Management Improvement History

Originally posted to the Deming Electronic Network, 22 Sep 1999, in response to this message (link removed because it was broken).

I would like to say that I think it is good that we have disagreements on the DEN. I think it is a strength of the DEN, not a weakness. However, I think we sometimes get to personal with no real purpose. One example of this, for me, is: “Well, I guess we knew different Demings. Mine was a teacher named Dr. W. Edwards Deming.” I doubt this statement is meant to be taken literally, and if it is not I do not see what it adds to the discussion. I point this out not because I think this is some bad act that should be punished but that I think we need to continue to develop a sense of how we wish to express our disagreements and I think that we should try to do so more constructively.

For the past 60 years we’ve been looking for the magic bullet that will improve the quality of our products, services and lives. In the 1940s, we applied statistics through sampling, SPC and design of experiments to improve our products. In the 1950s, we used quality cost and total quality control to bring about quality improvement. In the 1960s, zero defects and MIL-Q-9858A drove the quality improvement process. In the 1970s, quality circles, process qualification and supplier qualification became key quality issues. In the 1980s, employee training in problem solving, team activities and just-in-time inventory were the things to do.”

I find this statement so far from the truth that it would seriously damage any PDSA with this as an accepted assessment of history. I do not believe Deming had such an inaccurate view (of course I may be wrong). I do believe we need to improve our practice of Quality (and to do that we need to understand what happened in the past and why it was not more successful). The idea that Design of Experiments (DoE) was at the core of some Quality Movement to me is not at all accurate.


In my experience only a few Quality professionals today understand what it means and how it should be applied. The idea that it was common place in the 40’s I seriously doubt (though I don’t have first hand knowledge of this). I find it difficult to believe we would have decided to stop using DoE if it was commonly done previously. The understanding I have from those that should know (like George Box and previously my father – Bill Hunter) is that it was not at all common practice and still is not outside of a few industries and even there it is isolated in the domain of a few experts.I do have first hand knowledge of the 80’s and the idea that we did “employee training in problem solving, team activities and just-in-time inventory” well is not even close to accurate. We sent people to training on these things but other than JIT inventory the effectiveness of these efforts were poor (with a few exceptions that really did well).

“Quality” is not being practiced anywhere close to the level with which I am satisfied with in more than a few organizations. We have huge improvements to make in the practice of DoE, SPC, process improvement, having decisions made by the appropriate level (as close to the issue as possible), leadership, teamwork, data based decision making, the use of basically all the Quality tools, systems thinking, transformation… We are much closer to the 3rd grade level in the practice of Quality Management than we are to doing so well that we now need to shift our focus to new problems (I also think Deming understood that we have not come close to applying his ideas as they should be applied – within a system…).

In my opinion, the main reason 6 sigma is doing so well is because it does a better job at actually getting the tools used (it would be best to transform the organization but if that is not going to happen – which is a safe bet for most every organization – 6 sigma does a good job of getting the tools used successfully). I have problems with 6 sigma but overall I think the reason it is popular is precisely because the paragraph above is wrong. We talked a good deal about some of those issues in some of those decades but we did no tcome close to adopting them as our way of doing business.

If someone missed out on the idea that creating joy in work and other “obligations to humanity” were part of quality in the 80’s and 90’s I don’t see how casting it as some new idea is going to get us to focus on it. One of my problems with 6 sigma is what I think is a lack of focus on these important ideas, I could keep going but I have to end sometime so I will.

John Hunter
Curious Cat Deming Connections
Dr. W. Edwards Deming