W Edwards Deming (1900-1993)

In 1987, W Edwards Deming was awarded with the National Medal of Technology by President Reagan. The citation for his medal provides a neat summation of Deming’s span of interests and achievements in his distinguished career: the award was made for:

forceful promotion of statistical methodology, for his contributions to sampling theory, and for his advocacy to corporations and nations of a general management philosophy that has resulted in improved product quality with consequent betterment of products available to users, as well as more efficient corporate performance.

Neave 1990 p21

However, it was only late in Deming’s life that he was to achieve widespread attention in his own country. In 1980 he was featured in an NBC TV documentary titled ‘If Japan can… why can’t we?’ about the increasing industrial competition the United States was facing from Japan. As a result of the broadcast, demand for his services increased dramatically, and Deming continued consulting for industry throughout the world until his death at the age of 93. Ford, AT&T, Bridgestone Inc, Campbell Soups, Kimberley-Clark, Procter and Gamble, Velcro and the US Navy were some of the bigger organisations that subsequently sought out Deming’s advice. In contrast to the general indifference his ideas had received in the West until that point, in 1960 the Japanese Emperor had presented Deming with the highest Japanese award ever given to foreigners, the Second Order of the Sacred Treasure. Deming had made an immeasurable contribution to Japan’s later reputation for innovative high-quality products and its economic power. He is regarded as having had more impact upon Japanese manufacturing and business than any other individual not of Japanese heritage. His approach involved demonstrating that all business processes are vulnerable to a loss of quality through statistical variation. Reduce the variation and increase the quality was the foundation of his advice. He said:

If I had to reduce my message for management to a few words, I’d say it all had to do with reducing variation.

The Economist 2009

Management, he argued, was responsible for the vast majority of that variation:

I should estimate that in my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to proportions something like this: 94% belong to the system (responsibility of management) 6% special.

Deming 1994 p xv

To that end, he was a scathing critic of conventional Western management practice. His criticisms included what he saw as the absurdity of failing to understand that workers’ performance was, in fact, governed by the system:

The fact is that the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance.

Deming in Scholtes 1998 p 296

He described how costs of sub-optimisation created by the prevailing style of management were larger than mere production costs (such as poor quality or excess inventory), as they also incorporated human and societal costs (Deming 1982 p127). He argued that the greatest costs of sub-optimisation are ‘unknown and unknowable’ (Deming 1982 p121).

Deming was born in Sioux City, Iowa in 1900. Having studied at University of Colorado, he obtained a PhD in Mathematics in 1928. He then worked with the US department of Agriculture as a mathematical physicist. For a period, he went to study under the ‘father of statistics’ Sir Ronald Fisher at University College, London in 1936. Deming particularly found inspiration in the work of Dr Walter Shewhart, the originator of the concepts controlled and uncontrolled variability, statistical control of processes, and the related technical tool of the statistical process chart. The two spent had considerable time working together after a first encounter at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant in the 1920s. The ‘Plan-Do-Check-Act’ cycle, which is commonly attributed to Deming (especially in Japan), Deming was always keen to ensure was credited to his friend Shewhart.

Deming moved to work at the National Bureau of the Census and immediately began to apply his concepts to their work ahead of the 1940 Population Census. His methods reduced the need for inspection and verification. Productivity in some of these processes was increased by as much as six times, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars and allowing Census results to be published ahead of schedule. He was then employed to spread his methods to industrialists, designers and engineers involved in the war effort. However, the gains made in quality and volumes of production were hard to sustain after the end of the war. Producers soon found themselves in a booming sellers’ market, where there was more demand for goods than could be supplied. In such an environment, quality and statistical methods became less of a priority for manufacturers.

Deming was invited by General MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan after the war, to provide advice to the Japanese Census. Whilst in Japan, he met members of the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers who had been tasked with leading the reconstruction of the country after the war. His ideas permeated the courses on statistical control that were then being taught. Deming was invited back in 1950 and drew large crowds to his lectures, including senior managers. Deming thought it very significant that the initiative came from the Japanese management community, whereas in the US he had made little progress with attempts to impose his ideas on an unresponsive managerial audience. He said:

I rang no doorbells; I did not ask to go.

Neave 1990 p25

Deming told them that they had the potential to capture world markets in a very few years if they were to follow his methods. At the time Japan was notorious in the western world for the shabby goods that it produced. By the late 1970s the roles had been reversed: Japan was producing the quality stuff while America’s car industry was in crisis and its standard-bearers of quality were Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. The Japanese listened as he introduced his famous ‘Figure 1’ (Deming 1982 p4) which captured the flow of work through a manufacturing organisation. Management’s focus, argued Deming, ought to be with the flow of work through the system as opposed to measuring and managing work in functional activities, as operating at this ‘system’ level achieves far more than focussing on the refinement of individual functions and/or processes. He told them that:

The consumer is the most important part of the production line.

Neave 1990 p27

With renewed interest in his work in the 1980s, Deming published his book Out of the Crisis’ (first edition 1982) and toured the country giving his famous 4-day seminars. Central to his teaching were his 14 points:

the basis for transformation of American industry.

1982 p23

To this day, Japanese industry awards a prestigious annual prize to companies that have demonstrated exceptional improvements in quality. It is called the Deming Prize.


Deming W E 1982 ‘Out of the Crisis’ MIT Press: Massachusetts

Deming W E 1994 ‘The New Economics: For Industry, Government, Education’ MIT Press: Massachusetts

The Economist 2009 ‘Guru: W. Edwards Deming’ Jun 5th

Neave H 1990 ‘The Deming Dimension’ SPC Press: Tennessee

Scholtes, PR 1998 ‘The leader’s handbook: making things happen, getting things done’ McGraw-Hill, London