Deming’s inconvenient truth

First a refresher. Here’s a link to a potted history of the life and works of the great W Edwards Deming. He is remembered, among other things, for his “14 Points” and, to a lesser extent for his “Seven Deadly Diseases” (of western management). Anyway, it’s the latter that I am looking at here. Number 5 on the list to be precise. That is:

“Running a company on visible figures alone”

Now do you see where I’m going with this? Yes, a lot of you may have been thinking that Mr D was a fully paid up member of the “you can only manage what you can measure” club. Factual Approach to Decision Making and all that, but not at all. Deming actually believed that a lot of important management information is not only unknown, but also unknowable. More a case of:

“Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that can be measured, matters”

Oh, right. So his message is more or less that we should use data but at the same time try to avoid disappearing up our own backsides in search of that which can’t be found? Well, yes, sort of. This, if we agree that he has a point, does create a bit of an inconvenient truth. That is, we can’t actually plan to control everything, and that some actions by necessity will need to be inherently reactive. Learn Sigma developed that point further in the excellent article Leadership Cult of the Black Swan. So the cautionary word is that we need to be careful not to expect our data collection and analysis to tell us everything and not necessarily to see every unexpected occurrence as a failure in our management information system. Also the fact that “not everything that can be measured matters” is unequivocally true. I’ve referenced the piece on the Active/Inactive Banana a couple of times already recently, but it does demonstrate the point very well indeed

So was Deming a man of contradictions then? No, not at all. He was a statistician by trade and passion, and encouraged the use of hard data wherever this was possible, as he regularly observed that a failure to generate and act on reliable data was a common management failure. He just realised that in some areas you can’t always get it, and in other areas it served little or no practical purpose. He basically encouraged an intelligent, common sense approach to management information. Now that’s a visionary!

So anyway, to bring this to some sort of conclusion, we need to appreciate that familiar old standards like the “8 Principles of Quality Management” are general rules rather than laws. There will be exceptions and there will be times when we need to apply principles other than the aforementioned 8 in order to get our results. Breaking the “rules” occasionally is not necessarily bad practice, and this approach is 100% consistent with Deming’s philosophy


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3 Responses to Deming’s inconvenient truth

  1. Pingback: Deming on leadership | Capable People Blog

  2. Pingback: Making sense of Deming | Capable People Blog

  3. Pingback: Scott Hassler on Deming | Capable People Blog

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