It was 20 years ago today …

File:W. Edwards Deming.gifToday, 20 December 2013, marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of W Edwards Deming. Deming was a hugely influential figure in management science, in Japan during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, then internationally from the early 1980s until his death. His memory persists in a continuing debate about his thinking among a small and aging sector of the operational excellence community, and in a broader reputation as a “management guru”, one of the writers who from the 1980s onwards championed and popularised the causes of employee engagement and business growth through customer satisfaction.

Deming’s training had been in mathematics and physics but in his professional life he first developed into a statistician, largely because of the influence of Walter Shewhart, an early mentor. It was fundamental to Deming’s beliefs that an organisation could only be managed effectively with widespread business measurement and trenchant statistical criticism of data. In that way he anticipated writers of a later generation such as Nate Silver and Nassim Taleb.

Since Deming’s death the operational excellence landscape has become more densely populated. In particular, lean operations and Six Sigma have variously been seen as competitors for Deming’s approach, as successors, usurpers, as complementary, as development, or as tools or tool sets to be deployed within Deming’s business strategy. In many ways, the pragmatic development of lean and Six Sigma have exposed the discursive, anecdotal and sometimes gnomic way Deming liked to communicate. In his book Out of the Crisis: Quality, Productivity and Competitive Position (1982) minor points are expanded over whole chapters while major ideas are finessed in a few words. Having elevated the importance of measurement and a proper system for responding to data he goes on to observe that the most important numbers are unknown and unknowable. I fear that this has often been an obstacle to managers finding the hard science in Deming.

For me, the core of Deming’s thinking remains this. There is only one game in town, the continual improvement of the alignment between the voice of the process and the voice of the customer. That improvement is achieved by the diligent use of process behaviour charts. Pursuit of that aim will collaterally reduce organisational costs.

Deming pursued the idea further. He asked what kind of organisation could most effectively exploit process behaviour charts. He sought philosophical justifications for successful heuristics. It is here that his writing became more difficult to accept for many people. In his last book, The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, he trespassed on broader issues usually reserved to politics and social science, areas in which he was poorly qualified to contribute. The problem with Deming’s later work is that where it is new, it is not economics, and where it is economics, it is not new. It is this part of his writing that has tended to attract a few persistent followers. What is sad about Deming’s continued following is the lack of challenge. Every seminal thinker’s works are subject to repeated criticism, re-evaluation and development. Not simply development by accumulation but development by revision, deletion and synthesis. It is here that Deming’s memory is badly served. At the top of the page is a link to Deming’s Wikipedia entry. It is disturbing that everything is stated as though a settled and triumphant truth, a treatment that contrasts with the fact that his work is now largely ignored in mainstream management. Managers have found in lean and Six Sigma systems they could implement, even if only partially. In Deming they have not.

What Deming deserves, now that a generation, a global telecommunications system and a world wide web separate us from him, is a robust criticism and challenge of his work. The statistical thinking at the heart is profound. For me, the question of what sort of organisation is best placed to exploit that thinking remains open. Now is the time for the re-evaluation because I believe that out of it we can join in reaching new levels of operational excellence.

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