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.

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 technically correctly attributed to him; after all, it is a direct quote taken from the quote listed above. However, I think it would be more accurate to say it is misattributed to him.

If you read the original quote carefully, it is saying the opposite of what most people think when they read the abbreviated quote. This is one of the dangers in using quotes without context. For that reason, we try to provide context for quotes by W. Edwards Deming in our quote database.

Why is the shorter quote used so often and (mis)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 became commonplace to see things this way in relation to managing organizations. In addition, 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 who think that their organization fails to use data when they should be using it.

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 just measuring things and looking at data 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”)

You may also like...

43 Responses

  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.

        • Manuel says:

          The whole purpose of measuring and documenting is to pass knowledge. One puts the process at risk if only one individual knows the process in his head. If knowledge cant me shared…. It would be better to measure something and pass along a process at 90% then continue with a process that will die with the individual. People are totally putting misusing the phrase.. If one cannot explain/measure a process… one does not know the process well enough…. Deming is basically saying… if you are unable to pass knowledge… You don’t know the process good enough..

  2. Bruce Wallace says:

    Please provide an example of what cannot be measured.

  3. 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.

    • Mike Boysen says:

      Outcome-driven innovation, based on Jobs Theory (#JTBD) addresses a number of these. Measuring smiles is not a experience driver, it’s a result of experience. You should read up on it, you might be surprised. This is a predictive approach, so you’d be making these decisions based on forward-looking data, not looking backwards at smiles and such.

    • Richard Allarton says:

      I think you can in these examples, its only the granularity of the unit that is in question. If not, how do you ascertain that there has been loss or gain?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

      • Andrew King says:

        Nope. Deming was correct. Somethings just cannot be “measured” – it does not mean that they are not important. Staff morale? You know when it’s generally high or low, but you can’t actually measure it.
        Sometimes you might be able to look at a number of other measures and infer something about the thing you can’t measure – BUT that is always open to misinterpretation and wishful thinking. The easiest person to fool is yourself.

  6. 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.

  7. Terrence Walmsley says:

    Makes for an interesting read, however, the statement id powerful in the context of CI. Ad hoc process fixes will result in ad hoc results. A structured approach (and Dr. Deming has many of them), provide the tools needed to correctly analyse and determine the process for it’s current and after review, potentially the best practice for the process.

    The next generation systems development will all include measurements (KPI’s) from which actions will be formulated to improve process efficiencies. TAKT is the critical fundamental stage for development and benchmarking. This ‘measurement’ process is key to determine current positioning.

    “If you’re not measuring, your not at the top of the game”…. me.

  8. Katie Albers says:

    These comments use Measuring as a synonym for Data, Data as a synonym for information, Information as a synonym for knowledge, and knowledge as a synonym for understanding. None of these words is remotely the same in meaning as any of the others except that each of them can be an element of those that follow.

    Deming’s Key Principles revolve around NOT measuring (see Principle 10, eg: “Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.
    Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute with leadership.
    Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers and numerical goals. Instead substitute with leadership.”)

    And he considered reflexively measuring things one of the major problems of business (“Running a company on visible figures alone.”)

    Sorry, the fact that his background was statistics by no means indicates that his thinking about how to run a business well focused on numbers. It means your teachers didn’t read enough.

  9. Binnyker Enuganti says:

    Half of any business activity cannot be measured. “Analysis” itself cannot be measured. It’s consciousness that provides sense and direction. Once this is defined in a process that aims for a goal then it can probably be measured. Intention cannot be measured however becomes such an important factor in Business and Tax. None of the emotions can truly be measured but are so important for the success of any business. A happy customer for a service in one instance differs with another for the same service.

  10. BDW says:

    Is it possible that the quote helps us know what management is, and what it is not? If it is not measurable, it may be an issue that is more appropriately assigned to leadership (not to dust off that old controversy too quickly!). The unmeasurable, whatever that may be, should keep leaders up at night. They should be influencing toward the right direction, measurable or not. Managers must, for decision-making sake, base decisions on as much measurable data as they can.

  11. Nils Davis says:

    There is an important corollary to the (real) Deming quote, which is Peter Drucker’s “What’s measured improves.” He did not mean that as a prescription, but rather as a warning.

    The act of measuring incentivizes humans to try to optimize the measurement. If optimizing the measurement does not have a good effect for the business – and it might be a very bad effect – then you shouldn’t measure it. Almost any measurement you can name – with very few exceptions – can easily result in perverse incentives.

    So, you combine Deming’s statement that there are things that can’t be measured yet are important and need to be managed, and Drucker’s assertion that measurement leads to improvement *of that metric* … you have to end up with the conclusion that you had better be darn careful what you measure.

  12. Romeo Santos says:

    Measurement is not just by numbers.

  13. vijaya sagar reddy .y says:

    “Thing that cannot be measured, it cannot be managed”….i personally feel this phrase motivates one to build a system(Eg: Quality&Accountability) that can set right a chaos situation (Eg: Organization). Though that phrase may not be suitable for all situations (Tangible or Intangible). Mostly it helps one to re-frame themselves(Individual or Organization or Task or Operation) to minimize/reduce the loss to encourage focus towards Goal and progress.

  14. Richard Allarton says:

    If Deming said this, I hope he gave due acknowledgement to Lord Kelvin!

  1. September 2, 2015

    […] 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. […]

  2. September 15, 2015

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

  3. November 10, 2015

    […] 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 […]

  4. December 28, 2015

    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…

  5. January 13, 2016

    […] 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” […]

  6. December 27, 2016

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

  7. January 2, 2017

    […] 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 […]

  8. June 10, 2017

    […] W. Edwards Deming oder Peter F. Drucker in den Mund gelegt. Tatsächlich hat das aber weder Deming noch Drucker je so behauptet. Im […]

  9. July 16, 2017

    […] John Hunter has blogged about how the line, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” is incorrectly attributed to Dr. Deming. He said quite the opposite. […]

  10. September 23, 2017

    […] of measurement for effective management. The only problem is that what he actually said was “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth” – my emphasis. Either formulation of the quote, form either author, remind us to exercise […]

  11. December 4, 2017

    […] It reminds me of what Dr. W. Edwards Deming, who was deeply influential at Toyota, said: […]

  12. March 14, 2018

    […] is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.". What Dr. Deming was saying was that whenever you can, measure and manage accordingly, but recognize […]

  13. December 14, 2018

    […] “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it — a costly my… […]

  14. October 25, 2019

    […] can’t improve it.” Did you know that this concept, attributed to Peter Drucker, was actually taken out of context from another quote? In his book, The New Economics, American statistician W. Edwards Deming wrote, “It is wrong to […]

  15. December 31, 2019

    […] Deming is often incorrectly attributed the quote ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’ he did argue for […]

  16. January 26, 2020

    […] what you can’t measure”. It is … controversial. W. Edwards Deming, for example, famously derided it. But I think there are two ways to interpret this quote, and they have very different […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.