In the late 80s and early 90s, I was a middle manager with a business school education working for AT&T primarily in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. I worked for AT&T’s now-defunct computer systems unit. I was frustrated at our inability as a corporation to accomplish some simple tasks—deliver the right equipment on time, generate an accurate invoice, or agree on an effective marketing strategy, among other challenges.

It was in that context that I opened the Wall Street Journal one day—June 4, 1990—and fell upon an interview with Dr. Deming. What grabbed me was the title: Deming’s Demons: The management guru thinks U.S. Corporations are crushing their worker incentive. As I read further, Deming’s comments struck me as somewhat shocking, contrarian, even curmudgeonly. I was intrigued. Here was a plain-talking, no-nonsense management guru saying essentially that almost everything we do in American organizations is wrong-headed.

Among other revolutionary ideas, Deming believed that:

  • In negotiation and relationship, whether among people, departments, organizations or countries “if you defend your rights, you’re licked”.
  • The grading or ranking of people and “management by objectives” were destructive practices.
  • The use of monetary incentives was ill-advised, “pay is not a motivator.” The reward was in the work itself.

Furthermore Deming did not believe that competitive markets solve problems, i.e. that deregulation or privatization improves a system.

Yet unlike other management consultants or philosophers with contrarian ideas he had very strong credentials. After all, he had been the single most important external influence in the Japanese economy in the latter half of the 20th century.

I later watched his interviews, particularly one produced in 1991 and aired on PBS called The Deming of America. I bought (and read) his books, and eventually met him—briefly—at one of his very last seminars on Quality and Competitive Position, in late 1992. When I met Dr. Deming I was struck by his warm, cordial manner—contrast to his prickly public persona. Deming died in December 1993.

I believe Deming will continue to have a profound impact on those who study his work and thinking. In my mind he possesses all of the characteristics of a genuine and fully qualified guide, teacher, or mentor outlined in a previous post. He is one of only a few management philosophers I have met whose interest and motivation seem to fully transcend any concern for personal gain or reputation.

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