deming in general. He was big in the 80s and early 90s, but many would say that was decades ago and the world has changed since then.
- Deming is Difficult to Understand. Deming doesn’t make sense to many people. Its a huge paradigm shift. Few have the patience to listen or understand, especially when they need an answer NOW. Heck, even in his day, people thought he was wrong (including his own grandson!) or that he was senile. Some people would walk out of his seminars. God help the individual who is new to Deming and picks up a copy of Out of the Crisis without some type of primer! Even if his concepts do resonate with an individual, they are so deep they will take a lifetime to master and even then, you won’t be finished. Many folks just aren’t willing to invest in that.
- Deming Died. Deming’s biggest influence and power was the fact that he WAS W. Edwards Deming—the man who Japan revered and had their highest business prize named after. His followers simply don’t have his clout. However, I believe even if Deming were alive today, I doubt many people would be going to his seminars like they once did. That’s because . . .
- Japan’s Economy Declined. From the late 70s until the early 90s Japan was America’s bogey man. Japan seemed destined to overtake our markets and people were scared and fascinated at the same time. Of course folks wanted to know what the heck they were doing differently and so Deming became the pretty girl in the room. Then Japan hit an economic slump . Even though Japan is still the third largest economy in the world, it doesn’t seem to be the threat it once was.
So, what do I think will happen to Deming’s ideas?
I think the Agile movement carries the Deming torch in this day and age (even though they may not realize it). I wish the Agile community would take a closer look at his teachings. I think it will strengthen their position. However, I have this sinking feeling we may soon see an Agile implosion. A ton of companies have tried Scrum and while there are many who get something out of it, many aren’t. I think this is because they haven’t transformed their paradigms and have focused too much on the Agile tools and techniques. In my last company, this was certainly true and the writing was on the wall that the Agile experiment was about to end. Management was quickly losing patience and were already starting to look elsewhere (Six Sigma was next on the list of the fad du jour!).
However—I hold out a tremendous amount of hope. In the book Deming’s Profound Changes, the authors write that it often takes decades for a new philosophy to take root and develop in a culture. If so, we are nearing that point now. I know some people may think I’m crazy, but I can’t help but think the younger generation will embrace Deming’s teachings. For one, they seem to have less tolerance for the bullshit of traditional management (traditional managers often fault them for being lazy—I think the younger generation are just being rational and want to be creative and—gasp!– have joy in their work!). They are growing up with Agile concepts and having amazing startup companies like Menlo as models. I think this will make them think of management differently. Also, they seem to be looking to the past for their ideas (they seem to think old-school is cool). For instance, one of my favorite websites, The Art of Manliness, teaches old-school “man skills” and the site’s founder Brett McKay says his biggest audience is the under 30 crowd. Will they discover Deming when they look to their history to understand their future? Also, the younger generation is more willing to embrace diversity and different ideas. The world is getting smaller and Eastern countries like China and India continue to rise. As a result, Eastern thought and its holistic/systems ideas has a better chance of penetrating the next generation’s current paradigms. Lastly, Japanese culture is popular with today’s youth. This puts them in close proximity to Deming’s teachings.
My hope is as the next generation gets closer to becoming managers themselves, they will discover this incredible man and his insights and the transformation will continue. Those of us who have been studying Deming must be ready to share, teach, and mentor these young people what we know.