Don’t Expect Short Quotes to Tell the Whole Story

When people try to use a short quote as an accurate encapsulation of a management concept they will often be disappointed.

It is obvious that Dr. Deming believed that organizations failed to use data effectively to improve needed to change and use data effectively in order to thrive over the long term. He believed that greatly increasing the use of data in decision making would be useful. He also believe there were specific problems with how data was used, when it is was used. Failing to understand variation leads to misinterpreting what conclusions can appropriately be drawn from data.

Using data is extremely useful in improving performance. But as Deming quoted Lloyd Nelson as saying “the most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable.”

I believe Dr. Deming would have said something like “In God we trust, all others bring data” (I haven’t been able to find a source verifying he did say it). Others don’t believe he would referencing the Lloyd Nelson quote and all Deming’s other work showing that Dr. Deming’s opinion that data isn’t all that matters. I believe they are correct that Dr. Deming wouldn’t mean for the quote to be taken literally as a summation of everything he ever said. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t use a funny line that emphasized an important message – we need to stop relying so much on unsubstantiated opinion and instead back up opinion with data (including experiments).

Quotes can help crystallize a concept and drive home a point. They are very rarely a decent way to pass on the whole of what the author meant, this is why context is so important. But, most often quotes are shared without context and that of course, leads to misunderstandings.

image of quote - It is wrong to suppose that if you can't measure it, you can't manage it - a costly myth.

A funny example of this is the Deming quote that you often see: “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Deming did actually say that. But without the context you get 100% the wrong understanding of what he said. Deming’s full statement is “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.” Now normally much more context is required to truly understand the author’s point. But this is a funny example of how a quote can be even be accurate when passed on to you and yet completely misleading because it is taken out of context.

Data is very important. Data is very useful. Data can be misused. Certain practices around how we use data lead to problems. We will perform much better by using data properly. We will perform better by using data more frequently than we do now. Trying to use data for those cases where it doesn’t work well will create problems. When using data it is important to understand the data within the context of the system (data is very useful but can lead to sub-optimizing the overall system to reach specific targets without an appreciation for the organization as a system).

That perhaps some short quotes from any author that are taken out of context might seem contradictory, or at least at odds with other quotes, isn’t surprising. When you understand the ideas Deming’s presented it is pretty clear that data is important and using data to improve performance is useful. But at the same time there are dangers of being misled by the improper use of data.

Far too often people want to take a short quote as a full expression of a concept. It is much more likely to be useful as a reminder. But when you just read the quote and then try to have that stand in for the entire concept you are often misled.

When you take several quotes from an author’s body of work and then can’t see how they quite fit together it may be a sign that their thoughts didn’t fit together well or that their thoughts evolved and changed. Very often it is a sign that those small excerpts leave out the context that explains why the points being made are important but fail to capture the entire meaning. The context of Dr. Deming’s books, articles and videos are important to understanding what the short quotes mean.

If Dr. Deming did say “In God we trust, all others bring data.” I believe it was largely as a joke line to emphasize the importance of using data. This emphasize was and us needed.

However, it is one of the less useful points of emphasis on data in Deming’s message. Much more important is the proper use of data, which encompasses a huge number of different topics. Those include:

  1. understanding what the data does and does not say (understanding variation)
  2. understanding the system, and that optimize one measure can easily harm the overall system (appreciation for a system)
  3. psychology can often interact with the use of data in harmful ways (creating fear, fear causing people to distort the data…)
  4. using data more (because we often don’t use it when using data would be very useful)
  5. the importance of experimentation and iteration
  6. Nelson’s quote – and the understanding that if you focus on what you have data for you will miss very important aspects that need to be taken into account (and also that you will likely make up data to try and capture things you believe are important but can’t actually measure)…

When you understand that concept well it is pretty easy to see how it all fits together. If you try and take 1 or 2 quotes and understand how they fit together, without understanding the system, it can easily be less obvious how they fit together.

Edited version of my comment on: The Conundrum that is Dr. Deming on Metrics, Measures, and Data

Related: Data Can’t LieThe Road Not Taken (sometimes, even misunderstanding the author’s intent provides useful insight)

4 thoughts on “Don’t Expect Short Quotes to Tell the Whole Story

  1. Interesting article. I wish some people would start exploring context a little more before posting one sentence quotes. Context can say a lot on what they actually meant or give a much deeper meaning.

  2. Pingback: Understanding Variation and Appreciating Variety « The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

  3. John, this is a marvelous post. Thanks for sharing your reflections on opportunities to misquote Dr. Deming, or anyone.



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