Probing the Limits: Deming's Vision: Arduous but Advantageous

January 1, 2004
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It may be a difficult ride, but the destination makes the trip worthwhile.

Last winter, while attending the Deming Research Forum, I gained an insight about the person I consider our nation's greatest quality leader, W. Edwards Deming. Ironically, it was a simple comment in the hall that gave me some insight on Deming.

I wanted to learn more about Deming from those who had worked closely with him. As I introduced myself to one of Deming's long-time colleagues, I said, "It must have been a tremendous experience to work for him." I got a strange look.

She replied, "The only person who ever worked for Deming as a true employee was his secretary. Dr. Deming never had any other employees that worked for him." Was the man who authored my cherished 14 Points for Management never a manager? Yes, it's true.

I wanted to pursue this so I asked one of Deming's close assistants about his lack of management experience. She explained that while Deming lacked management experience, it did not affect the value of his vision because he was teaching a vastly superior way to run an organization. During the 1980s when American companies had their back to the wall and were forced to make dramatic improvements to survive, they turned to Deming, and those that made the effort improved and survived. Unfortunately, the application of Deming's teachings has waned; just as the quality profession has waned.

Deming's assistant explained that there was a good news/bad news element to Deming's vision. The good news is that Deming talked about business practices that were several steps more advanced of where most businesses were operating, and achieving this vision would give an organization a tremendous advantage over competitors. The bad news is that Deming was so far ahead of current business practices that most people found his vision too difficult to comprehend.

Where Deming's lack of management experience hurt him is that he spent little time explaining how to implement and execute the extensive changes needed to achieve his vision. One of his assistants explained that Deming thought that after he described how things should be, making the necessary changes to get there would be easy.

It's not easy, though, and because Deming was never a manager, I don't think he realized how hard real change is to make. I'm far from achieving Deming's vision, but I'm trying because it is clear to me that it is a much better way. It's a tough, exhausting, frustrating, arduous, emotionally draining, uphill battle trying to get there. Most people give up. Many organizations resort to what one reader of this column called "leadership in a box" and another reader called, "the addictive drug of the quick-fix program" like ISO 9000, Six Sigma and lean manufacturing.

Consultants with a silver-bullet solution may start a company down the quality road, but chances are the consultants or the company and its employees will bail out before any significant fundamental changes are made. You just can't hire a consultant, do a few training sessions and expect the business to operate at a significantly higher level. Real change that makes businesses fundamentally more successful comes from following a progressive vision like Deming's and working hard to get there.

I've experienced this fisthand. I took an operations position in my company a year ago and I've been overwhelmed by the number of opportunities for continual improvement that could yield major bottom-line results. After a year of aggressively addressing these issues, the operations team is exhausted, but the company is more profitable than it has been in many years.

Even though I think Deming underestimated how difficult his vision would be to achieve, I'm glad that I understand it is the answer to continued improvement and that drives me to work toward his vision.

Recently I have realized that Deming's vision isn't "one step away." Achieving Deming's vision requires many difficult overhauls and re-overhauls. "Getting there" is still a ways away for my team, but working toward his vision has never done anything but pay off for us, each step of the way. Armed with the quality profession's continual improvement tools, an understanding of Deming's teachings, the resilience to ward off quick fixes and a lot of hard work, pursuing Deming's vision does yield tremendous bottom-line business results.

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