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The Forgotten Lessons of W. Edwards Deming

Deming’s message is as relevant today as it was in 1980.

On June 24, 1980, NBC News released a 90-minute white paper titled “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?” It looked closely at a growing productivity gap between the two nations and a sharp contrast in the quality of manufactured goods. And it sparked a quality movement in America.

At the center of the episode was Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Deming made his mark in Japan teaching statistical methods to the Japanese industry starting in 1950. He was honored there with the establishment of the Deming Prize, presented annually to a deserving company for the past 60+ years.  

After the NBC white paper aired in 1980, Dr. Deming’s methods began to capture the interest of corporate America, and he became the driving force of the quality revolution here. I worked closely with Dr. Deming from 1983 until his death in 1993. He invited me to assist him in a series of four-day seminars around the country. It was one of the greatest honors of my professional career.

So what would Dr. Deming think about the state of U.S. manufacturing today? There is little doubt in my mind that he would be dismayed. After making considerable progress in the 1980s and 1990s, corporate America has turned its back on Dr. Deming’s teachings. Here’s the evidence that I see:

Loss of Constancy of Purpose for Improving Products or Services …There is a “make me a hero this quarter” attitude in most C-suites that impedes long-term company progress. Japanese executives, on the other hand, continue to grasp the importance of viewing process improvement as a long-term objective. It’s why my 2000 Lexus is still running strong with 265,000 miles on it.     

Top Managers Are Largely Illiterate When It Comes to Process Improvement … In today’s undergraduate business and MBA programs, the basic statistical techniques that Dr. Deming embraced are ignored and the deficiency is rarely addressed as executives climb the ladder. It’s sad to report that most U.S. CEOs are not even aware of Deming’s philosophy or work.    

When Solving Productivity Issues, The Local Workforce Is Left Out of the Equation … Deming preached that the on-the-factory-floor workforce was the key to understanding and solving manufacturing problems. Today’s companies increasingly “farm out” quality to “the new experts,” lean six sigma or business analytics groups. This group is removed from the day-to-day operations which significantly hinders their ability to find meaningful solutions.  

“Just Send Us Your Bid” Mentality … Deming encouraged manufacturers to “end the practice of awarding business on price alone” and “minimize total cost by working with a single supplier.” Most U.S. companies have gone in the opposite direction frequently changing vendors based on discounts rather than quality. 

Facility Maintenance is America’s Achilles Heel … U.S. manufacturing plants are older and contain more antiquated equipment than many of our international competitors and facility maintenance is at the lowest point I’ve ever seen. It is creating a serious problem in terms of “uptime” and overall productivity. Dr. Deming would be appalled.       

In the NBC white paper, Dr. Deming concluded that 85% of all business problems are caused by management. If he were still alive today, I suspect he’d tell us that the number is about the same. Deming’s message is as relevant today as it was in 1980. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.   

Dr. Charles Holland is the Founder & CEO of QualPro, a process improvement consultancy founded in 1982.


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