The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

Shortage of Implementation Details


From Lean Thinking by James Womack and Daniel Jones (page 126):

the management of Wiremold was soon enrolled in the Deming seminars. As Orrie Fiume notes, “Deming’s Fourteen Points were a perfect fit with our values and we loved the principles. There was only one problem: Deming teaches what he called a “Theory of Management,” or what I call a philosophy of change. But like a lot of good management theories, it was critically short on implementation details.

In my opinion it is true that Deming’s ideas are focused on principles and knowledge. And what steps to implement in what order is not clearly laid out. I do think there are many implementation details provided but the cookbook telling when each should be applied and in what ways implementation needs to be adjusted based upon other system factors is not spelled out.

I don’t really see how you can spell out a implementation guide that can just be followed by a novice. Managing complex system of people and processes requires quite a bit of knowledge and understanding of the current state of the management system. What steps are best depend greatly on the current situation in the organization.

Still, I think if an organization can’t hire a knowledgeable consultant there is plenty of guidance on implementation that can be followed. It might well be some wisdom of what is likely to be difficult given the current system and what is likely to be most effective would be helpful but even without that progress can be made.

My suggestion in such a case is to start slowly, learn as you go and build on successes. Learn directly from Deming (the books and videos) and from other great books by those that worked with him. My favorites include: The Leader’s Handbook by Peter Scholtes, Fourth Generation Management by Brian Joiner, The Improvement Guide by Gerald Langley, Kevin Nolan, Clifford Norman, Lloyd Provost and Thomas Nolan.

Start using the tools (PDSA, control charts, flowcharts, cause and effect diagrams, visual job instructions, …), focus on respect for people and move toward evidence based decision making. Focus on doing a few things well. Don’t try to do everything at first. Concentrate on getting a few tools and new concepts well understood and effectively used in the organization. Then build from there. As part of this build an appreciation for systems thinking (seeing how interconnected things are is important to moving forward).

A risk from the build slowly but continually is failing to appreciate the importance of making a fundamental change in how executives are working. You must find steps on the path that will be effective in the short run but that also are moving you toward the long term goal.

Later in his life Dr. Deming wouldn’t work with an organization if the CEO was directly committed and involved in making such a change. Getting senior leadership directly involved is certainly wonderful. If that is possible by all means do so.

But if senior leadership is not involved from the beginning, I like the strategy of transformation through successes, as opposed to attempting to just convince people with words. That means choosing tactics that will be successful given the current state and then building on those successes. This often means you are focused on applying a few tools well, which is great. But, the risk is forgetting the long term goal. The goal is not to use a few tools well (that can be the goal for some organizations, it just isn’t going to result in a Deming based management system).

While gaining success using the tools make sure the focus remains on building toward an organization that is able to change the management system (rather than just apply a few tools). This isn’t easy but learning from those mentioned above and others such as Russell Ackoff and Peter Senge can help. And quite a few blogs on lean thinking provide some good advice on the importance of changing the management system, rather than just adopting a few tools.

Don’t expect to transform an organization into a Deming based organization in a year. Realize this is a long term process and gauge your success as transforming over the long term. Don’t get excited about short term roadblocks of things taking longer than you want.

The easiest way to greatly speed up the transformation is hiring a great consultant. I know this makes some people uncomfortable, they want a management system that provides transformation and is adopted like a new plug and play gadget. I don’t know of such a management system. The reason why I think a consultant is needed is their are so many factors that influence what is the best course of action that no cookbook solution will work. Also a consultant can greatly help speed up the learning process. The consultant’s role should be as a coach to people in the organization.

I don’t think there are many hard and fast cookbook like rules but I think the closest thing to one is to apply the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle (PDSA) well. Start using it and focus on improving the ability of the organization to use it well. The use of the PDSA cycle to drive learning and improvement will support many other aspects of adopting the Deming management system.

Please share your thoughts on implementing Deming’s management ideas.

Related: Why Lean Programs Fail by Jeffrey Liker and Mike Rother – Why C level executives don’t engage in lean by Steven Spear The Lean Tortoise… and the Hares by Kevin Meyer

Categorised as: data, respect for people, systems thinking


  1. […] Related: Dr. Deming Video: A Theory of a System for Educators and Managers – Choose tactics that will be successful given the current state and build on initial successes […]

  2. […] Deming’s management system is not prescriptive. There is not a recipe for how to implement the ideas in your organization. This often frustrates people. But the lack of prescriptive details is intentional. Dr. Deming did not believe you can provide such a recipe that will work. The principles must be learned and then practices must be adopted that work with those principles and the specific organization. […]

  3. […] some people. Dr. Deming didn’t believe in simple guides telling managers what to do – his ideas are not prescriptive. The challenges of management don’t lend themselves to simple instructions spelling out […]

  4. […] Start using the tools (PDSA, control charts, flowcharts, cause and effect diagrams, visual job instructions, …), focus on respect for people and move toward evidence based decision making. […]

  5. […] idea that you need to understand the principles and think about how to apply them properly in the context you find yoursel… is very important. In the education context this idea is even more important because the context is […]

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