Simanaitis Says

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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.

W. Edwards Deming, mathematician, professor, consultant; 1900-1993.

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 Deming Prize now recognizes companies from around the world, albeit typically those with operations in Japan.

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


  1. Jeff Wick
    October 6, 2012

    It’s about 50 years now since I began reading car magazines regularly. In that reading, I developed a sense that the culture of the big Detroit auto makers went well beyond insular, fairly close to hermetically sealed. That’s what Deming ran into when he approached them in the 1940s. I hope it’s better now than it was 60+ years ago, but I have no direct experience. Dennis, what’s your take on that?

    While Deming’s assessment of Walter A. Shewhart as making things difficult was likely correct, I very much enjoyed reading Shewhart’s statement (operating from memory here) that while business people tend to disdain the theoretical framework of an issue, if they don’t understand it, success will only be accidental, and thus unlikely.

  2. simanaitissays
    October 6, 2012

    From what I hear, everyone cares about Statistical Process Control and other Deming ideas. There are still differences, though, culturally as well as in engineering practice.

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This entry was posted on September 27, 2012 by in Sci-Tech and tagged , , .
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