The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

Improving the Management System with an Understanding of Deming

In his presentation at the 2015 Deming Research Seminar Joseph Schneider discusses his efforts to apply Deming’s ideas within Siemens.

Joseph talks about how they worked to use Deming’s ideas even though much of the management system was not within their control (so they had to accept the system had aspects that fight against creating the ideal management system). This is useful as this is true for nearly every (every one that I know of) attempt to apply Deming’s ideas on management.

There will be existing conditions that must be accounted for in every organization. Within that reality we must adopt strategies that achieve successes today and build the capability of the management system over time.

Joseph explains the efforts to improve and the results of those efforts. And he explains the ties to Deming’s ideas that lead him to pursue the strategies he chose. He organized PDSA projects that included participation from many different internal departments to address reliability issues with a particular product line.

We also introduced the voice of the customer into this PDSA workshop. We brought customers in who used to buy from us and these people didn’t really have a lot of connection with customers but they heard first hand how much these customers valued the products that we made, but they just had to go somewhere else because they never knew when they were going to get them.

As I have written before, gaining a deep appreciation for the customer needs, problems and desires is very important. That understanding needs to drive behavior in the organization. Too often organizations seek to achieve numbers in order to satisfy targets and do damage to the organization.

Process flow charts were key to the success of the second example he discussed. I believe process flow charts are very under used and even those making attempts to apply Deming’s ideas would benefit from greatly increasing the use of process flow charts to aid their continual improvement efforts.

Related: Application and Lessons of Deming’s Perspective on LeadershipEliminating Sales Commissions at Air Force OneDeming’s Ideas Applied at Intermountain Healthcare Since 1988

It Depends…

Post by Bill Bellows

“There is not a day I don’t think about what Dr. Deming meant to us. Deming is the core of our management,” proclaimed Shoichiro Toyoda, Toyota’s president between 1982 and 1992 and chairman between 1992 and 1999, at the 1991 Deming Prize Ceremonies in Japan.

One year earlier, in February 1990, Dr. W. Edwards Deming fielded questions from the evening audience at Western Connecticut State University. This would be his third lecture in a day that began with a session with students, followed by one with faculty and staff of the business school. I attended all three lectures, in which he frequently referred to notes that later became his book, The New Economics, published in 1993.

It was during these lectures that I was first introduced to his System of Profound Knowledge, the name he chose for his theory, yet deferred to each audience with a kind request – “If you have a better name, please help me,” he would say. These sessions also included ample time for questions and answers from the many newcomers who joined me that day. Approaching 90 years of age, Deming had no doubt heard many of them before. For me, in my first exposure, the questions and answers revealed both counter-intuitive perspectives and enticing possibilities. I sorted the questions and answers, like pieces to a greater whole, and began to arrange them in my mind. This is how my search for a pattern and a deeper perspective within the Deming message began.

I recall one attendee in the evening audience seeking insight on the issue of staff cutting. His question went something like this: “Dr. Deming, what do you think about the recent trend toward reducing the number of levels of management?” Although I was not a middle-level manager, I was captivated by the prospects of Dr. Deming’s answer, for it offered another piece to the puzzle. With little hesitation, Dr. Deming answered: “Why have more levels than you need?”

As for me, it was not the answer I had anticipated, nor the direction I had expected Deming to move. I was expecting a response with advice on how many levels of management were appropriate. Perhaps five. Perhaps three. Instead, Dr. Deming re-framed the issue with a question revealing a contextual appreciation of organizational interactions.

My interpretation of Dr. Deming’s answer was that the number of levels of management would be dependent on the specifics of the organization, not “one size fits all”. Given a specific situation or system, one would need an appropriate number of levels. More than this would be costly. Less than this would be costly. Trial-and-error often leads to an answer. Should the situation change, one might expect the solution to change as well. Instead of a “one size fits all” solution, this activity could be seen as managing the system, with its inherent interactions.

Does one size fit all?   It depends!

Manage the System to Score a Whole in One: A Golf Lesson

Guest post by Edward Martin Baker.   A version of this post originally appeared on

About Aileron – At Aileron, we fervently believe privately held business fuels free enterprise and raises the quality of life for us all. As businesses move beyond the start-up phase, a systematic approach to your business is critical to sustainable and strategic growth. We call this approach Professional Management, and have developed a system to implement it influenced by Dr. W. Edwards Deming and other great thought leaders. Dr. Deming’s timeless teachings have been, and will continue to be, a driving influence because we see his philosophies work.

Aileron is proud to support the illuminating, alternative perspective of Dr. Deming’s teachings and philosophy presented in Ed Baker’s book, The Symphony of Profound Knowledge. Learn more about the book and purchase on Amazon.


In a previous blog, “Leaders can make music,” I used the analogy of the leader as orchestra conductor who follows a score to orchestrate people playing together. The score to which I referred was Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge. Another analogy, more familiar to business leaders, is golf.  Managing one’s own golf play, although an individual game, has similarities to managing people in enterprise. The golfer must manage the system, i.e., the interactions in the system in order to produce a harmonious relationship between the components, e.g., the clubs, the swing, the course, the golfer’s knowledge and mental state. Everything must come together to produce the intended outcome. When that occurs, the golfer has scored and orchestrated a whole in one.

A “whole” is defined as a healthy, coherent system or organization of parts fitting or working together as one. My friend, Tom O’Connell, a PGA Golf Professional Scottsdale, Arizona, put it this way:

Every golfer has a model, a picture in mind that represents the proper swinging motion. Some models can produce excellent performance, others will produce poor performance. The model must be clear, complete, and in a harmonious relationship with the individual. The golfer should practice and play in an environment that is completely safe and free of intimidation.

When the swinging motion is a unified whole, everything is just right, in sync, together. There are no separate parts, no shoulders, arms, hands, hips, legs, or feet. They all interact as one to accomplish the purpose of the activity — to send the ball to the target. The hands don’t try to dominate the feet. The arm swing doesn’t dominate the body rotation. The eyes don’t look wherever they please. It is as if the body as a whole knows what to do to optimize performance of the whole. The interaction of the club with the ball and the consequent speed and direction of the ball is pure physics, but golf is not only a physical-mechanical process of applying force to the ball. It is an inseparable interaction between the physical, physiological, and psychological qualities of the individual and the system.

The aim of the golfer is not to achieve a hole-in-one each time. That is not realistic because the system produces variation in outcomes over time. Good scores will follow as a consequence of consistently following a good model.  Consistency results from a stable process and is the basis to learn and improve. If one focuses on the score rather than the process, then he or she will tend to react to the result of each shot as if that result was due to the takeaway, weight transfer, swing path, planeclub face angle, etc. This can cause the golfer to overcompensate, reducing accuracy and consistency.  Golfers need to guard against overdoing any one part of their swing. If the golfer does not manage his or her system as a whole, performance will be poor, and the individual will be frustrated and angry. This, in turn, likely will cause the person to try to overcompensate even more, which will further degrade performance. To focus on the parts without regard to the whole is to ignore the harmony that produces exceptional results. The quality of the relationships between the parts makes the difference in the quality of overall performance.

When We Understand Our Work and We are Given the Ability to Improve It – We Will

Guest post by John Hunter

Jim Benson’s presentation at our 2015 International Deming Research Seminar explored how to manage the workload better to improve results.

We want to help people become happy so that they will build better products. We fundamentally believe that happy people do exactly that.

Companies that understand this important idea have a big advantage over those that retain a theory x management system that they believe is needed to control people.

When we understand our work and we are given the ability to improve it – we will. We don’t have to be told to, we just do it. Thats a fundamental human action – to improve the environment that is around you. It is alien to us to allow ourselves to live in substandard conditions.

People that working aren’t doing that naturally, why not? At the moment they need some reassurance. Years of top down, Taylorist-style management has given us bit of learned helplessness. We’ve tried to help in the past; we’ve been kicked in the head. We said “I am not going to do that again.”

People need some reassurance that their work isn’t in vein.

I agree, as I have discussed previously: People Take Time to Believe Claims of Changed Management Practices. A failure to appreciate that it takes time for people to unlearn the distrust that most people have gained for management throughout their career is a big part of the reason management improvement efforts fail.

A few pioneers will take the leap and accept a management system that claims to offer the prospect of them taking pride in their work again. But it is going to take a long time to persuade many others to believe the promises. Be patient, retain constancy of purpose and nurture the belief that this time really is different. Transforming the management system and people’s belief in it provides great rewards to those organizations that persevere.

In the talk Jim provided examples of the value of making work visible and limiting work in progress. Those two simple (though not as simple to do as to say) ideas are the core of his consulting efforts.

Related: There is No Instant Pudding, You have to Show Up to Disrupt (Jim Benson)Podcast with Jim Benson on Applying Deming’s Ideas to Knowledge WorkRespect People by Creating a Climate for Joy in WorkHow To Create a Continual Improvement Culture

Don’t Gamble with your Company’s Culture

Guest post by Lori Fry, originally featured as a post at

“Our growth is hurting our culture.”

“We need more structure, but I’m afraid it will kill our culture.”

“Our culture is perfect. We don’t have processes and rules. We hire great people and weed out poor performers.”

Culture. When it’s good it’s great. And in today’s connected world (and thanks to sites like glassdoor), when it’s bad, it’s bad news.

What is culture, really? Your answer to this question will likely define the path culture will take in your organization.

Culture is an enigma. In my 25-plus years as an employee, consultant, manager, and leader, I’ve seen a few companies take a run at culture change; and even fewer are successful at it: from token gestures such as free food, games in the break room, and jeans Fridays – to years-long, staffed “culture change” initiatives that include road shows, music, and pyrotechnics (it’s true). Rarely – and even in the case of the million-dollar extravaganza – have I seen these efforts succeed. “Fixing” culture by traditional management methods reminds me of a week in Vegas: blow a bunch of money, do things I wouldn’t normally do, and walk away trying to figure out what just happened. Between culture work on these terms and Vegas – the odds of success are better in Vegas.

Culture is your company’s currency

Your company’s culture is part of your employer brand. In a full employment economy, culture is a major factor in recruiting top talent. Once your talent is in the door-it’s a major factor in retaining them, but the reason why might surprise you.

The culture we know through our traditional management lens is often described in terms of people, the work environment, and perks, to name a few. Take a minute and think about how you would describe your company’s culture to an outsider. What words come to mind? These things you describe would make most interview candidates feel pretty good about working at your company: jeans days, community service days, free lunches, quarterly happy hours. But what happens when it’s time to get the work done?

This is where the retention comes into play. My long-time mentor recently offered me a gold nugget and it hit me like a ton of bricks. He said, “culture is the product of an organization’s system and processes, AND peoples’ attitudes about them.” Wait! What???

That moment – those words – completely upended my understanding of culture. Once the people equivalent of the Heisenberg Principle (one cannot know a particle’s position and velocity at the same time), culture became a perfectly defined element on my Periodic Table. So while he kept talking, my inner voice furiously ran through test cases:

  • Consider a start-up business with ill-defined roles and responsibilities, no processes. The company grows – more and more effort required to get results. Employees become fire-fighters just to get the work done. Managers tighten budgets – “do more with less” – because profitability suffers.Culprit? Lack of focus on process.Impact on attitudes? Workforce is demoralized because they are powerless to improve the system.
  • A successful company thinks it is successful because it eliminates processes and rules. Instead focuses on hiring strong performers and weeding out poor performers. What happens? Competition among “top performers” creates intense focus on short-term results, which has long-term impact on company profitability.Culprit? No process, hyper focus on individual performance drives internal competition instead of collaborative focus on how to improve the system.Impact on attitudes? Workers are overworked and stressed – trying to figure out how to get ahead of their peers.

The traditional management framework doesn’t recognize culture for what it is. Culture is an outcome which is based on an organization’s processes and workers’ attitudes about those processes.

A Teenager’s Gym Clothes – a cautionary tale

Treating a symptom rarely, if ever, eliminates the root cause. When it does, it’s called luck. If you feel lucky, go to Vegas.

I offer for consideration my teenage son’s gym clothes. Here we find a stark reminder of the cost and futility of masking symptoms instead of addressing root cause.  He brings his gym clothes home twice a year: after mid-terms and finals.  It’s pretty unpleasant. When asked how he tolerates the stench during gym class, without batting and eye, he replies, “Axe.” Of course! Axe, the ultimate teenage boy body spray.   Each eye-watering treatment only masks the stench of the layers that came before. Traditional culture programs are a lot like Axe. A free lunch here, a happy hour there, a ping-pong table in the break room. The momentary fog of delight fades away and we’re left with the root cause – fermentation breaking down the fibers that could have evolved into a truly great culture.

Think big – start small

I’ve seen companies do big things in an attempt to manipulate culture. It never ends well. I’ve also helped companies work on small but highly impactful processes – and this work sparked the beginning of a culture shift. The former implies something “done to” the organization in hopes workers would get on board the culture train. The latter requires management to provide workers with the tools and support they need to focus on improving the work. Workers come together to apply their knowledge and experience – and data – to improve processes so everyone wins. And so begins a virtuous cycle that creates an environment where workers feel they are learning, contributing to something of value, and they feel appreciated.

“If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process…”

“…you don’t know what you’re doing.” The words of Dr. W. Edwards Deming are even more powerful today. I’ve been told many times over the years, “We don’t need process documentation. My team knows what to do.” When I hear this, I take to heart another of Dr. Deming’s well-known admonitions, which he learned from Ed Baker: “Don’t just do something – stand there” (observe, collect data, and learn—then act).

Double down on process

So let’s go back to where we started. Business growth.  The need for, and fear of – structure. Purposefully avoiding process.   In the absence of visible processes, much of how work gets done is left to chance. As companies grow and (in the absence of process) focus turns to individual performance as a way to “get things done” – culture will suffer. Don’t let Vegas odds dictate your organization’s culture currency. Double down with a focus on process and you’ll beat the house every time.

Creativity: Presentation by Heather Groom

Guest post by John Hunter

Heather Groom’s presentation on Creativity at our Deming in Public Administration seminar.

In discussing the roadblocks to creativity she mentioned the imposter syndrome. I have seen imposter syndrome mentioned very frequently recently (the last year or two). I find it interesting how concepts become popular and are widely shared for a while. Normally those concepts stop being shared fairly quickly – though a few people remember them and carry on sharing them even once the popularity fades.

Heather also talked about how fear stifles creativity. Our education and management systems often create conditions where people learn to fear straying from the expected behavior. Obviously when we create systems that do so we place constraints on creativity.

We have to be able to let kids create. We have to give them the freedom of being playful, asking questions and not being afraid of failure.

Which is also pretty good advice for employees. Let employees create. Let them play and ask questions and take risks.

Related: Public Administration: Past, Present, and FutureCreativity Inc., Using Deming’s Ideas at PixarChildren are Amazingly Creative At Solving ProblemsEncouraging Curiosity in Kids

The Problem is to Find a Date

Post by Bill Bellows

In February 1989, Professor Doug Fox, from Western Connecticut State University’s Ancell School of Business, received a reply to his invitation to Dr. Deming to speak with his classes.   Dr. Deming’s letter, dated February 11th, began with:

I thank you for your kind invitation to speak with your classes.   It would please me.  I should not only be interested in your classes but a session with your teaching in the schools of business, engineering, and psychology.

It is necessary for survival that a change of state take place from the economics of rugged individualism, win, lose, to another kind of economics, which I characterize as cooperation, win win, everybody win – not equally, but everybody win.

I wonder how many schools of business perpetuate the present system of management which has leveled off and led us to destruction.  Changes must be made in the school system.   The so-called merit system in business, government, and education, and the grading of children from toddlers on up through the university will for survival be abolished. 

These thoughts form part of the content of my 4-day seminars, list enclosed.

The problem is to find a date.   I have not a date in 1989.   Some Tuesday in 1990 might be possible.   You must tell me what you think would be good dates.  I could possible come in the morning and stay through the day.   You could not possibly pay to me my fee:  I would do this as a public service, which is the motive behind my teaching – 42 years now at New York University, and 5 years at Columbia University.   I remain with appreciation.

A year later, Dr. Deming visited with Doug Fox on Tuesday, February 6, 1990.    He delivered 3 lectures, two held in the afternoon (one for students and the other for faculty), as well as an evening lecture, which can be found in a previous blog.

It was my first opportunity to meet him.   Future blogs will include a link to one of the afternoon lectures, as well as more of his correspondence with Professor Fox, and my first impressions of his theory of management.    Enjoy the video of his evening lecture, which, sadly, I did not think to convert sooner to a digital format from the VHS version Professor Fox kindly gave me.   While the video faded, Dr. Deming’s voice comes through loud and clear and, with ample humor, as noted by Mark Graban in his highlight reel of this lecture .   (Link here to listen to an audio version of the evening lecture.)

Leaders Can Make Music

Guest post by Edward Martin Baker.   A version of this post originally appeared on

About Aileron – At Aileron, we fervently believe privately held business fuels free enterprise and raises the quality of life for us all. As businesses move beyond the start-up phase, a systematic approach to your business is critical to sustainable and strategic growth. We call this approach Professional Management, and have developed a system to implement it influenced by Dr. W. Edwards Deming and other great thought leaders. Dr. Deming’s timeless teachings have been, and will continue to be, a driving influence because we see his philosophies work.

Aileron is proud to support the illuminating, alternative perspective of Dr. Deming’s teachings and philosophy presented in Ed Baker’s book, The Symphony of Profound Knowledge. Learn more about the book and purchase on Amazon.


An example of a system, well optimized, is a good orchestra. The players are not there to play solos as prima donnas, each one trying to catch the ear of the listener. They are there to support each other. Individually they need not be the best players in the country….An orchestra is judged by listeners, not so much by illustrious players, but by the way they work together. – W. Edwards Deming.

W. Edwards Deming was a moral philosopher, prophet, and sage with profound insights into the management of organizations and the art of leadership and living. He also was a composer of liturgical music, a singer, and musician. He often used analogies such as this one to express his views about the benefits of managing an organization as a whole‑system and not as a collection of separate parts. Appreciation for a system is a key component of his System of Profound Knowledge.

Max DePree, the former Chairman of Herman Miller, Inc., in his book, Leadership Jazz, described the concepts that guided him in his leadership role of orchestrating human expression. The job of a leader is to enable collaboration and the harmony that comes from the quality relationships among unique individuals. Sweet music can emanate from diverse and productive groups of people.

The musician Joshua Redman said, “Music isn’t just the notes that you play. Music is a set of relationships.” Deming applied this principle when he observed that if you listen to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London and an amateur orchestra, there is a difference, even if the amateur orchestra does not make a mistake. Deming’s point was that even if the producer meets specifications it doesn’t guarantee a quality experience for the customer. The professional orchestra and the amateur orchestra each meet specifications, but listen to the difference.

The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

Post by Kevin Cahill

John Hunter has led the blogging efforts of The Deming Institute, including our first post on October 1, 2012, followed by biweekly posts ever since.   As we transition the role of hosting our blogs from John to Bill Bellows, our Deputy Director, we are grateful that John will continue to serve as a guest blogger, continuing to contribute his remarkable appreciation of The Deming System of Profound Knowledge™.

In his first post, John dedicated himself to “trying to explore Deming’s ideas through his work and through the application of his ideas in organizations.”   John added,  “In doing so, my opinions will influence what I write. My goal is to stay true to his ideas and thoughts while also seeing how those ideas have been applied, interpreted and extended by others.”

At this time of transition, we would like to honor John’s steadfast commitment to both The Deming Institute and our worldwide community of students and practitioners of Dr. Deming’s philosophy.  For 4+ years, John has created a steady stream of blogs that serve our aim of fostering an ever expanding appreciation of the distinctiveness and broad applicability of the Deming Management Method.

Looking ahead, Bill will collaborate with John and a community of guest bloggers, as well as offer his own insightful contributions to our blog site.

As always, we welcome feedback on our posts, as well as suggestions for topics of exploration.

Kevin Cahill
Executive Director
The W. Edwards Deming Institute®

Video of W. Edwards Deming at Western Connecticut State University in 1990

Presentation by W. Edwards Deming at Western CT State University – February 1990

We are being ruined by best efforts without knowledge. Sure we want best efforts but guided with knowledge. Efforts guided by instinct do more harm than good. Our problem is best efforts.

At about the 50 minute point in the presentation Dr. Deming includes an informative discussion on the system being responsible for most of the results (even though we often consider variation in results being due to individul’s efforts).

Most of what anybody is able to turn out is governed by the system that he works in.

He uses the example of a new University president and all the constraints on their ability to act.

The performance of any component is to be evaluated in terms of its contribution to the aim of the system, not for its individual performance or profit, nor for any other competitive measure.

W. Edwards Deming gives the example of using a loss leader to optimize the overall performance. The business losses money on the component with the intention of optimizing the performance of the entire enterprise.

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