As regular readers of this blog know, my first book, The Man Who Discovered Quality, was about W. Edwards Deming, the management guru who helped transform Japanese industry after World War II–the Toyota Production System was developed in collaboration with Deming–and later helped “rescue” U.S. manufacturers after they were battered by Japanese competitors.
Deming, I believe, is (and was) one of the most under-appreciated management thinkers of the 20th century. Ever since learning about his work in the 1980s, his ideas about systems thinking have influenced my outlook on just about everything, including business and education.
Deming’s breakthrough–one that applies to all organizations, not just manufacturers–was in combining an understanding of how science, in particular statistical theory, can be used to achieve meaningful systems improvement with what had heretofore been seen as touchy feely, unscientific approaches to empowerment. He used statistical theory to demonstrate how employees, properly trained, can serve as a key resource for identifying organizational problems, solutions and opportunities for improvement. Importantly, he believed that employees can only meet this challenge if they work in an atmosphere that is collaborative and free of fear.
He also believed that because only management can control the larger systemic factors that impact quality—everything from purchasing to hiring to organizational culture—the onus for creating the underlying conditions for quality improvement rests with management. Thus, Deming’s mantra, thundered again and again in his basso profundo: The responsibility for quality rests with senior management.
In the years leading up to his death, in 1993, Deming began turning his interest to education. He believed that the same principles he advocated for companies—systems thinking, collaborative improvement, understanding statistical variation, creating organizational cultures free of fear and conducive to creative problem-solving—could also transform schools. In Japan, Deming’s ideas greatly influenced “Japanese Lesson Study.”
American education reformers believe that education has much to learn from management. Deming would agree. But he also would be appalled by much of what passes for education reform today.
Deming’s family runs the Deming Institute, a non-profit that aims to keep the legacy of his quality management ideas alive. In November, the Deming Institute is holding its first ever conference on education in Seattle. For more information please see:
To learn more about Deming’s work and what education reformers could learn from it, please see this post: