Despite a waning interest, Deming’s methods are as powerful as ever.

I’m a true believer in W. Edwards Deming’s teachings, but because thorough implementation of his teachings are almost non-existent, it forces me to ask, “Was he wrong?”

If Deming’s teachings can lead the way to revolutionary improvements in performance, why aren’t CEOs clamoring to adopt and implement his ideas? The fact is most CEOs had a taste for Deming during the TQM years and have abandoned the effort to further implement his teachings.

I’m not saying that Deming had no impact. Deming was successful in making many revolutionary changes in many organizations and those changes are still alive. In my opinion, Deming’s techniques were responsible for saving many U.S. companies. The fact that his influence was so successful makes me wonder even more why Deming’s methods have waned so much over the last few years when there is so much more to be gained from his teachings.

Over the last few months, I’ve asked Deming’s associates and some friends in the quality profession, “If Deming was teaching us about a much better way, why has the implementation of his ideas dropped off so dramatically?”

One of Deming’s associates explained it this way. During the 1980s, many American industries were losing market share to the Japanese. CEOs were forced to look for a better way to do things. CEOs of surviving companies adopted Deming’s teachings, like the Japanese had already done, to catch up with the gains that the Japanese had achieved. Now that Japan’s economy is hurting and U.S. companies have done a fairly good job catching up, the pressure is off to seek major continual improvement. Why would a CEO risk his powerful position by trying radical change when life is good on top? It appears that many industry leaders in the U.S. have reverted back to the dangerous mode of operation that got America into the industrial trouble 30 years ago, “if it ain’t broken, don’t try to improve it.” That works as long as everything stays stagnant.

Another explanation that I got was that Deming was simply far ahead of his time. Deming had revolutionary insight to the human elements involved in work. The human elements of work are barely understood and rarely explored. Deming talks about things that are off the beaten path of business management theory. It is going to take a long time for most business teachers and leaders to catch up with Deming’s knowledge in this area.

An impediment to exploring the human elements at work is that there are easier things for a CEO to change. One friend of mine explained that a CEO sits on top of such a large organization, and is so far removed from day-to-day operations, that he has only a few “levers he can pull” to affect change. Some of the most common things they do are mergers and acquisitions, hiring consultants to implement pre-packaged change programs or financial engineering. These actions have a terrible track record for success, but are some of the easiest and most accepted things a CEO is expected to do.

CEOs, like many of us, are inclined to migrate to the easy tasks that give the illusion of quick results. I’ve found in my career that major improvements almost always take major efforts. The type of change that Deming talked about is hard to do. It also requires doing things differently than almost everyone else. Going against the grain can be a dangerous career move. Many CEOs and mangers abandon the Deming path to revolutionary improvement because it simply is hard to do well, is high-risk because it is so different, and because it takes time. The search for simple, quick fixes becomes an addictive distraction from making real improvements.

Despite the gloomy tone of this column, I think that there is an exciting opportunity for quality professionals that understand Deming. Change is inevitable. Risk-taking leaders who understand Deming’s teachings are in a position to start the next revolutionary change and leave their competitors to operate in catch-up mode. Those trying to catch up once revolutionary change starts again will have a distinct advantage if they are knowledgeable about Deming.

For now, I’ll keep trying to change my little corner of the world with Deming guiding me. I’ve always liked the motto of my native state, Kansas, “Ad Astra, Per Aspera,” which is Latin for “To the Stars Through Difficulties.” I’ll continue to choose the hard Deming way, as long at is continues to deliver me consistent, major, real successes.

Scott Dalgleish is chief operating officer at Spectra Logic Corp. (Boulder, CO) and an ASQ certified quality manager. Let Scott know what you think at [email protected].

Risk-taking leaders that understand Deming’s teachings are in a position to start the next revolutionary change and leave their competitors in catch-up mode.