Systems Thinking

CC-M Productions

Demings; Gone But Not Forgotten

Quality Progress, March 1994
Gone But Never Forgotten
by Brad Stratton, editor

From humble origins, W. Edwards Deming became a preeminent voice in the world quality movement.

W. Edwards Deming died Dec. 20, 1993 at his Washington, D.C. home. He was 93.

Deming might become the best-remembered figure of the 20th century associated with quality, even though he thought the chances of that were remote. According to the Associated Press, Deming once was asked how he would like to be remembered in the United States. “I probably won’t even be remembered,” he said. After a pause, he added, “Well, maybe…as someone who spent his life trying to keep America from committing suicide.”

From humble beginnings, Deming became known worldwide. In addition to his teaching on statistical subjects, he was a harsh critic of corporate management practices-especially those in the United States.

Early Life & Times

Born William Edwards Deming on Oct. 14, 1900, in Sioux City, IA, Deming was called Ed by his family to distinguish him from his father, who was also named William. His middle name was the maiden name of his mother, Pluma Irene Edwards. His family moved to the Edwards’ farm near Polk City, IA, two years later and in 1906 moved to a boarding house in Cody, WY. The town was named for Buffalo Bill Cody, the Wild West legend whom Ed and his younger brother, Robert, would occasionally see. In 1908, the Demings moved to a 40-acre homestead near Powell, WY, spending their first five years in a tar-paper shack. It was there that the third and final Deming child, Elizabeth, was born. The family struggled to make ends meet. The farm was not a success in terms of being a source of food, but his father built houses on the property and sold them. He was also involved in other real estate dealings that took him on long journeys to Canada and did free-lance legal work. His mother gave piano lessons (this, no doubt, was the source of Deming’s lifelong love for music). When he was old enough to work, Ed helped supplement the family income by hauling kindling and coal for a hotel in town and lighting gasoline street lamps.

Ed’s father sought out a good education for himself, and he encouraged his children to do the same. W. Edwards Deming earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Wyoming in 1921, went on to receive a master’s, degree in mathematics and physics from the University of Colorado in 1925, and earned a doctorate in physics from Yale University in 1928. He worked throughout his college days; some teaching, but mostly back-breaking labor. During the summers of 1925 and 1926, he worked for the Western Electric Co. Hawthorne Plant in Chicago, IL. It was there that Deming learned of Walter A. Shewhart and his efforts to standardize the production, of telephones. The two met in 1927 and spent much time together over the following decades.

Although Western Electric offered Deming a job when he completed his doctorate work, he instead chose the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC, and was assigned to the Fixed Nitrogen Research Laboratory. In 1936, Deming was in charge of the department’s courses in mathematics and statistics for its Graduate School of Agriculture. Deming was to secure guest speakers for the courses and invited many world-renowned speakers, including Ronald A. Fisher, with whom Deming had studied at the University of London during a yearlong leave of absence. Among the speakers invited by Deming was Shewhart. The two men had built a close relationship, but Shewhart was virtually unknown at the time. Shewhart’s four-part lecture was a success, and Deming adapted it to book form: Statistical Method From the Viewpoint of Quality Control. In tandem with Shewhart’s 1931 book, Economic Control of Quality of Manufactured Product, the writings became the bedrock of statistical quality control theory that is still respected and used today.

Deming’s professional life was thriving even though his personal life was on a roller coaster. He had married Agnes Bell in 1922, and together they survived the difficult college years. But in 1930, she died. Her death came a little more than a year after they had adopted a daughter, Dorothy. Deming made use of various private homes to help raise the infant and following his marriage to Lola Elizabeth Shupe in 1932, brought her back home to stay. He and Lola had two more children, Diana and Linda. Diana and Linda survive along with seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Dorothy died in 1984 and Lola in 1986.

World War II

The roller coaster that had marked his personal life now included his professional life, too. In 1938, Deming had moved to the U.S. Bureau of the Census and, on the eve of war, helped develop what might be the first application of statistical quality control procedures to a nonmanufacturing problem: the 1940 U.S. Census.

W. Allen Wallis had attended Deming’s lecture series at the Graduate School of Agriculture. Now Wallis was part of a group at Columbia University attempting to apply statistical theory to wartime production. In 1942, he sought Deming’s help to get appropriate statistical techniques into the hands of the military and private contractors. Deming’s answer, which was implemented with great success, was to develop a series of courses to teach statistical theory to engineers and others involved in wartime production. Control charts and the Shewhart cycle, both devised and developed by Shewhart, became focal points of the courses.

America’s manufacturing might–guided by these courses–helped win World War II. It seemed only logical that quality theory, driven by the thousands of engineers trained during World War II, should form the core of high-quality work processes for consumer products after the war. It didn’t happen. Instead, quantity won out over quality, with even control charts disappearing. Said Deming, “There was nothing–not even smoke.” Only engineers, not managers or executives, had attended the wartime courses. Deming would see to it that this mistake was not repeated when similar courses were developed in Japan.

(It’s most informative to hear the rest of the post-World War II story from Deming himself. Please see “The Government Learns About Quality in Japan” elsewhere in this issue of Quality Progress. In the article, based on a 1980 roundtable discussion, Deming clearly states his distaste for U.S. management practices and links many of the country’s problems to these practices.)

Deming’s Teachings

His educational legacy is considerable. Deming is probably best known for his 14 points and the system of profound knowledge, but equally powerful among his teachings were the redbead experiment, funnel experiment, and Shewhart cycle.

The 14 points were originally stated in Quality, Productivity, and Competitive Position, which Deming revised into his landmark Out of the Crisis. Shortly before his death, Deming reviewed an expanded version of the points written by Lloyd Dobyns and Clare Crawford-Mason, who worked on the important “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?” NBC documentary and later created “Quality or Else” for the Public Broadcasting Service and the 20-volume Deming Video Library. Given Deming’s penchant for continuous improvement, it is more appropriate to print their version, which is prefaced by this quotation from Deming: “The 14 points all have one aim: to make it possible for people to work with joy.”

1. Create constancy of purpose for the improvement of product and service. With the aim to become competitive, stay in business, and provided jobs.

2. Adopt the new philosophy of cooperation (win-win) in which everybody wins. Put it into practice and teach it to employees, customers. and suppliers.

3. Cease dependence on mass inspection to achieve quality. Improve the process and build quality into the product in the first place.

4. End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag alone. Instead, minimize total cost in the long run. Move toward a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.

5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production, service, planning, or any activity. This will improve quality and productivity and thus constantly decrease costs.

6. Institute training for skills.

7. Adopt and institute leadership for the management of people, recognizing their different abilities, capabilities, and aspiration. The aim of leadership should be to help people, machines, and gadgets do a better job. Leadership of management is in need of overhaul, as well as leadership of production workers.

8. Drive out fear and build trust so that everyone can work effectively.

9. Break down barriers between departments. Abolish competition and build a win-win system of cooperation within the organization. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team to foresee problems of production and in use that might be encountered with the product or service.

10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets asking for zero defects or new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.

11. Eliminate numerical goals, numerical quotas and management by objectives. Substitute leadership.

12. Remove barriers that rob people of joy in their work. This will mean abolishing the annual rating or merit system that ranks people and creates Competition and conflict.

13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.

14. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.

The system of profound knowledge has four parts: appreciation for a system, knowledge about variation, theory of knowledge, and psychology. Deming provided the best explanation of the system in Chapter 4 of his last book.3

The red-bead experiment was one of the highlights of Deming’s four-day seminars. It sought to prove that the only way to improve a product or service is for management to improve the system that creates that product or service. Rewarding or punishing individuals trapped in the system is pointless and counterproductive.4

The funnel experiment, which Deming credited to Lloyd S. Nelson, is like the red-bead experiment in that it clearly illustrates why organizations, and management in particular, must understand variation.5,6.

When Deming took the Shewhart cycle to Japan, it was quickly renamed by its Japanese users as the Deming cycle. Regardless of its name, it involves a four-step process for quality improvement. These steps are “plan” to improve a product or process, “do” what is planned, “study” the results, and “act” on what has been learned so that the process can be repeated and continuously improved.7.

The Honors

Deming was given countless honors during his lifetime. In 1987, President Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Technology. The National Academy of Sciences gave him the Distinguished Career in Science Award in 1998. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1983 and the Science and Technology Hall of Fame in 1986. He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1991. ASQC recognized him with the Shewhart Medal in 1956 and named him an honorary member in 1970. In addition to his doctorate from Yale University, he held honorary doctorate degrees from 15 universities.

Which honor did he treasure most? The one that can be seen on his lapel in the photograph on p. 24: the Second Order of the Sacred Treasure, which was bestowed on him by Japanese Emperor Hirohito in 1960.8

It was the second great honor that he received from Japan. The first was the decision by the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers (JUSE) to name its annual quality award–the Deming Prize–after him. By special invitation from JUSE, Deming had lectured to Japanese engineers for eight days during July 1950. The lecture notes were translated and published. Deming declined the royalties from the book sales, instead telling JUSE managing director Kenichi Koyanagi to use them “for any conscientious purpose.”9 JUSE’s decision about its award was partially to thank Deming for his donation, but also to show gratitude for the respect and friendship he offered to the Japanese.

Will Deming Be Remembered?

Quality was cast aside when World War II ended. Will Deming and what he represented be cast aside now that he has died? It seems unlikely. The big difference today is the globalization of world markets and the speed with which products and services can travel. It makes nearly every country a potential competitor of another. It becomes increasingly difficult, especially in the United States, to stop the flow of high-quality, reasonably priced products no matter what the source.

As for Deming, specifically, it does seem highly unlikely that he could be forgotten.

The Japanese most certainly will continue to honor individuals and organizations with its annual Deming Prize. A country with a history that is millennia older than the United States doesn’t forget such lessons as those taught by Deming.

There is a broad base of loyal Deming followers who seem unlikely to let his work fade. These include the dozens of statistical consultants who do corporations day-to-day statistical consulting, Deming Study Groups that meet regularly so members can discuss and improve on his ideas, and educators at all levels who use Deming’s ideas in their courses.

In addition to his written works, countless hours of Deming on videotape exist. If the multimedia revolution is anything like it is predicted, expect to see a digitized Deming on computer screens in the near future.

No, Deming won’t be forgotten. In many ways, given the strong support from people and technology, he won’t really be gone.


  1. Among the many books written about Deming, at least three have extensive information about his personal life. They are Andrea Gabor, The Man Discovered Quality (New York, NY: Times Books, 1990); Mary Walton, The Deming Management Method (New York, NY: The Putnam Publishing Group, 1986); and Cecelia S. Kilian, The World of W. Edwards Deming (Washington, DC: CEEPress Books, 1988). The latter, written by the woman who was Deming’s secretary for the last 40 years of his life, is interesting because it includes extensive excerpts from Deming’s personal diaries and letters to family members.

  2. Mary Walton, The Deming Management Method, p. 9.

  3. W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics (Cambridge, MA; Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Engineering Study, 1993).

  4. This short explanation in no way does justice to the beauty of the red-head experiment. Even though Deming did not create the experiment (it was formed following a chance dinner discussion that Deming had with William A. Boller of Hewlett-Packard in the early 1980s. The execution of the experiment to demonstrate the folly of management was uniquely his. Deming discussed the experiment in Out of the Crisis, but wonderful descriptions of it are contained in Chapter 4 of Walton’s The Deming Management Method and Chapter 1 of Gabor’s The Man Who Discovered Quality.

  5. Again, the funnel experiment is impossible to describe briefly. Deming explained it in Chapter 11 of Out of the Crisis, Another good look at the experiment: Thomas J. Boardman and Eileen C. Boardman, “Don’t Touch That Funnel!.” Quality Progress, December 1990, pp. 65-69.

  6. Variation was the subject of a special issue of Quality Progress in December 1990. It contained nine articles about variation. Another worthwhile article about variation: Thomas W. Nolan and Lloyd P. Provost, “Understanding Variation,” Quality Progress, May 1990, pp. 70-78.

  7. The ideas behind the cycle were first introduced in Shewhart’s Statistical Method From the Viewpoint of Quality Control (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture Graduate School, 1939). Deming discussed the cycle in both Out of the Crisis and The New Economics.

  8. Andrea Gabor, The Man Who Discovered Quality, pp. 126-127.

  9. Cecelia S. Kilian. The World of W. Edwards Deming, P. 125.


Deming, 1900-93. Led Worldwide Quality Revolution.” On Q, February 1994. p. 3.
Dobyns, Lloyd, and Clare Crawford-Mason. Quality or Else (Boston, MA: Houghton Miffin Co., 1991).
“W. Edwards Deming: A Mission Pursued on Two Continents.” Quality Progress, October 1986, pp. 78-79.
The Reckoning

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam offered noteworthy insights into the life of W. Edwards Deming in his book The Reckoning. The book itself examines the industrial fortunes of America and Japan by telling the stories of Ford and Nissan. A chapter of this book is titled Deming’s Audience,” and eight pages of the chapter detail Deming’s frustrations in America and successes in Japan. One paragraph is especially telling:

“Among the many things the Japanese liked about Deming was that he lived so modestly. The productive teams had visited many American cities, and they were often entertained at the rather grand homes of American businessmen. Yet here was, to them, the most important man in America living in an ordinary house. The furniture was simple, and the rooms were rather poorly lit, with a certain mustiness to them. That impressed them all the more. Deming’s passion was for making better products, or more accurately, for creating a system that could make better products. It was not for making money. He clearly had little interest in material things. He was the kind of American they had always heard about, a spiritual man, not a materialistic one. The Japanese who, trekked to see him were aware that he could have profited immensely in those days, selling himself and his services to Japanese companies. The subject just never seemed to come up. There was another way in which he differed from the other Americans they were visiting. The others would lecture them, and the lectures were, however unconsciously, an exercise in power. Deming listened as much as he talked.1

1David Halberstam, The Reckoning (New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1966), p. 312.

Juran Recalls Deming

The one light in the 20th century’s quality sky equivalent to that of W. Edwards Deming’s belongs to Joseph M. Juran. Although it has been reported that the two were at odds, the reality is quite different. Following Deming’s death, Juran described their relationship as one of mutual respect and friendship that dated back to at least the early 1940s. Juran also offered these comments:

“The passing of W. Edwards Deming is a milestone event for the world of quality. We have all lost a useful, dedicated contributor to progress in the field. We have been privileged to witness a dedicated professional, fully absorbed in his mission despite personal tragedies, despite old age, and despite serious illness, yet giving freely of his time even when he had little time left to give. For that privilege, we should all be grateful.”

High Praise from Japan

“There is not a day I don’t think about what Dr. Deming meant to us. Deming is the core of our management.” These glowing words were spoken at the 1991 Deming Prize ceremony by Shoichiro Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corp. Other noteworthy Japanese had equally high praise for W. Edwards Deming at that ceremony.

“Deming made a great contribution to the recovery of Japan’s economy after the total war,” said Koji Kobayashi, chairman emeritus of NEC. “We needed his authority. He fascinated the Japanese people.”

Said Yoji Akao, engineering professor at Temagawa University, “He’s the person who introduced quality control after the devastation of the war and who was the starting point of the whole development of quality control in Japan. Japan owes a great deal to him.”

From Demings Articles; Gone But Not Forgotten


August 8, 2007 Posted by | Clare Crawford-Mason, Deming Bio, Deming Prize, Deming Study Groups, Deming's Teachings, Lloyd Dobyns, President Reagan, Quality or Else, Shoichiro Toyoda, Systems Thinking, The 14 Points, The W. Edward Demings Institute, Toyota, Toyota Motor Corp., W.Edwards Demings | Leave a comment