Why No One Talks About Deming Anymore

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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.”
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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 . . .
  12. 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.

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8 comments

  1. Thanks for the post and the link. I still talk about Deming 🙂

    I attended a leadership class taught by faculty from the Institute for Healthcare Improvement yesterday and they mentioned Deming at the start of the class. Not everything that was discussed was necessarily consistent with Deming, but I guess it was better than nothing.

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    1. Yes! I know you talk about Deming and I am so glad you do! It was such a relief (and surprise)when I started listening to your podcasts and reading your blog. Its one reason why I’m such a fan. I also appreciate you contributing to the Deming Institute’s blog. It makes me feel better that folks like you are out there, Mark. It seems the healthcare industry is quite familiar with Deming. The circles I travel (IT/SD) people look at you cross-eyed when you mention him.

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  2. Hi Dan – I absolutely do talk about Deming! Here are a few I prepared earlier
    http://everydaylean.info/downloads/visual-quotes-gallery/

    And you’re right that many Agilists carry that torch (especially the system thinkers amongst the Agile Community, which is to say: the thinkers). I can reel off a dozen significant names who do, with Jim Benson and Dean Leffingwell at the start of the list. Heck, the SAFe training materials cite Deming more than anyone else!

    My cultural observation is that your #3 is highly significant. It’s the Western (and sadly, most specifically American) cultural and narrative trope: the hero’s journey. Even the Lean books (or at least, all the business-book-as-novel ones) fall into that trap.

    But keep up the fight! Keep talking about him! Keep citing him!

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    1. Hey, Martin! Thank you for stopping by. Yes, there are definitely agilests out there who have been talking about him. It just seems the ones I know don’t know who he is. I have this feeling he’s going to make a break through. Outside the agilests, though, no one seems to have a clue. Yes, thank you for the encouragement! I will keep up the good fight!

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  3. #1 & 3 are such powerful points and deeply ingrained in the North American psyche – yet most folks I know report that they dislike working for authoritarian leaders or individual-dominated organizations. We say we don’t want to work for these bosses, yet we read books and watch movies about Trump, Jobs, etc. and celebrate them. I find this paradox endlessly interesting.

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    1. Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. It is strange. We admire these hard hitting people who are powerful visionaries, wicked smart, and don’t let anything get in their way. Until their attention is turned on us and we get steamrolled. They aren’t so admirable after that. Thanks for stopping by, Ryan!

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  4. Hi Dan,

    Thanks for the post. Being in the IT industry and a big advocate of Dr. Deming and his teachings (as well as Dr. Ackoff), I wanted to give my two cents.

    I believe the problem with methodologies and frameworks (Agile, Scrum etc.) is that none of the go to the root cause of the whole “management”. We tend to lean on tools and believe if we use the latest tool, technology or latest anything we can solve all of our problems. And then when this does not happen, we get confused, shake it off, blame the tool or the latest thing and move on searching for the next “latest whatever”.

    If anybody, paused to understand the root cause of their problems, know what a system is and learn just a bit about special and common causes, I believe, a lot of the problems would have been solved much easier. And then all the other “things” become what they were intended to be in the first place: just the tools. Your toolset can be updated but the core would be solid.

    If anyone took time to learn and understand PDSA, would they still become Agilists? Or would they be like “this is what should have been all along”? Also, if Agilists knew about Dr.Deming, would they still talk about an “Agile Organization”, knowing that the manifesto does not address any of the “organizational” problems – special and common causes, variation, psychology and system?

    This is not an attack on Agile or saying that it is wrong, but rather that all these methodologies have a place and they do address one part of the equation. However, I believe that to solve the whole equation, you do need System of Profound Knowledge from Dr.Deming. All of the tools and techniques that IT uses currently can compliment the SoPK.

    SoPK does include innovation. It is in the Theory of Knowledge. He says “Learning is a source of innovation”. (The New Economics, page 108). I take this as learning about yourself, company, customer, product and services… I believe this was the foundation of the “Learning Organization” from Peter Sange.

    The companies do follow your points as you correctly observed, yet the customer and employee engagement is on the decline. Almost everybody is disconnected from each other (even though we have more means of communication), from their work, from their customers. Since customers do not think the companies care for them, there is no more customer loyalty either. No tool or framework is going to solve this. It is a organizational culture problem and only a cultural shift can solve this problem. This is one of the “unknowables” Dr.Deming was talking about and it cannot be so easily put on a spreadsheet. Right now, it seems like if you cannot put it on a spreadsheet, it is not worth it.

    I think for IT the biggest challenge is when Deming advocates that the top management has to get behind the transformation otherwise it is not going to work. So the question I get asked a lot is “I am just a developer, what can I do?”. What they do not realize is that without top management’s approval, they would not be doing Agile, Kanban, Scrum, Scrumban, LeSS, SAFe etc. either. But as the developer team, you can ask the right questions and push management towards a better culture.

    Finally, if nobody is talking about Deming then it’s onto us to correct that. We need to write with regards to trends in society, in industry and changes in technology and connect the dots. Find the relevance to Deming and talk about that. The examples need to be not only from manufacturing but from media, IT projects, startups. If you are a start up and know about Deming, do you still need to follow/learn about Lean Startup? Would you be a better developer/consultant if you focus on understanding the business problem and the business and have a systems thinking approach and therefore provide “value”? I am not talking about tests, clean and working code or whatever but the actual “business value” and “value for the customer”.

    I agree with your points and they are very good observations. I also believe some of the are just perceptions by people. It is up to us to change those perceptions. I also agree with your observations about the next generation.

    To me, it looks like what is happening around us seem to force people to think in systems. We now know, climate change is not regional but whatever one does has an impact on the whole globe. The same with politics. One country’s problem may not be only their problem anymore.

    We just need to find and point these out.

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    1. Thanks for the very well thought out response, TJ. It makes me feel good to see IT folks out there embracing Deming. I agree with many of your points. I think Agile is primarily attacking at a tactical level—i.e. what a team can do to make improvements, but their biggest obstacle always goes right back to what Deming identified long ago—management. I knew Deming taught the importance of innovation. I hadn’t thought about the theory of knowledge being important to innovation, but that makes sense. Thanks for pointing that out. Yes, I definitely agree—we need to talk about Deming more and it is definitely hard to change people’s existing paradigms. Interesting how you brought up climate change as an analogy. It made me think how there are so many people out there who just don’t believe it despite any evidence you show them and they will fight it tooth and nail. We have this same issue when it comes to convincing others of Deming’s principles. Thank you so much for stopping by!

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