I should estimate that in my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to the proportions something like this: 94% belongs to the system (responsibility of management), 6% special.
Page 315 of Out of the Crisis by Dr. W. Edwards Deming.
the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance.
Dr. Deming’s quote from the introduction to the Team Handbook
I think, in looking at the total of Deming’s work, that the point he is trying to make is that looking to blame people is not a good strategy for improvement. The impact due solely to a person’s direct action (not including their interaction with the system and with others) is small in comparison to that of the system within which they work. So, Deming (and I) want people to focus on improving the system; which will achieve better results than searching for what people did wrong.
What did Deming want people to take from his statements?
Did he want us just to accept bad results? No. He was not saying it is the system there is nothing we can do just accept that this is how things are. He wanted us to focus on the most effective improvement strategies. He saw huge waste directed at blaming people for bad results. He wanted to focus the improvement on the area with the greatest possibility for results.
Did he want to say people are just cogs in the machine? No. Read or listen to most anything he said at any significant length (a full chapter of this book, a full article he wrote on management, an hour from one of his videos) and it is hard to maintain such a thought.
Did he believe that people were not important? No. He was trying to direct the focus of improvement efforts to look not at the fault with one person but to look at the system. I believe strongly he was correct. If you blame a person as the root cause of a problem, my first, second and third reactions are why? why? why? It is possible the person is to blame and there is no benefit to exploring system improvement instead of settling for blaming the person. But that is rare.
I have written about the importance of developing people to build the capability of the organization. My father wrote about it previously, “American organizations could compete much better at home and abroad if they would learn to tap the potential information inherent in all processes and the creativity inherent in all employees.”
I wrote about the importance of the ideas behind Deming’s quotes here, back in 2006 – Find the Root Cause Instead of the Person to Blame