The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

Using Deming’s Ideas When Your Organization Doesn’t

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If people asked Dr. Deming what they should do if they tried to get their company to adopt Deming’s ideas on management and the company wouldn’t he often suggested working on their resume and applying to other companies. Of course a tricky part of this decisions is determining how much effort to put into getting the organization to change is enough (and what are smart methods to use in that effort). I am actually not going to address those questions here (for some ideas on what methods to use when looking to transform the organization see: Transforming the Management System of an Organization, How to Start Applying Deming’s Ideas on Management and How to Get a New Management Strategy, Tool or Concept Adopted).

Here, I want to address what to do if you want to take advantage of Deming’s ideas and your organization has no interest in doing so and you like your job and want to stay anyway. In practice this is very similar to my advice on how to help transform your company. But you should on being successful within the existing structure instead of focusing on moving forward the transformation (granted I would prefer working to promote the transformation, but if you are not in a position to do that there are still plenty of opportunities to apply Deming’s ideas).

First, you can transform yourself. You can transform your understanding and how you learn (with an appreciation for the theory of knowledge and what conclusions you can and cannot draw from the data you use). You can transform how you act.

View your organization with an understanding of Deming’s management ideas. Think of the organization as a system. Even if you can’t persuade others to do this, you doing so will help you understand the situation more clearly and allow you to think of solutions that take advantage of this understanding. System thinking will allow you to find leverage points that can be used to multiply the benefits of improvements.


Use an understanding of variation to think about data effectively. It will be frustrating to watch as the organization reacts to random variation as if it were meaningful but you can avoid being misled yourself. Without the organization having an understanding of variation or how to use data effectively you are limited but you are not completely blocked from using this knowledge. In combination with an understanding of psychology (for understanding which items will create big problems – such as fighting against a practice that people are strongly attached to) and an understanding of the organization as a system and which practices could result in the biggest gains if they were changed you can determine where to put your effort.

You need to keep in mind an understanding of psychology and how people will see you and your efforts. If the organization doesn’t accept they are on a transformational journey you will likely be seen as a problem. If you are see as not accepting the existing practices and are challenging how things are done to try and bring about improved practices people will become frustrated with you. And if you do too much of that those seeking to undermine you will gain allies. One of the realities of working in an organization that is not interested in moving toward a different way to manage is accepting this and taking it into account – which includes doing much less than you would otherwise do.

As with many things the ability to persuade, inspire and befriend others without antagonizing them (or at least doing so very rarely) will be helpful. It is even more helpful in a situation such as described here where you are attempting to practice ideas contrary to the existing culture. This is true in that context no matter what; if you were attempting to promote top down command and control ideas in an organization long used to pushing decision making to those closest to the problems then a charismatic personality is very helpful (charisma is always helpful).

There are certainly realities of a system when, while theoretically it could be changed, given the current situation it is not going to be changed. When thinking of systems in a context in which the organization is not interested in Deming’s ideas you have to consider these realities. You can still think in the same ways about how to improve the system you just have to realize many more constraints exist on change than if the organization was seeking continual improvement.

Many tools can be adopted in a traditional organization successfully. Using those tools in a more Deming friendly management system will often make them even more powerful but they have value even if the benefits are going to be limited by the organizational structure.

Mistake proofing is a good example. It is hard for anyone to argue against good mistake proofing solutions. Not that it being hard will prevent people, but they will have more difficulty. You need to consider the system you work within, if the culture acts based on the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO) don’t bother with mistake proofing suggestions that the HiPPOs won’t support, that is just a constraint to include when looking for good solutions.

If you can examine process failures and find a common root cause that has a sensible countermeasure then you can propose a change that will fix not only the current problem but prevent these other problems from recurring. Assuming this doesn’t create other issues (work for other departments…) you should be able to persuade people to adopt this solution. You have to accept more limitations on what solutions are realistically going to be possible but you can still use that thinking and improve. The same idea applies to other quality improvement tools.

One of the challenges is in how you can get others involved. But in most organizations there is some flexibility to work with other to improve. If you see a chance for a good mistake proofing solution to a problem that someone has been tasked with dealing with you can volunteer to work with them. Over time you will discover some other people appreciate some of these ideas and you can work with them to make improvements. One of the biggest losses in deciding to work within an organization that isn’t seeking to adopt Deming’s methods is the loss of including everyone in seeking continual improvement. This is a huge loss, but in reality this is often a constraint of the existing system that is not going to be changed.

Another strategy to consider what is within your sphere of control. Within that sphere you will have much more freedom to act. It could well be that you have plenty to keep yourself busy within your sphere of control. Again you will face more constraints than if the organization were seeking to improve the organization as a system.

Anytime you need change outside your sphere of control you may not have that option (to have others change how they work), or you may have very limited ability to persuade in some small ways. That is just a reality you must accept. And if you seek solutions understanding these constraints you will be much more successful than if you find “wonderful solutions/improvements” if only the others would be sensible (in your mind, anyway).

You may learn to appreciate the importance of allowing software developers interruption free time to concentrate and work. Even if you can’t persuade the organization to gain this same appreciation through an understanding of psychology and appreciation for the organization as a system you can redesign your part of the organization given this understanding. You just need to understand what the requirements for the rest of the organization are and design a solution that meets those requirements and meets your requirements. So perhaps create a point of contact for all urgent needs (so 1 person is interrupted and let them deal with most issues and only 5%, or whatever, will require interrupting others). And you can block days or half days where software developers are not available for meetings etc. (this has to fit with the organization requirements so you have to be flexible but it can be done).

Also remember how the existing system determines your value. If the credit people accumulate through recognition is central to how power is gained and lost in the organization (which is not rare) and you wish to gain influence (or not lose what you have) you need to make your case within that system. If you need to claim credit for results on your performance appraisal or suffer the consequences of not being an important player then you need to make your case for individual credit even if you understand the system is driving most of the results. Or you can just ignore this and accept that the existing system will not appreciate your efforts but this will have consequences that make your ability to implement more improvements more difficult.

There are certainly ways to transform yourself and your sphere of control based on an appreciation for Deming’s ideas. Doing so is certain to include many frustrations in interfacing with other parts of the organization given the constraints you will face (it is often frustrating even when the organization is attempting to transform). If you want to think positively it is possible that you can be successful and grow your sphere of influence and help to spark a transformation of the organization. But that is an extremely difficult task for an organization you originally determined wasn’t interested (the premise of this post).

Still if you like to have an optimistic outlook go ahead. In any event you certainly can use an understanding of Deming’s ideas yourself even if the organization does not share a desire to do so.

Related: Distorting the System, Distorting the Data or Improving the SystemDeming and Software DevelopmentEffort Without the Right Knowledge and Strategy is Often Wasted


Categorised as: psychology, systems thinking


3 Comments

  1. Dave Molinari says:

    I’m sorry to nitpick, but this article is in need of proofreading. I have seen others in the same condition. Otherwise, the content has value.

  2. John, thank you so much for this post. I’ve shared it around the office and will share it with my previous company. I’ve taken what you have said previously about transforming a company to heart. These are more wise words and I’ll come back to this post regularly to refresh my mind on what you said. The personal transformation is key I think. My main way to influence these days is to model what I believe and to have courage (because many just don’t get what we are trying to do). In the end, though, I’m finding there are many who appreciate what is being done. Another tactic I take is to “hold up a mirror” to what we are doing instead of preaching. Let them see for themselves what is going on (its why I like Kanban and use lots of graphs that resonate with management).

    Speaking for those who are on the front lines trying to implement and create change– though we may read a LOT, listen to podcasts, watch videos and experiment on the job with what we learn–the biggest gap seems to be mentorship and coaching. I know there is so much I’m missing and not understanding (or simply doing wrong). As I like to say, would Luke ever have become a Jedi without Yoda? Can you recommend any mentors well versed in the Deming philosophy in Florida? I think this would advance our cause.

  3. […] the transformation of an organization will take hundreds of distinct events that each provide stepping stones for more to be done. […]

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