Curmudgeon of Quality : U.S. Industry Listens Now When Once-Ignored International Management Wizard Speaks

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Even at 86 years of age, W. Edwards Deming, the curmudgeon of manufacturing quality, can deliver his message with evangelical fire.

“Can you blame your competitor for your woes? No. Can you blame the Japanese? No,” he recently admonished a banquet room here filled with representatives from some of the biggest names in corporate America. ‘You did it yourself.”’

Deming is a statistician who has become an international business legend. In order to drive out what he calls the “five deadly diseases” that impair product quality, Deming urges clients and seminar students to adopt his 14 management points. The messages are backed by a simple statistical process: Tally defects, scrutinize them, trace the source of the problem, make corrections and record the results.

Own Countrymen Rebuffed Him


But his statistician’s fervor is born of bitterness. A native of Sioux City, Iowa, Deming is still best known in Japan, where he has been treated as a deity since the reconstruction days after World War II when his advice was eagerly followed by nascent Japanese firms that have helped trigger the country’s extraordinary economic rebirth. All the while, Deming’s own countrymen rebuffed him.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, when the battle for global markets is won by those who, like the Japanese, have learned to make products better and cheaper, that the New York University professor emeritus finally found a following at home. Now, American firms turn to Deming for advice on how to match the Japanese in manufacturing quality.

“He’s a national treasure, a charismatic leader who approaches management swinging a meat ax,” said William A. Golomski of Chicago, another prominent quality guru. “And he’s been able to capture their interest.”

Deming is credited, for example, with helping to steer Ford Motor Co. toward building cars with fewer factory defects. Better products have yielded prosperity. Last year, for the first time since 1924, Ford chalked up higher profits than its bigger rival, General Motors.

GM has taken note. Its Van Nuys assembly plant is undergoing changes more sweeping than those implemented at any auto factory wholly owned by a Big Three company. Deming spent a week there as a consultant. The Van Nuys work force has been issued cards with a list of Deming’s do’s and don’ts. The workers are also getting more power in decision making.

For his consultant work, Deming commands as much as $10,000 a day. The octogenarian workaholic, who labors out of a modest Washington home, is already booking appointments into his packed schedule for 1989. Deming has 21 seminars scheduled this year, including one in Australia in July.

Executives who attend four-day seminars organized by George Washington University pay as much as $900 a head. At the one here, 300 attended, many standing in line during breaks so that Deming might autograph their copies of his latest textbook, “Out of the Crisis.”

Deming’s philosophy is essentially based on a compassionate ideal, a faith in the worker’s desire to do a good job. Deming advocates taking power out of the board room, bringing decision-making onto the factory floor.

This is in direct conflict with the thinking that has dominated U.S. manufacturing since the beginning of the century. Most industrialists, dating back to Henry Ford himself, have viewed workers as most effective performing single, often mundane tasks on an assembly line.

“Henry Ford made great contributions, but the Model T wasn’t a quality car,” Deming said. “He treated people like commodities, and how can you have a loyal worker when you do that?”

A main Deming theme is that only a tiny fraction of all product defects are attributable to a single tool or worker. The rest, he says, are problems with management’s system, be it getting the right tools, the best materials, good training or a workable production process.

Abhors Empty Slogans

Deming opposes relying on inspection as a means of quality control; instead he advocates improving the process itself--that’s No. 3 of his 14 points. But Deming abhors banners and posters with empty slogans even more. (Point 9)

“You tell them, ‘Get it right the first time,’ ” he says, pacing in construction-style work shoes that make an odd match with his gray, three-piece suit. “Sounds great, but how many have that privilege? Very few.”

Indeed, much of what Deming says is jarring to executives. “The first thing we do is make management take a pay cut,” Deming often says. “The second step is have them take another cut.”

At the conference here at the Hotel del Coronado, managers and engineers from Control Data, Procter & Gamble, Eastman Kodak and Dow Chemical listened raptly to Deming’s advice. One executive asked Deming if American industry will survive.

“There’s nothing compulsory about survival,” Deming answered.

He mocks his audiences by pointing out the strengths of the Japanese. “The Japanese aren’t just interested in finding the lowest price from suppliers,” Deming says. “Their main requirement is a working, long-term relationship. Given that, the rest all falls into place.”

Of course, some at the conference said they would have a hard time going back to their bosses pitching ideas as radical as completely eliminating competitive out-sourcing (Point 4), or scrapping employee performance appraisals (Disease 3).

Not All Agree

Delmar Thompson, a transportation specialist for Polysar Ltd., a Canadian maker of rubber and petrochemical products, didn’t agree with everything Deming said. “Let’s face, it you still have to rate people,” Thompson said. “According to him, you never let anybody go. It’s ridiculous.”

Thomas B. Anderson, operations manager for Procter & Gamble’s Folger coffee plant in Kansas City, Mo., said: “We’re P&G-izing; this because we can’t swallow it whole.” But Anderson’s plant has begun giving workers’ cost and capacity data previously restricted to upper management. “That way, they can make decisions too,” he said.

For all of his advice, Deming was never a laborer on a factory floor. Deming was born the son of a ne’er-do-well lawyer and spent his grade-school days working odd jobs to help feed the family in Powell, Wyo., where they lived in a tar-paper shack for a while.

Things eventually improved enough for the young Deming to attend the University of Wyoming, where he majored in electrical engineering. After getting his degree, he moved to Chicago, where he worked at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant.

Eliminate Quotas

Deming developed much of his philosophy there. The Hawthorne plant ran on a production quota system, which the workers hated. Deming recalls that the first thing his boss told him was to avoid the stairways at shifts’ end, lest he be trampled. (“Eliminate Quotas” is Point 11.) Deming says quotas disregard quality and put an unnecessary ceiling on production.

Deming went on to earn a doctorate in mathematical physics at Yale and, during the 1930s, he went to Bell Labs, where he came under the influence of Walter A. Shewhart, the father of so-called “statistical process control.”

But, in the affluence of the postwar years, a new generation of American managers had little interest in statistical quality control. “I was lighting a lot of fires,” Deming said later of the period, “but they were all going out.”

Sent to Japan

Deming started teaching at the NYU business school in 1946, and also worked for the Census Bureau, which sent him to Japan that year and in 1948. While in Tokyo, he met some Japanese engineers who knew of Shewhart’s work and were fascinated to listen to Deming.

In 1950, Deming was asked by the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers to come to Japan to talk about quality. He asked to talk with some of Japan’s leading businessmen, believing that any change must be a corporate goal supported by management (Point 1).

Back then “Made in Japan” meant shoddy merchandise, and the Japanese knew they had to overcome their reputation. Within months, Japanese companies that followed Deming’s advice began to report improvements in quality and productivity.

A year later, the Deming Award was instituted in Japan. In the national contest, corporate representatives answer questions about the quality-control steps they instituted the previous year and provide the data to back up their quality claims. Now the Japanese consider the awarding of the annual prize important enough to broadcast it on national television. Winners include Nissan, Toyota, Hitachi, Matushita Electric and Nippon Steel.

Spotlighted on TV Show

Meanwhile, Deming worked in relative obscurity in the United States until a 1981 NBC news segment, “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?” finally got him the attention of some automotive executives in Detroit.

Prodded by a declining market share against the Japanese, Ford went company-wide with Deming’s ideas, making him “principal consultant.” He also consulted with GM’s Fiero plant in Pontiac, Mich. GM says the Fiero has consistently had fewer defects than its other models.

Ernest D. Schaefer, GM’s plant manager in Van Nuys, was manager of car-assembly operations in Pontiac at the time Deming was first brought in by GM. “He’s a tough teacher,” said Schaefer.

“He’s extremely critical and takes us to task all the time on what we do,” Schaefer said. “Sarcasm is in his nature. He likes to throw barbs. And he’s impatient. He wants results, and, if he doesn’t get them, he lets you know it.”

Deming is frustrated. For years, he has kept a schedule that would exhaust a man half his age, and, in a spare moment sitting at a table in the hotel courtyard, Deming questioned whether his message, by now obviously an obsession, has fallen on deaf ears.

“A lot of people claim a lot is happening, but I wish I could be sure of that,” he said softly.

Then, returning to his lecturing style, he added, “There’s certainly not enough to make an imprint on the balance of trade. By God, to have a trading partner, you need something to trade. We don’t. Our quality’s not good enough for a swap.”


In lectures and books, Deming outlines a 14-point program for improving businesses. A few of his ideas: Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.

Eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships; 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.

Eliminate work standards prescribing numerical quotas for the day. Substitute aids and helpful supervision.

Remove the barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality.