Deming, W(illiam) Edwards

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Deming, W(illiam) Edwards

(b. 14 October 1900 in Sioux City, Iowa; d. 20 December 1993 in Washington, D.C.), statistician and management theorist who used innovative methods to monitor and improve manufacturing quality, first in postwar Japan and later in Britain and the United States.

Deming was the first of three children born to William Albert Deming and Pluma Irene Edwards. The family lived in Iowa, in modest circumstances, until 1906, when they moved to Wyoming. The Demings lived first in Cody, and later in Powell, which was named after John Wesley Powell, the explorer and geologist who became known as the “father of reclamation.” Powell had advocated the development of irrigation systems that attracted homesteaders like the Demings to the region’s barren lands. William Deming received a forty-acre plot near what later became the town.

The Demings spent approximately their first five years in Powell in a tar paper shack, where Deming’s sister, Elizabeth, was born in 1909. Their farm was never a success. To make ends meet, William Deming did freelance work as a law clerk and Pluma Deming gave piano lessons. When Deming grew old enough, he also contributed to the family finances by hauling kindling and coal after school and lighting Powell’s gasoline street lamps. Deming’s abhorrence of waste, his diligence, and his frugality took root during his childhood and lasted for the rest of his life. These characteristics also influenced his pioneering work in quality management.

In 1917 Deming went to Laramie where he attended the University of Wyoming and earned a B.S. degree in engineering. Deming supported himself by doing odd jobs such as janitorial work and shoveling snow. In the 1920s Deming attended the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, and the University of Colorado, from which he received an M.S. degree in mathematics and physics in 1924. In 1923 he married Agnes Bell, a teacher. She died in 1930, and in 1932 he married Lola Shupe, a mathematician. His second wife died in 1986.

Between his studies in Colorado and getting his doctorate in physics from Yale University in 1928, Deming landed two summer jobs at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant in Chicago that contributed formative experiences to his early career. Working at Hawthorne marked the only time that Deming was employed full-time by a corporation. What he saw at the plant, which employed 46,000 people assembling telephone equipment, left a lasting impression on him.

Although Western Electric, a division of AT&T, was paternalistic and, for the times, progressive, the work at the plant was monotonous. Workers regularly complained about smoke, fumes, and extreme temperatures. Coincidentally, it was here that the legendary Hawthorne experiments—also known as “fatigue studies“—were conducted by Harvard University researchers led by Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger.

Deming’s frontier upbringing had accustomed him to hardship, but he was appalled by the demeaning drudgery of factory life. He also despised what he saw as the manipulative nature of the piece-rate system. Years later he would become an ardent opponent of incentive pay schemes.

AT&T left one other important mark on Deming. In the 1930s, he befriended Walter Shewhart, a physicist at Bell Laboratories who had developed a groundbreaking approach to improving manufacturing systems by studying the variation produced by each process. Shewhart used probability theory and statistics to monitor and identify process problems before they produced large numbers of defects. He also used a simple diagram, known as a control chart, to show whether a system was stable and to measure the capabilities of the process over time. Shewhart’s system, which was first tested at Hawthorne, could eliminate end-of-the-line inspections, which were costly and did little to improve the system itself. It was also essential for the development and commercialization of complex, high-tech products, such as telephones.

Deming, who had gone to work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1930s, invited Shewhart to give a series of lectures in Washington, D.C. Deming also helped compile the lectures into a book, Statistical Method from the Viewpoint of Quality Control (1939). The ideas he learned from Shewhart and Ronald A. Fisher, a geneticist and pioneer of modern statistical analysis whom he sought out during the same period, were soon put to use at the U.S. Census Bureau, where Deming helped plan the first large-scale use of statistical sampling—the modeling of a carefully selected portion to represent the whole.

After World War II, Deming’s work on the census and his statistical expertise caught the attention of General Douglas MacArthur. In 1947 Deming was summoned to Japan to develop its national census of 1951, which was intended to help assess the level of devastation in the country after the war, including the amount of new housing that was needed to accommodate countless Japanese who had been left homeless. That journey proved to be the second seminal influence of his career.

While most of his colleagues kept to their American enclaves, Deming toured the cities and the countryside, seeing firsthand the poverty of postwar life. He also became enamored of Japanese culture, including Kabuki theater, which at the time was off-limits to Allied personnel.

When the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers (JUSE) invited Deming to give a series of lectures on statistical process control (SPC)—essentially Shewhart’s system for monitoring and improving manufacturing quality—Deming jumped at the chance. The lectures, held in more than a dozen locations from Tokyo to Kyushu, attracted thousands of listeners from both industry and government. One presentation attracted top managers from a number of companies, including Kawasaki Steel and Hitachi. Unlike other U.S. advisers, who kept aloof from the Japanese, Deming’s self-deprecating charm (which was little in evidence in the United States in later years) and his mastery of Japanese customs and manners won him a special place in the hearts of the locals.

Deming’s lectures in Japan stressed the importance of viewing quality concepts as part of a holistic new management philosophy. Top management would have to take a leading role in quality improvement, Deming insisted, but every member of the organization must play a part. The ultimate goal was to identify and anticipate the needs of customers.

To link consumer research and product manufacturing, Deming introduced what came to be known as the “Deming cycle” (adapted from Shewhart’s original concept). This cycle of continuous testing and improvement—“plan, do, check, act,” or PDCA—inevitably leads to the redesign of the product. This system was adopted by the Japanese as the basis of the Japanese Total Quality Control (TQC) movement and, eventually, as a way to monitor almost every corporate process. Thus it became the foundation of the Japanese strategic planning system known as policy deployment.

With the possible exception of General MacArthur, Deming was soon hailed as “the most famous and revered American” in Japan. In 1951 the JUSE created the Deming Prize competition in his honor and parlayed the competition into a national event for which virtually every leading Japanese corporation would come to compete. The Deming Prize institutionalized Japan’s TQC movement. In 1960, in a final recognition of the enormous impact of both Deming and the prize, Deming became one of the first Americans to receive the Second Class Sacred Treasure, a medal bestowed by Emperor Hirohito.

In the United States, however, Deming continued to labor in relative obscurity. Not until the early 1980s, when American manufacturers found themselves unable to compete against a surge of high-quality foreign imports, did companies seeking the secret of Japan’s success discover Deming and the quality movement.

Deming was already an octogenarian when he responded to an urgent appeal from Donald E. Petersen, the new president of Ford Motor Company. (During a three-year period beginning in 1980, Ford’s losses totaled $3.26 billion.) Over the next few years Deming worked with a number of major U.S. companies, including Ford and General Motors. To ensure that top management took responsibility for quality, he insisted on meeting with the CEOs of client companies. He insisted that companies follow his fourteen points of management, which he delineated in his landmark work Out of the Crisis (1989). He also taught grueling four-day seminars that were attended by hundreds of participants.

Deming’s most sweeping policy change addressed the use of multiple suppliers selected on the basis of cost rather than quality. Beginning in 1981 Deming began working with Ford to develop training programs for suppliers aimed both at improving the quality of parts and at breaking down the wall that traditionally had blocked collaboration between Ford and its vendors. The success of the seminars prompted Ford to spin off its training activities into a separate organization, the American Supplier Institute (ASI). As an independent association, the ASI became the center of quality training for all three major automakers and their suppliers. Under Deming’s influence, Ford and other manufacturers slashed suppliers and developed stronger links with those who could meet new quality standards.

Deming also had limited success with his ardent opposition to incentive pay. Drawing at least partly on the writings of Abraham Maslow and Douglas McGregor, Deming believed that people have an innate desire to “take pride in their work.” If management does a good job of hiring and training employees and creating a well-designed work environment, good performance will follow. Deming argued that tying performance targets to dollar rewards actually harms overall performance because it focuses on short-term results, nourishes rivalry, and destroys teamwork. Moreover, Deming argued that pay-for-performance was intrinsically unfair because it ascribes to the people in a group differences that may be caused by the system within which they work.

Although Deming’s views on performance appraisal were an exceedingly hard sell, a few companies began to experiment with so-called 180-degree performance appraisals, which included peer and subordinate reviews and tied pay to seniority, skills, and group rewards.

Deming’s influence was linked to a number of automotive successes, including the revival of Cadillac in the late 1980s. But his style antagonized many executives, who chafed at his insistence that “85 percent of manufacturing problems” were caused by management.

Deming continued consulting and conducting four-day seminars until his death. His daughters then established the Deming Institute, which holds periodic conferences on quality. Although the quality movement has survived, most recently as part of the Six Sigma movement, which draws many—though not all—of its principles from Deming’s teachings, Deming’s name was largely forgotten after his death.

Frank Voehl, ed., Deming: The Way We Knew Him (1994), includes fourteen chapters written by quality-control experts, each on one of Deming’s “points for management.” Andrea Gabor, The Man Who Discovered Quality: How W. Edwards Deming Brought the Quality Revolution to America (1990), features case studies on Ford, Xerox, and General Motors. See also Kaoru Ishikawa, What Is Total Quality Control?: The Japanese Way (1985), translated by David J. Lu; and Cecilia S. Kilian, The World of W. Edwards Deming (1988). An obituary is in the New York Times (21 Dec. 1993), and a memorial tribute by John A. Byrne is in Business Week (10 Jan. 1994).

Andrea Gabor