The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

Using Deming’s Management Ideas to Reduce Violence in Prison

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In the last post we began to look at the efforts to improve the Maine State Prison. The efforts to adopt a management strategy and practices guided by an understanding of Dr. Deming’s management system are hampered by the overall management system. This is a common situation. The current state could best be seen as what David Langford discussed at the 2012 Deming Institute conference’s ago, where those interested in Deming’s ideas seek to adopt systemic management improvement thinking where they have authority.

Bill Feuss, Jon Parker and Michael Rubell at the Deming Research Seminar

Bill Feuss, Jon Parker and Michael Rubell at the Deming Research Seminar. The efforts to improve the performance of the prison using Deming’s ideas have been presented at 2011, 2012 and 2013 Deming Research Seminars at Fordham University. Photo by Judy Cahill

As Jon explained the experience so far at the Maine State Prison, where he is able to use Deming’s in his area of authority (within his team of officers):

My Officers that work directly for me have worked to understand and use Dr. Deming’s philosophy. As I have explained the approach and used it to solve and understand many of our immediate problems; they have come to realize the potential and actual power of using it themselves. The Officers that have read the New Economics have been amazed by how well it explains our organizations problems, and more importantly how to solve them. Unfortunately we are but one small part of a much larger system that does not understand itself.

The focus in the efforts at the prison started with making visible the underlying processes. As Jon says, “you can’t fix what you can’t see.” Flowcharts are also very helpful in getting people to think about process instead of just outcomes. Flowcharts make it easier for many to visualize the organization as a system. At the prison, Jon says:

The most powerful effect that flowcharting has had for my officers has been to understand and to see what is creating the negative outcomes. Thus bringing to life the power of the tool and validating the work they had to do to collect the data. This then allows us to tap into the direct knowledge, intrinsic motivation, and creativity of my officers to begin PDSA.

Reading the New Economics has also been a valuable method to help officers open their minds to new ways of viewing the workplace. This new vision allows them to more effectively seek systemic solutions to achieve reliable results that are sustainable over the long term.

They have also intentionally attempted to increase intrinsic motivation and decrease reliance on rewards and punishment within the prison.


Here is one example, among many, of the power of being guided by Deming’s view of the organization as a system. Jon describes how he was able to intervene in a situation to find an effective solution. Instead of accepting what would be a costly remedy (not only for the prisoners but also the staff) he sought to find a solution that was better for everyone involved.

Finding these types of solutions can then be used to build on the intrinsic motivation of staff and prisoners. When disruptive behavior is responded to with force, the force may win the battle but it can result in those subject to the force (prisoners in this case) to distrust and fight against the source of this force. When you think systemically and consider the long term you understand the problems of resorting to force and seek to find solutions that don’t resort to doing so.

Entering work one evening we learned that there was an incident taking place in the Special Management Unit (SMU). Inmates that were in the recreation yard (locked in individual cages) were demonstrating and refusing to be cuffed and taken back to their cells. A standoff that began three hours ago had developed into two extraction teams being formed, a K-9 dog, and the SMU filled with many officers, multiple Captains, Deputy Wardens, and the Warden himself. Both day and night shifts were being required to remain at the prison to assist.

As the SMU Sergeant I was told to ready my teams to begin the forcible extractions to get the inmates back to their cells. After doing this I then made my way to the rec yard where the inmates were protesting. My Captain and the Warden were speaking with one inmate on the far left of the cages. The first thing I noticed was that each of the inmates were African American. (Maine has the lowest minority population in the US.)

I quickly surveyed these inmates and went directly to their apparent leader. Using “prison language” I asked him what the problem was about. He looked at me and said: “Ham salad again for lunch, ham salad, again, are you kidding me, again?” I instantly realized that each of these inmates were Muslim.

Again using “Prison language” I acknowledged and owned the problem. I then asked him, “Would you take a bag meal?” With a look of surprise on his face he said, “well ya.” (A bag meal consists of two peanut butter sandwiches, milk, and fruit.) I followed this with “You will cuff up and we can end this peacefully.” He answered that he would.
Twenty minutes later all of the inmates were back in their cells. No force, no violence, no loss of credibility, and no added cost.

A prison is a place with more challenges to building a trusting environment in which intrinsic motivation can be increased, cooperation can be encouraged and the use of extrinsic punishments and rewards can be reduced. There will obviously (in the current maximum security prison environment) remain the need to impose superior force to compel acceptable behavior when appropriate. But looking for better solutions when possible provides better results.

Jon’s team is able to apply Deming’s thinking to look at the systemic causes of issues and address those. And in so doing build an environment where credibility can be increased and conflicts decreased. And they can see that building on these gains over time will allow intrinsic motivation (of both prisoners and officers) to grow. While at the same time allowing them to reduce the need to resort to force and sanctions to enforce compliance.

Jon appreciates the power of respect for people, as did Dr. Deming. Every organization is different, and a prison is more different than most (though remember Jon also served in the Navy which is another very different organization where Deming’s ideas were used successfully). Jon explains how changes based on an understanding of psychology and systems thinking can create powerful improvements in prison.

I consistently try to developed a working relationship with any inmate, especially troubled inmates that have a history of cutting themselves. On many occasions when I have learned that they are on edge or they will even ask to speak with me, I intervene. Most times it takes only 15 or 20 minutes to tap into what intrinsically motivates them to turn them around. On most occasions they are placed back into their cells calm and thankful, and I walk away with a razor or sharp object that they had planned to use on themselves.

The first time this happened I gathered my Officers and placed the Razor in front of them and made the statement: “Tell me Deming doesn’t work in this environment. What did that 15 minute investment of time just save us?” My Officers were not subjected to the blood and trauma. No expensive biohazard consumable gear was used. The inmate did not need expensive medical treatment that often times includes trips to the local hospital for treatment. The inmate makes a small step forward learning to deal with his own problems.

That is the power of intrinsic motivation in a prison. And look at the costs that we saved in both dollars and personal trauma on both sides of the fence.

This unfortunately is often missed because it is not a major incident and is under the radar of counted numbers.

It is hard for those without the experience of working in such environments to appreciate the consequences of failure. Other institutions can have such drastic consequences at times (hospitals and the military for example) but many other organizations have less dramatic consequences (failures in education may actually have consequences that are as dire but most of those are consequences that might be manifest years and decades later).

As Jon says:

The failure of our ad-hoc process is intensified by the fact that these inmates are locked in a concrete box for 23 hours a day. Often times for weeks, months and in some cases for years.

When human beings are unable to communicate their needs or in this case be heard they will typically communicate with violence. This can be seen in all walks of life from autistic children to incarcerated adults.

The prison has a difficult task. And the consequences for failing to find solutions to these challenges are dire. The Frontline documentary, Solitary Nation, provides a glimpse of the current situation. When you see the consequences it is natural to ask “Why is this happening?” “Can’t we do better?” I believe we can. And Jon’s team of officers is doing their best to do so. It isn’t easy but hopefully they can help inspire improved methods to achieve better results in difficult circumstances.

You know the challenges of building on success in your organization. Organizations often suffer frustrating slippage as problem situations create conflict, cause people to question other’s credibility and even the value of the management improvement framework. You certainly can see a prison shares all the challenges your organization has and adds on top quite a few challenges you don’t face.

With that in mind, take inspiration from what they are able to achieve and attack your challenges with a renewed sense of purpose.

Related: The greatest waste in America is failure to use the ability of peopleApplication of Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge in HealthcareWhat’s Deming Got to Do With Agile Software Development and KanbanSupport Learning with an Understanding of Psychology and Systems Thinking


Categorised as: management systems, psychology, respect for people


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