What Did Dr Deming Do? And Does It Matter?

W Edwards DemingW Edwards Deming is a big name in quality. There’s a well established narrative: W Edwards Deming, a renowned statistician and teacher, spent time in Japan after World War II, and sparked the revolution in Quality Control in Japan. Dr Deming was showered with Japanese awards, and the Deming Prize became the premier Japanese award, demonstrating his enormous influence. This produced the enormous quailty improvements that eventually attracted US attention, and introduced these methods back in to the United States, bringing the process full circle.

This is a great narrative, but as William Tsutsui points out, it’s probably not true – or at least, not completely. Dr Deming was indeed expert, and played a major role in advances in survey methods. He was influenced by the ideas of Walter Shewhart, and played an important role in educating US workers in process control measures during World War II. Dr Deming did lecture in Japan after the War, and was well received. His ideas undoubtedly had an impact.

There, are, however, other strands to this story, according to Tsutsui’s paper. A Japanese engineer had used related techniques as early as 1931, and a Japanese translation of a relevant book was published in 1934. Several American officers taught in Japan in the late 1940’s, on process management, and JUSE, a Japanese organisation, also played a key role in promoting the methods.

Dr Deming himself did little to play down reports of his influence and, to be fair, he clearly was influential in Japan – but not, according to Tsutsui, to the extent that the now dominant narrative claims. His positive approach, and insistence that Japanese industry could go on to great things, seems to have been at least as influential as his technical teachings.

What Japan seems to have been less enthusiastic about is the focus on specialist method. Tsutsui quotes a Japanese author as saying, ‘One might say it was a time when tools used people, when it was thought that statistics were the same things as quality control’. Ideas such as those of Joseph Juran, who argued that quality improvement was a core management issue that required whole organisation involvement, training of managers and a focus on pragmatic improvements rather than statistical theory, were also influential.

This fits well with the approach of Taiichi Ohno. Accounts of his work stress an attention to principles over method, and a marked preference to go to see what was happening at the gemba, rather than relying on figures alone. This relentless attention to detail, and to involving those who work on the process, is a step away from some of the statistical process control work which, in some cases, can be the domain of experts alone.

Does it matter if W Edwards Deming had less impact than is now believed? Not in the sense that Dr Deming was a successful person, who was an undeniably important thinker on business management methods. The usual story, however, does tend to play down the importance of the Japanese contribution. Lean and quality improvement are the products of interacting ideas, and experience, from many minds and cultures. Method matters, but so does an understanding of organisational culture, and of the point of the work in the first place. Too tight a focus on method can result in a belief that you need experts to ‘do’ quality improvement. Most people who have worked with services on improvement have seen examples where all staff needed in order to improve services, was permission to do so. W Edwards Deming made important contributions, and should be remembered – but we don’t need to be Dr Deming to make changes to our own services.

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