Deming Redux


Last Saturday, April 29, 2011, the Austin section of ASQ held its educational event for the 2010-2011 year. It was a daylong seminar titled “Dr. Deming Day” in reverence of management guru Dr. W. Edwards Deming. The objectives were to recognize the relevance of Dr. Deming’s teachings in today’s business environment; to better understand the difficult to understand, and to recast existing management data by understanding variation.

Now, there are plenty of ‘consultants’ that hold seminars on Dr. Deming’s philosophy. (Just do a search on the web and you’ll see what I mean.) But, I would just as soon read what the man wrote for myself than listen to someone else interpret his writings for me. So, about a month ago I had started reading his classic “Out of the Crisis”. (I hope to post a review of it when I am done.) And, as I worked my way through it chapter by chapter I noticed him crediting Bill Scherkenbach for contributing to various points he was making.

Who is Bill Scherkenbach? With an online search I found out that he studied under Dr. Deming at NYU and accompanied him on countless seminars. Dr. Deming had high praise for Bill, saying: “He was my student, and there’s none better in the world… It takes a little ingredient called profound knowledge, and he’s got it.” Lo and behold, the “Dr. Deming Day” seminar was being presented by none other than Bill Scherkenbach. While I would have loved to have had an opportunity to attend one of Dr. Deming’s talks, that wasn’t going to be possible. He passed away in 1993. However, I couldn’t pass up the next best thing: an opportunity to learn from someone who studied under him and he was proud of.

Bill started off by providing insights into who Dr. Deming was as a person and a teacher. He put the many quotes attributed to Dr. Deming into their context. You’re never going to get this type of behind-the-scenes access from a book. Context matters. It helps understanding. He followed up with a history and overview of Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge and the theories that are integral parts of it: Knowledge of variation; Knowledge of psychology; an Appreciation of a system, and the Theory of knowledge. He walked us through Dr. Deming’s famous Funnel and Red Bead experiments to demonstrate the concept of variation; explained how Fundamental Attribution Error affects our judgment; talked about the need for components to run sub-optimally so that the system may run optimally; and how management’s job – prediction – is only possible with knowledge built on theory.

In the course of listening to Bill, and trying to absorb his message, I caught a glimpse of the tremendous challenge we still face: transforming ourselves to meet our obligations to the rest. That’s the bad news. The good news is a framework and a roadmap to do this exists. The ideas talked about by Dr. Deming aren’t just for businesses. They are applicable to all aspects of life and form a philosophy. If understood and applied properly, they will totally transform society (see the rise of Japan post WWII). This I firmly believe. A one day seminar is not enough to internalize the message. I noted down many questions. Questions I hope to explore and understand in future blog posts.

I’m glad I went to the seminar. I would have sorely regretted missing the opportunity if I hadn’t.

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