W. Edwards Deming may be the most influential management thinker of the 20th Century. His System of Profound Knowledge has been used for the transformation of major corporations and indeed entire nations. No other management thinker, with the possible exception of Deming’s teacher and friend, Walter Shewhart, can claim to have so dramatically impacted our world economy, bringing about a better world for all of us. Trained as a mathematical physicist with a PhD from Yale University his career spanned seven decades during which he was an internationally respected physicist; a world renowned statistician and expert in sampling; the preeminent quality expert in the world and a profound thinker in management who revolutionized management thinking and practice in Japan and the West. His mathematical precision and understanding of statistics and the role of theory in science, matched with deep compassion and an understanding of the role of people in organizations gave him an unparalleled understanding of the workings of organizations.
Deming along with Walter Shewhart the inventor of Statistical Process Control (SPC), developed and promoted statistical quality methods during the 1920s and 1930s. He played a vital role in the crash program in statistical quality control sponsored by the Department of War during WWII that led to a dramatic improvement in the manufacturing quality and capacity of US industries and is one major reason why the US prevailed. After the war he was invited by Japanese industry to lecture on quality. His now legendary lectures to statisticians and managers, and seminars to top management led to an unprecedented resurgence in Japanese quality and industry transforming Japan into a global powerhouse and the second largest economy in the world. He earned the love and respect of the Japanese who created an industrial prize in his honor, the highly coveted Deming Prize. In addition he was awarded the Second Order Medal of the Sacred Treasure, the highest award Japan can bestow on a foreigner.
By 1970 Japan was dominating global industries and Western companies laboring under outdated management thinking were unable to compete. US quality was falling to new lows each year. Despite trips to Japan and all kinds of theories by American management thinkers all their efforts came to naught. It was only upon the US rediscovering Deming because of a 1980 NBC show, If Japan Can Why Can’t We? that US and Western Industry began to realize the methods of the day were dysfunctional. Deming began consulting major companies such as Ford and GM both of which experienced major improvements in quality and financial results. He began what became his famous 4-day seminars, some of which were given specifically to major corporations while others were open to all. Harley Davidson, Intel, Colgate Palmolive, Proctor & Gamble, Marshall Industries and many other companies large and small experienced dramatic turnarounds or improvement in their business as a result of adopting some or many of Deming’s management ideas. Today Deming’s influence pervades management thinking in the best run companies. The emphasis on quality, team work, working with suppliers, choosing suppliers based on a long term relationships of trust as opposed to lowest initial cost, elevating the customer to the most important link in the production process, continual improvement of the product and the process, trusting employees, eliminating all barriers that prevent workers from experiencing pride in their work are all ideas that came directly from Deming.