The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

Myth: If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Manage It


It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.

W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics, page 35.

One of the quotes you will see quite frequently “incorrectly” attributed to Dr. Deming is “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” I suppose you could say it is correctly attributed to him; after all that is a direct quote from the quote listed above 😕 However, I think it would be more accurate to say it is misattributed to him.

His quote is saying the opposite of what most people think it means when they use the quote without the extra words he used. This is one of the dangers in using quotes without context: we try to provide context for quotes by W. Edwards Deming in our quote web site.

Why is the shorter quote used so often and attributed to Dr. Deming? My guess is that he did stress the importance of using data to confirm beliefs about which management strategies and practices are working and which are not. And he did so much earlier than it was common to see things this way in relation to managing organizations. And several of the tools he recommended involved using data (Plan-Do-Study-Act improvement cycle, control charts, etc.). And often when people are told about Deming they get a very short introduction which leaves out most of what he said and they get the idea he was just a statistician.

So when people see a quote emphasizing the importance of data attributed to W. Edwards Deming it seems sensible that he said it. And it is likely shared so often because people notice that their organization is flailing away when they would benefit from using data to improve their management of the situation. So the quote appeals to people seeing their organization fail to use data when they should be using data.

Dr. Deming did very much believe in the value of using data to help improve the management of the organization. But he also knew that it wasn’t close to enough. There are many things that cannot be measured and still must be managed. And there are many things that cannot be measured and managers must still make decisions about.

I wrote a post on my Curious Cat Management Improvement blog about how to manage what you can’t measure (in 2010).

Using data to evaluate what is working and what isn’t is a very valuable management practice. And it is still a practice that is used far too little (even though it is used much more than it was 30 or 50 years ago). But much more than managing what you can measure is needed to manage organizations well.

Related: Unknown and Unknowable DataVideo of Dr. W. Edwards Deming: Deadly Diseases of Western Management (one of which is “Use of visible figures only”)

Categorised as: Dr. Deming, management systems


  1. Mark Graban says:

    I’m often having to disagree with people who throw around things like, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” whether they are incorrectly citing Deming or not.

    I had somebody pushing the Six Sigma DMAIC framework and I said, “well, sometimes you can improve without measuring.” I thought their head was going to explode.

    Sometimes, you are just making a small improvement that’s qualitatively better.

    Data is good. But, it’s not ALWAYS necessary.

    Sometimes the most important things aren’t measurable.

    • Nick Atai says:

      But, But;
      When you are seeing anything that has room for improvement,meaning that there is something in it, which is not quite right. That “something” itself is the “data” or data related.

      I think data in its wide spectrum covers the information you do not necessarily have to measure physically or literally put it on the paper.
      The fact is “data’. You are seeing it, you measure it in your head against a reference, also in your head,and then you analyse it. Upon your analysis you workout s solution and the outcomes is the decision which is the improvement followed by control.
      All done in your head. Observation (data gathering, defining ), measurement (against some hidden reference in your mind which you say to yourself , well something not quite right?),then you analyse it to justify your measurement by putting it in the context of “why is it like this? ” “Why not like that?
      Then you answer it to yourself against which you have worked out the answer and place a new expectation from the improvement when the improvement “solution” has been placed into the process, and finally comes out the control which is job done.
      So, I think , “if you cannot measure it, you cannot control it ” still hold at all time and every time. Since the whole process of data gathering data,measurement and analysis is taking place in your head, perhaps due to its simplicity, then you think that this process is different to what the quote says.
      I think the quote is valid at all time and covers it all.

      • Jorge WongKcomt says:

        “Data are of course important in manufacturing, but I place the greatest emphasis on facts.” – Taiichi Ohno

        Data vs Facts- Toyota Way

        Data are recorded measurements, resulting from an instrument, detector, gauge or human observation. There is always a degree of measurement uncertainty, bias and error in measured data.

        Facts are observations “in situ” by a knowledable and purposeful agent, a human expert. Facts are the result of direct observation of a process, product or part, including any measured DATA and the correct CONTEXT for such data (CONTEXT: what relevant condition, incidents, phenomena, and situations were occurring prior, during and after the data were collected). The context may include reasoning and hypotheses drawn on the probable chain of event leading to the observed facts and also consequences of the observed facts.

  2. […] This quote is wonderful outside the context and reading it in the opposite way as the context indicates. And it is also wonderful reading the whole poem with all the context. Often though, especially for management quotes, failing to understand the context is a bad path to take. […]

  3. […] On the W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog, John Hunter writes […]

  4. Bruce Wallace says:

    Please provide an example of what cannot be measured.

    • Mike Spence says:

      The future.

      • D Laney says:

        True, you cannot measure something that does not exist. Now try again to suggest something which exists that cannot be measured. Even if indirectly there are legitimate proxies to measure intangible things like love, loyalty, fright, pain.

  5. […] section because a) it’s a Deming misquote and b) it’s wrong – he actually said the exact opposite!  But I thought I’d add it here to clear that […]

  6. John Hunter says:

    > Please provide an example of what cannot be measured.


    1) lost profit from deciding not to pursue developing a product
    2) return on investment from sending an employee to training
    3) loses to the organization due to fear created by performance evaluation
    4) lost business due to poor service from call center that has high turnover
    5) increased business due to releasing software with bugs removed using better software testing strategies
    6) profits due to employee making customers smile in your restaurant
    7) benefits of sending employee to training that results in several mistake-proofing designs being adopted
    8) return on investment of offering all employees $3,000 toward education spending every year
    9) value gained by the organization by reducing turnover
    10) cost to the organization of lost employees that had to leave because the organization policy didn’t allow remote workers
    11) lost profits to the company due to resumes being filtered in a simplistic way
    12) cost of failing to use visual management practices
    13) increased profits from sales team working cooperatively instead of each person being focused on their personal quotas and incentives

    and on and on.

    • brent bowler says:

      I would strongly disagree. If something changes and you can notice the change -you are measuring it!!! Even the smiling in the restaurant – did profits go up or down after the policy was implemented. Adjusting for seasonality, etc., was there or was there not a difference.

      I would also argue that given the examples provided, an Activity Based Costing system will indicate if there was or was not an improvement made. If we can see a difference, there is a measurement system in place, maybe an undefined measurement system, but it is there.

  7. Our blog was started in October of 2012; the top 10 posts in 2015 included 2 posts from 2015, 1 from 2014, 3 from 2013 and 4 from 2012…

  8. […] problem is that Deming actually wrote, “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it—a costly myth” […]

  9. Chan Tze Leong says:

    I would like to offer some measurements and comments for some of the areas :

    1) lost profit from deciding not to pursue developing a product
    Development of a new profit brings about new income. Profit depends on sales of the new product less direct cost and indirect cost and cost of doing nothing.
    2) return on investment from sending an employee to training
    Output from efficiency and effectiveness from a trained employee less his/her previous performance.
    3) loses to the organization due to fear created by performance evaluation
    Measure fear on a likert scale of 1 to 10 and measure the change in the performance of the person and evaluate there is a link between the fear with person’s performance and between person’s performance to changes in the company’s performance
    4) lost business due to poor service from call center that has high turnover
    Measure customer feedback on the performance of call centre on scale of 1 to 10, measure changes in number of staff who have resigned on year to year, measure performance of competitors in the same industry and measure impact of performance of call centre after implementation of best in industry practices.

  10. Kevin Little says:

    I admire Chan Tze Long’s ingenuity but cling to the kernel of truth relayed by Dr. Deming and John’s examples. In certain cases, in the spirit of Mark Graban’s observation, you can see (and decide) just by looking (of course you can argue that millions of years of evolution have given us humans a built in information processing tool that takes signals from the environment and enables us to form decisions, so there’s neuro signalling data buried somewhere in our heads)–and situations like John’s first example are counterfactuals that cannot be measured logically.

    Many other of John’s examples one could figure out some possible measure–but would such measures guide you to act any differently given e.g. Dr. Deming’s theory of management? Likely no. Hence the effort to measure is really not even necessary waste, just pure waste. Hence not a good idea!

    • Tristan says:

      I agree.

      I think the main point is that, for some things, especially where complexity is high, you *can* determine some kind of metric to try to measure something, but doing so oversimplifies the complexity and causes more problems than it solves. In addition, the influence of the measurement is added, which adds further complexity in turn, often destroying the very result you believed you were measuring. In addition, if you can measure it, how well will the simplified measurement be understood by the people who need to understand it? Would the effort in measuring a complex system be better put toward simply understanding it qualitatively?

      So, the ability to measure is not the only thing that’s important in and of itself. It’s also critical to understand the effect of measuring, and whether you are able to measure a system effectively and constructively—regardless of whether you can measure it at all.

  11. […] Myth: If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Manage It by John Hunter on The W. Edwards Deming Institute blog. […]

  12. Bose says:

    Just stumbled on these posts and felt compelled to add to it. I think we’re not reading the two parts together; the measuring and the managing parts. If you read them together, then it follows that what you can’t measure can’t be managed. Just take the employee training as an example. Why would you send an employee to a training program? If you have an answer, then that answer is what you’re managing by doing it. If the training is for acquiring new skills or improving skills, then that can definitely be measured and translated into an ROI. If it’s for fulfilling continued education hours, or corporate commitment to send certain number of employees for training, or the employee to just get a break; they are all measurable as well. If you send an employee for a training with no defined purpose, then you don’t have anything to measure and you’re definitely not managing anything there.
    Lost profit from deciding not to pursue developing a product: if it was a proper business decision, I can assure you that the lost profit, in some sense, has been estimated and used in that decision making. May be the decision to not pursue developing a product was not based on future profits; then what was managed by that decision was also not future profits. May be it was because of very high risks and not profitability; then what was actually managed was the risk.

  13. […] according to Dr. Edwards Deming, despite the frequency at which people take his quote out of context to suggest otherwise.  Here’s what he really […]

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