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W Edwards Deming: total quality management.

W Edwards Deming (1900-1993) is widely acknowledged as the leading management thinker in the field of quality. He is credited as being the most influential catalyst of Japan's post-war economic transformation.

Life and career

Deming obtained a PhD in mathematical physics from Yale University in 1928 and concentrated on lecturing and writing in mathematics, physics and statistics for the next ten years. It was only in the late 1930s that he became familiar with the work of Walter Shewhart, who was experimenting with the application of statistical techniques to manufacturing processes. Deming became interested in applying Shewhart's techniques to non-manufacturing processes, particularly clerical, administrative and management activities. After joining the US Census Bureau in 1939 he applied statistical process control to their techniques, which contributed to a six-fold improvement in productivity. Around this time, Deming started to run courses for engineers and designers on his--and Shewhart's--evolving methods of statistical process control.

Deming's expertise as a statistician was instrumental in his posting to Japan after the Second World War as an adviser to the Japanese Census. At this time, the USA was the leading economic power, with products much envied by the rest of the world; it saw no need for Deming's new ideas. The Japanese, on the other hand, recognised that their own goods were shoddy by international comparison. Moreover, after the war, they could not afford the wastage of raw materials that post-production inspection processes brought about and were consequently looking for techniques to help them address these problems. Whilst in Japan, Deming became involved with the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers (JUSE) and his career of lecturing to the Japanese on statistical methods and company-wide quality, a combination of techniques now known as Total Quality Management, had begun.

It was only in the late 1970s that the USA became aware of his achievements in Japan. The 1980s saw a spate of publications explaining his work and influence. In his American seminars during 1980, Deming talked of the need for the total transformation of the Western style of management. In 1986 he published Out of the Crisis which documented the thinking and practice that had led to the transformation of Japanese manufacturing industry. His ideas gained acceptance in the UK following the foundation of the British Deming Association in 1987. Deming died in 1993.


Deming's work and writing constitute not so much a technique as a philosophy of management that focuses on quality and continuous improvement but which has had--justifiably--a much wider influence. Here we will consider Deming's interest in variation and his approach to systematic problem solving which led on to his development of the 14 points which have gained widespread recognition and which are central to the quality movement.

Variation and problem solving

The key to Deming's ideas on quality lies in his recognition of the importance of variation. In Out of the Crisis, he states:

"The central problem in management and in leadership ... is failure to understand the information in variation."

Deming was preoccupied with why things do not behave as predicted. All systems (be they the equipment, the process or the people) have variation but he argued that it is essential for managers to be able to distinguish between special and common causes of variation. He developed a theory of variation--that special causes of variation are usually easily attributable to quickly recognisable factors such as changes of procedure, change of shift or operator etc, but that common causes will remain when special causes have been eliminated (normally due to design, process or system). These common causes are often recognised by workers, but only managers have the authority to change them to avoid repeated occurrence of the problem. Deming estimated that management was responsible for more than 85% of the causes of variation. This formed his central message to the Japanese.

Deming's 14 Points for Management

Deming created 14 points which provided a framework to developing knowledge in the workplace and guide long-term business plans and aims. The points constitute not so much an action plan as a philosophical code for management. They have been extensively interpreted by as many commentators on quality as on other management disciplines.

Deming's 14 points

* Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim of becoming competitive, staying in business and providing jobs.

* Adopt the new philosophy. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities and take on leadership for change.

* Cease dependence on mass inspection. Build quality into the product from the start.

* End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag alone. Instead, minimise total cost. Move towards a single supplier for any item, based on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.

* Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service to improve quality and reduce waste.

* Institute training and re-training.

* Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to lead and help people to do a better job.

* Drive out fear so that everyone may work effectively for the company.

* Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales and production must work as a team, to foresee and solve problems of production.

* Eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets for the workforce as they do not necessarily achieve their aims.

* Eliminate numerical quotas in order to take account of quality and methods, rather than just numbers.

* Remove barriers to pride of workmanship.

* Institute a vigorous program of education and re-training for both the management and the workforce.

* Take action to accomplish the transformation. Management and workforce must work together.

The relevance of these principles to a wider general management application has contributed to Deming's status as a founder of the Quality Management movement, not just quality and process control; this is why he interests an audience that is much wider than the quality lobby.

In Perspective

Naturally enough, no one as universally acclaimed as Deming will escape without criticism. Some have criticised his approach as being good for improvement, but uninspiring for creativity and innovation. Others say his approach is not effective for generating new products or penetrating new markets.

Others--particularly Juran, another quality guru--comment on an over-reliance on statistical methods. Deming's American lectures in the 1980s, however, point time and time again to a mistaken preoccupation with the wrong type of statistics. He argued against figures focusing purely on productivity and control and argued for more evidence of quality, a message which Tom Peters adopted in the 1980s and 1990s.

Deming has stirred up wide interest with his denial of Management by Objectives and performance appraisals. Similarly, his attitude towards integrating the workforce has led TQM to be perceived as a caring philosophy. Paradoxically, his focus on cost-reduction has been pointed to as a cause of downsizing.

Although in the 1980s America paid tribute to Deming--not only for what he did in Japan, but also for his thinking and approach to quality management--few American companies use his methods today. One reason for this is perhaps that by the 1980s Deming was selling a system that worked, that he implied that he had discovered the only way to achieve quality, and that he was no longer alert to changes in the problems. In Japan, in the beginning, he had listened to Japanese needs and requirements, showed them respect and developed his thinking with them. With the USA of the 1980s, he appeared to try to dispense his philosophy rather than re-adapt it to a different culture.

In 1951, in early recognition of their debt to Deming, the JUSE awarded the Deming prize to Japanese organisations excelling in company-wide quality. It was not until the 1980s that the USA recognised Deming's achievements in Japan and elevated him rapidly to guru status. In 1987 the British Deming Association was founded in the UK to disseminate Deming's ideas. In the 1990s it looks as if Deming's legacy is likely to have both a lasting and significant impact on management theory. Why is this?

The first reason must lie in the nature of his achievement. Deming has been universally acclaimed as one of the Founding Fathers of Total Quality Management, if not the Founding Father. The revolution in Japanese manufacturing management that led to the economic miracle of the 1970s and 1980s has been attributed largely to Deming.

Secondly, if the 14 points make less of an impact today than they did just after the Second World War in Japan, it is probably because many aspects of those points have now been adopted, assimilated and integrated into management practice in the 1990s as well as continuously debated and taught in business schools around the world.

The third reason is more complex, and lies in the scope of his legacy. Deming's 14 Points add up to a code of management philosophy which spans the two major schools of management thought which have dominated since the early 20th century: scientific (hard) management on the one hand, and human relations (soft) management on the other. Deming succeeds--despite criticisms of over-use of statistical techniques--in marrying them together. Over half of his 14 Points focus on people as opposed to systems. Many management thinkers veer towards one school or the other. Deming, like Drucker, melds them together.

The originality and freshness of Deming is that he took his philosophy, not from the world of management, but from the world of mathematics, and wedded it with a human relations approach which did not come from management theory, but from observation and from seeing what people needed from their working environment in order to contribute of their best.

Useful reading

The editions cited here are those held in, and available for loan to members from, the Chartered Management Institute's Management Information Centre. These may not always be the first edition.

Key work by Deming
Out of the crisis: quality, productivity and competitive position
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986

Further reading
The quality gurus, Tony Bendell
London: Department of Trade and Industry, 1991

Related Organisation
British Deming Association, 25 Water Lane, Salisbury, SP2 7TE
Tel: 01722 412138 Fax: 01722 414428
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Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Dec 1, 1999
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