The Deming Way’s New Battleground–The Defense Department

Has Dr. W. Edwards Deming finally found his match in the agency that gave us the $436 hammer and the $1,118 stool-leg cap?

The legendary sage of quality control, now halfway through his 88th year, appears to think not. Last week in an Arlington conference hall, he devoted four days to lecturing 420 senior Pentagon officials on how the “Deming Way” could build efficiency and morale in the nation’s armed forces. It was his first foray into this most formidable of Washington bureaucracies, part of continuing efforts there to stretch resources and reduce waste.  In his trademark rumpled suit and crusty voice, Deming expounded his gospel of “doing it right the first time,” bringing rank-and-file employees into the decision-making process, of using statistical analysis to track down and eradicate faults in a production line. He sketched graphs on a projection system. He paced the podium. Pregnant pauses abounded, in which the master gazed enigmatically at the assemblage of note-scribblers. There were generals and admirals among them, but few in the audience had the courage to raise questions.

“There is no substitute for knowledge,” Deming told them over and over. The current ways of doing things in this country just don’t produce the ability to analyze, to render judgments and to improve, he said. “That’s not thinking, that’s cramming your head full of answers. I’d rather Johnny could tell me why.”  The Pentagon could emerge as the ultimate test for Deming, who for close to half a century has been trotting the globe to spread his dogma. Defense Department officials concede that change comes slower there than in private corporations. And some of Deming’s ideas — he scorns many of the features of competitive bidding, for instance — rub against the grain of federal law and years of Pentagon practice.  But Deming has never been one to turn away from a challenge. Besides, he already has a few disciples inside the department. “I light a number of fires,” he once said. “Some of them are continuing to burn.”

American companies began seeking out Deming in significant numbers in 1980 as they cast about for ways to counter foreign competition. He is now a valued consultant at key Fortune 500 companies. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. swear by him. His public seminars, held around the country, are well attended, even with a door charge of up to $1,035 per person.He is a home-grown American, a son of Sioux City, Iowa. But learning from him is about the same as turning to the Japanese. That’s because Japan discovered Deming almost four decades ago, embraced his ideas, and today largely credit him for why the words “Made in Japan” have been transformed from a cause of ridicule to the world’s premier mark of quality.

Deming, many people say, is yet another example of the Japanese borrowing an American innovation and making it pay.  Educated in math and science (he holds a doctorate in physics), Deming devised his theories on quality control in the 1930s, but in the early years he found few ready listeners. For that, he had to wait until June 1950.  Japan at that time was still locked in poverty created by the devastation of World War II. Product quality was at rock-bottom. Economic planners thought it would be a miracle if the pre-war standard of living could be restored. Searching for ideas, a technical society there heard of Deming’s approach and invited him to Japan. He came, under the auspices of the headquarters of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was still ruling Japan as head of the allied occupation.

From a carved wooden lecturn, Deming lectured to 220 eager engineers who crowded into a sweltering Tokyo auditorium. Later during the visit, he addressed a meeting of about 45 top leaders of business. “I told them that Japanese industry could develop in a short time,” he recalled with satisfaction to an interviewer in 1980. “I told them that they could invade the markets of the world and have manufacturers screaming for protection in five years. I was, in 1950, the only man in Japan who believed that.”  In Japan, those lectures are today recalled as something equivalent to Moses’ descent with the 10 Commandments. Within months, the Japanese say, companies were using Deming’s ideas to ferret out waste that had kept the economy subdued. Rejected products at the end of an assembly line grew fewer and fewer. Energy consumption dropped and quality rose, clearing the way for the vaunted post-war “economic miracle.”

When Deming visits Japan today, he is welcomed almost as a head of state, with television coverage, speeches and rows of bowing dignitaries. His image and works are known to millions of Japanese students. He has been decorated by Emperor Hirohito. There is even a Deming Prize, awarded annually by a technical society since 1951, only a year after his arrival in Japan. It is the highest honor that a Japanese company can receive.  “He is considered like a god,” says Daisaku Harada, director of the U.S. office of the Ja- pan Productivity Center.

But just what are these divine ideas? Partly, they are the application of numbers. Deming is a statistician who believes that by the painstaking monitoring and analysis of all aspects of production, it is possible to understand its dynamics, identify its weak points and approach zero-defect performance.  Deming students study his “14 points” on industrial management. But by far the single most important lesson he imparts is: Do it right the first time. Many American companies boast of how their factories are filled with inspectors who assure quality.  But Deming counters, with his customary impatience, that this proves quality doesn’t exist there. It is always cheaper, he says, to do a job right the first time than to let defects enter the stream and then have to filter them out.

Much of Deming’s message concerns labor relations. All any worker wants, he says over and over, is the privilege of doing a good job. But the system works against them. Production quotas create fear that leads people on the factory floor to sell quality short. Workers aren’t given the chance to offer simple solutions to gnawing problems. In short, management is to blame for most of the problems.  Deming also peddles cooperation over competition. Rather than switching from supplier to supplier to get the best price, he counsels that a company does better to settle on one supplier and build a long-term relationship based on loyalty and trust. He also argues against competition within the work place. “Employee of the month” awards and the like create divisions in the work force that impede cooperation, he says.

Many of these are common sense, Deming concedes. But he says still people ignore them. In short, quality must become a way of life.  Through the 1960s and 1970s, Deming continued to go largely unnoticed in this country. Then, on June 24, 1980, NBC News broadcast a special report on the dynamo across the Pacific titled, “If Japan Can … Why Can’t We?” It helped generate America’s interest in ways Japanese.  “It would be hard to think of a more influential television show,” says Robert Chapman Wood, president of Modern Economics Co., a Massachusetts consulting firm. “You’d have to go back to Edward R. Murrow.”

Among the people appearing on-camera was W. Edwards Deming. Executives at Ford watched and decided to invite him to Detroit. He came, with the condition that he would deal with the top-level people. Today, says James Bakken, corporate quality vice president at Ford, Deming continues to meet with the auto maker about 10 times a year as “our consultant, our catalyst, our philosopher and a burr under our saddle when we’re not making enough progress.”  Bakken says Deming helped bring about a fundamental shift toward quality at Ford. Today many Ford floor inspectors have been shifted to other functions, he said; workers on the assembly line know it is their job to build quality in at each step. Outside rating firms have noted a significant increase in the quality of Ford cars in the ensuing years.

Deming began getting clients in other U.S. companies that were finding that world leadership was no longer a birthright. General Motors hired him. So did Nashua Corp. of New Hampshire. Campbell Soup Co. sent more than 400 of its managers from some 25 plants to Deming seminars and has since trained more than 10,000 of its employees in Deming’s ideas.  Still, the Deming Way remains a minority path in American industry. Some managers don’t accept that quality is a real problem; others feel Deming is not the only one who knows how to achieve it (there are three other major quality gurus: Joseph Juran, Philip Crosby and Armand Feigenbaum). “There are certainly a lot of organizations that have as high standards of quality and competitiveness” but have not signed on with Deming, says Doug Olesen, president of Battelle Memorial Institute.

And not everyone is so certain that Deming was the key that unlocked success for Japan. Long before Deming entered the scene, the country had shown itself capable of startling eco- nomic strides, rising out of feudalism to become, in just a few generations, a world-class military power that challenged the United States. Some Japanese scholars say the country overdid it with statistical analysis in the 1950s. A few give more credit to the work of Juran. He, however, never had a prize named after him.

Moreover, many of Deming’s ideas seem to be restating basic tenets of Japanese culture. His crusade against “variation” in products may strike a common chord in a country known for stressing of the group over the individual. He demands uncommon discipline and devotion, traits found in great quantities in Japan. (Deming denies this “cultural” argument, though, contending that his ideas have universal application.)

And Japanese may feel more at ease with Deming the man than Americans do. Whether the subject is martial arts, flower-arranging or nuclear physics, the cult of the infallable sensei, or teacher, reigns on in that country’s schools. The Japanese themselves often note that their students want teachers who have supreme confidence in their own ideas. Japanese educational commissions talk of introducing a more inquisitive approach, but the old patterns continue.

In the United States, however, some of Deming’s students are gnawed by boredom and think his lectures ramble. Others feel put off by his seeming insistence that, in his presence, they assume the status they held in elementary school. He demands total attention and commitment. He does not suffer fools gladly and is known to pose questions that seem to ask for a particular response, then scold the person brave enough to speak up with that wrong answer.

But for many people, the medium is to a degree the message. “If people see that kind of strength of commitment, they’re moved, like with any evangelist,” said C. Jackson Grayson, chairman of the American Productivity Center, a privately financed group in Houston. “If I were advising Deming, I wouldn’t tell him to ease up.” Deming’s boosters concede that there is a scent of the mystical about him, that for his students believing can be as important as any specific rules that he teaches.

Many initial skeptics grow to feel that beneath the leathery exterior lies a mother lode of warm-heartedness. People jockey for a nod in their direction that might indicate the master is pleased with them. At seminars, the man is invariably deluged with requests to autograph his book. True to his credo, if he flubs an inscription, he is known to throw the book away and pick up another one.

Several years ago, Deming began giving seminars for the U.S. Navy, and now has followers in number there. Their proudest accomplishment is the North Island Naval Aviation Depot, a California facility for overhauling airplanes and helicopters. Navy officials say that through application of the do-it-right-the-first-time principle, a 52-week backlog at the facility has been slashed to two weeks and better quality is resulting.

Deming came to enlighten the Pentagon group here last week on invitation of Dr. Robert B. Costello, a former executive director for purchasing at GM who last year became undersecretary of Defense for acquisition. Costello was exposed to Deming’s ideas in Detroit and said he believes they could work some good in the Defense Department. Recently, he awarded Deming the department’s first quality award.

Seated in the darkened hall at the Twin Bridges Marriott last week, Deming’s students responded with a mix of reverence and boredom. In conversations during a break, some suggested that however valid Deming’s ideas may be, size, politics and federal law will make sure they are slow in taking root in the Pentagon.

For instance, Deming says quality would rise if the department would research poten- tial suppliers for a particular product, settle on one as the best and embark on a long-term, cooperative relationship with it. Federal contracting rules, however, require competition. Moreover, in items key to national security, an argument is made that a second producer must always be nurtured, lest a single one prove unable to meet the enormous volume demands that would appear overnight in wartime.

Costello remains upbeat. He is at the head of a team that is trying to bring a new concept of “total quality management” to the department, a task that has new urgency in view of the current budget constraints. Seated next to Deming last week, he told reporters: “This is one of the greatest opportunities for change that I’ve ever seen. An acceptance of the fact that we’re going to change is critical for us.”

But what does Deming think? Can people at the Defense Department really change?

Deming’s answer suggested that with one of his disciples now in charge, the answer was obvious. “Under Dr. Costello,” he murmured, “they will learn.”

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