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IT’S RARE that one person can be credited with transforming an industry—not to say a country. However, there’s a good argument that W. Edwards Deming did just that.
It was Dr. Deming who devised and promoted the ideas of Statistical Process Control, of constant improvement of product and service, and of management’s often overlooked role in achieving this improvement. During World War II, these concepts resided under the loose term “operations research,” the analytical study of organizations as systems.
After the war, Deming tried to promote his ideas to the Detroit Big Three (how quaint this term sounds today). However, I imagine they patted him on the head and said, “Peddle this stuff elsewhere, Dr. D, we’re selling everything we can crank out.”
So, indeed, he did. In 1950, Deming offered Statistical Process Control to the Japanese. And just in the nick of time: As strange as it may seem today, back then the term “Made in Japan” meant only the tackiest of junk.
The Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers responded to Deming’s message by instituting a Deming Prize, the first ones awarded in 1951, to companies embracing his concepts. In time, of course, “Made in Japan” took on an entirely different meaning.
A 1980 NBC program, “If the Japanese Can, Why Can’t We?” helped prompt U.S. manufacturers to revise their views on Deming’s concepts. Ford, in deep trouble at the time, took heed, and by 1986 its management culture—and its products—had become the envy of the industry. Others followed.
In 1987, President Reagan awarded Deming a National Medal of Technology. A year later, he received a Distinguished Career in Science Award from the National Academy of Sciences.
Fundamental in Deming’s philosophy are the ideas of constant improvement of the manufacturing process; of establishing a product’s high quality by design, not simply by overinspection; and of encouraging hourly workers in their right to pride in workmanship.
Among Deming’s Seven Deadly Diseases of Management are a lack of constancy of purpose and an emphasis on short-term profits.
One of his quips was, “In God we trust; all others bring data.”
In looking back, Dr. Deming acknowledged as his mentor Walter A. Shewhart of Bell Telephone Labs. Deming, known for his tongue-in-cheek humor, said of his mentor, “He had an uncanny ability to make things difficult,”—thus encouraging Deming’s communication of subtle concepts.
Let’s celebrate both those who make things difficult as well as those who make them meaningful. ds