William Edwards Deming (1900-1993), Ph.D., was an American leadership and management philosopher whose thinking profoundly influenced the Japanese after WWII. Originally trained as a scientist, he worked for Western Electric alongside renowned engineer and statistician Walter Shewhart. He later worked for the US Census Bureau, where he himself became a renowned statistician. After World War II he was assigned to the rebuilding effort in Japan, where he had opportunity to introduce some of Shewhart’s ideas on management, systems and variation to the Japanese. Through his efforts, Japan was able to develop vastly improved quality and consistency in its products and services, and accelerate its recovery after the devastation of the war. Deming probably had more impact upon Japanese manufacturing and business than any other individual not of Japanese heritage. Beginning in 1960 and continuing to this day, one of the highest honors awarded to Japanese organizations is called the Deming Prize.

It is important to note that Deming did not export American thinking and practice; he exposed Japanese managers to his own philosophy of management. Through this philosophy he helped create the “Japanese post-war economic miracle” that saw Japanese quality and productivity soar, particularly in the years 1950 to 1980.

Late in life – beginning about 1980 as Deming turned 80 – he was ‘discovered’ by western mainstream media and business press. At the time, western economies were experiencing a major downturn. In manufacturing particularly North American and European companies were lagging far behind the Japanese in quality. Several notable firms, including the Ford Motor Company, turned to Deming for help. Deming did what he could to help these firms and others through seminars, writing and consulting. He summarized his main points and outlined a system of profound knowledge that can be applied in any organization, and in everyday life.

The challenge then, as now, is that Deming’s ideas require big picture learning – and a radical shift in thinking – that is difficult for many Westerners to accomplish. Examples of this shift include:

  • Creating constancy of purpose (the 1st of Deming’s ’14 Points’). Many organizations (and individuals) lack clarity and constancy of purpose. We meander without clear aim, or goals that shift from year to year.
  • Focusing on optimizing the whole – the system – rather than benefits to particular individuals, individual parts, or individual groups. The challenge with this perspective is that some people will need to give up something – rewards, reputation, power, for example – in order that the greatest number can benefit.
  • More emphasis on the “how” than the “what,” particularly how to accomplish improvements to the system rather than what goals or measured objectives we need to meet this month, quarter, or year. Many organizations emphasize on (mostly short-term) results, and measure objectives down to the individual level, without much idea on how to accomplish those objectives.

There is also a degree of selflessness implicit in Deming’s points that may be relatively rare among Western managers and workers.

Deming seemed driven by one aim: to stimulate and propagate deep thinking and profound knowledge, to help all of us become better leaders, managers, workers, citizens and people.

He had a profound impact on my thinking about leadership, management, and work.

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