The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

Reactions to “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We”

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We recently announced the availability of the 1980 NBC News special report, “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We,” that introduced Dr. Deming to the USA business community. Many people have enjoyed viewing that program. Here we collect some of the reactions that have been posted online.

Tweet image - 'Ok, Fellow Deming lovers: the Deming Institute has made If Japan Can, Why Can't We? available'

If Japan Can, Why Can’t We? A Retrospective by Nicole Radziwill

June 24, 1980 is kind of like July 4, 1776 for quality management… that’s the pivotal day that NBC News aired its one hour and 16 minute documentary called “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?” introducing W. Edwards Deming and his methods to the American public.

Many managers at that time were convinced that if a productivity problem existed, it was because the workers didn’t work fast enough, or good enough — or maybe they had attitude problems! Certainly not because the managers were not managing well. Implementing simple techniques like improving training programs and establishing quality circles (which demonstrated values like increased transparency, considering all ideas, putting executives on the factory floor so they could learn and appreciate the work being done, increasing worker participation and engagement, encouraging work/life balance, and treating workers with respect and integrity) were already demonstrating benefits in some U.S. companies. But surprisingly, these simple techniques were not widespread, and not common sense.

Twitter image of Dr. Deming quote - They don't know what to copy

Famed NBC Video with Dr. Deming from 1980 Now Available: “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?” by Mark Graban

I’d encourage you to watch it, not just out of historical curiosity, but to think about how this video and story is relevant today, 35 years later.

Tweet image - how true is #Deming's wisdom? 35 years later in Germany it is pretty much the same situation, and yet it is slightly different

“I want to be somebody.” by Dan Markovitz

But for me, the most poignant and powerful moment in the video came in the segment on GM’s “Quality of Work Life” program. One of the Tarrytown workers said (starting at 59:25),

“Quality of Work Life is involvement. Involving me in the decision-making process. And treating me as… as somebody. I want to be somebody.”

When I think about lean, and about the profound respect for people that lies at its core, this is what I’ll think about. At its best, this is what lean does. It makes people feel like a somebody.

Tweet text - 'If the job is eliminated the worker is not'


Categorised as: Dr. Deming, psychology, video


One Comment

  1. Charles Tortise says:

    There are many who resent the key role ascribed to Dr Deming in both bringing about the renaissance of the Japanese economy focused on quality and then as the leading guru of quality in the US post June 1980, terms others used but I doubt that he was enamoured with. The difference I think lies in the analysis that others have made here that he put the individual as a human at the centre of his approach rather than preaching methodology for improving efficiency. The evidence? For me it is that in editions of The New Economics the first lesson given after a description of the Red Beads Experiment is the eloquent testimony of Ann, a willing worker. Dr Deming realised that greatest brake on achieving better outcomes for all was the tyranny of the prevailing style of management. As I learnt recently from someone who knows a bit about this a USAF colonel supposedly asked Dr Deming how can we empower our people? To which the reply was find the ways you are disempowering them and stop. Interestingly Homer Sarasohn relates that to get quality production of vacuum tubes he had to exert the powers of MacArthur and act like a dictator, in no way do I believe Mr Sarasohn was anything other than as those who knew him describe but he himself indicates the role he played. Dr Deming responded to an invitation from JUSE and treated the attendees of his seminars with respect and also provided them with something they seemed not to have been able to acquire from elsewhere. In the end I think what was realised by those in positions of responsibility was the onus was on them to transform and then the people working within the system would respond, not all of these responsible people were willing to take up that challenge and so then went for the next quick fix leaving the rest of us to suffer the consequences.

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