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May 14, 2023

How I Came to Write About Deming’s Journey to Profound Knowledge

By John Willis

This post is excerpted from the forthcoming book Deming’s Journey to Profound Knowledge: How Deming Helped Win a War, Altered the Face of Industry, and Holds the Key to Our Future by John Willis.

I pulled on a thread and found a fascinating tapestry.

My professional career started in 1980 just as New York was coming out of one of the worst financial times since the Great Depression. The joke was you couldn’t get a job with IBM, JP Morgan, or Grumman without inheriting it. So, at just nineteen years old, I headed to Texas to get in on the oil boom. I had only a duffle bag and my incredibly efficient and reliable 1975 Toyota Corolla.

During my first week in Texas, I found a job with Exxon Corporation as a computer programmer in exploration and research. The eighties were a fascinating time to work at Exxon, which had a rich culture of leadership and best practices. Although I couldn’t have known it at the time, Exxon’s leadership was my first introduction to Dr. Deming’s principles. Working with some of the world’s top geophysicists, I was indoctrinated in the principles of systems thinking and the scientific method. These principles would shape not only the successes of my life but that of some of the greatest organizations in the world.

A decade later, I went to work at GE. As I earned my Six Sigma Green Belt, I had no idea that what I was doing came directly from Dr. Deming’s teachings. GE had its own analytical statistics department. It seemed like my entire job revolved around control charts, a Deming hallmark. The core lessons I learned around cooperation, experimentation, and systems thinking—all rooted in Deming’s teachings—deeply resonated with me as I continued my career path.

While I had unknowingly learned much of his teachings, my knowledge of Dr. W. Edwards Deming didn’t begin until the 2000s. I had started working with bestselling author and award-winning CTO Gene Kim in 2009 on The DevOps Handbook, along with coauthors Jez Humble and Patrick Debois. Before joining the project, Gene had asked me to read The Goal by supply chain management guru Eliyahu Goldratt. After absorbing it, I quickly read his other books: The Theory of Constraints, Critical Chain, It’s Not Luck, and Necessary but Not Sufficient. Let’s just say that after reading his books I was all in on Goldratt.

At a DevOps Days conference in 2011, my friend and mentor Ben Rockwood, a pioneer in internet engineering, was running an open discussion on Goldratt. During the discussion, Ben intimated that Goldratt was heavily influenced by someone called William Edwards Deming. I didn’t know who the guy was, and I wasn’t looking forward to learning about someone who might shake my faith in Goldratt. But true to his nature, Ben challenged me to at least read Deming’s 14 Points for Management.

When I did, I was floored. I realized that almost everything Deming was saying was the foundation for the three major software movements I’d experienced in my life: Lean software development, Agile development, and DevOps. What amazed me even more was the fact that Deming had written his 14 Points in the 1980s, years before these software movements occurred.

Over the next few years, I came to be heavily influenced by the “Prophet of Quality,” as he’s often known. The more I learned about him, the more I wanted to know. It seemed like every little thread I pulled revealed more and more of just how fascinatingly complex the man’s life and thinking were.

During the course of co-authoring Beyond The Phoenix Project with Gene Kim in 2017, I stepped up my research on Deming. I wanted to truly understand how he’d come to the epiphanies that seemed to predict organizational success or failure in nearly any organization or system. What events littered along his life’s path helped him discover the universal System of Profound Knowledge?

I felt that to understand Deming’s philosophy, it was critical to understand the roots and catalysts of his ideas. I’ve spent over a decade learning about Deming’s life and teachings, and I’ve become something of an expert in the process. To this day, I still find myself peeling back the layers of Deming’s onion as I learn more about those who influenced him, such as the scientists and philosophers C.I. Lewis, Percy Bridgman, and Bertrand Russell.

Unfortunately, of the more than two dozen books about Deming I have read, none chronicle how specific events and inspirations in his life directly connect with the four elements of Profound Knowledge. They were either biographies or explanations about how to apply his principles. None told the journey of how his ideas were developed.

I decided that was the book I needed to write, a book that connected the unique moments in Deming’s life that culminated in his grand unifying theory of management that is the predictor of success or failure in every organization today: the System of Profound Knowledge.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I finally found the opportunity to sit down and write. Before the pandemic, I typically traveled about 200,000 miles a year. But with lockdown, I suddenly had an extra fifty hours a week of prime productivity time.

They say if you really want to know a subject, write a book about it. That’s certainly been true for me. I only thought I knew about Deming before. But pulling on the multiple threads of his life has given me profound respect for his thinking, accomplishments, and influence. He is like a cross between Albert Einstein and Forrest Gump: seemingly always in the right place at the right time but brilliant enough to take what he sees and experiences and use it to change the world around him. What’s more, the stories about the lives of those surrounding him were wonderfully entertaining and insightful. I wanted to write a book that captured the full picture of his life and his influence, a systems-thinking portrait instead of a book hyper-focused on a singular piece of the whole. After all, systems thinking is one of the four elements of profound knowledge (as you’ll learn about later).

One of my favorite authors is Michael Lewis. In Moneyball, for example, you think you’re reading a book about baseball statistics, but by the time you finish, you find that you’ve read a biography of Billy Beane. Similarly, while this book may look like a biography of Deming, it’s the story behind the story of his masterwork which he shared with the world when he was ninety years old. Imagine publishing your magnum opus at that age just before your death. That gives you a clue as to the kind of man you’re dealing with.

In Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, you not only read the chronicles of his hike through the Appalachian Trail but stories of history, scandals, federal agencies, and the tire warehouse that’s been burning for decades. Similarly, this book tells the untold stories of those in Deming’s life, from a survivor of Japanese oppression who was the catalyst for Deming’s coming to Japan to Doris Quinn heading quality education at MD Anderson Cancer Center and helping Deming with his theory of psychology. These untold stories provide additional insight into Deming’s discovery of Profound Knowledge.

While Deming’s influence is far and wide, it is most directly visible in four major nationwide efforts: the Aberdeen Proving Grounds (trying to out-manufacture the Axis powers during WWII), the Japanese Economic Miracle (their economic recovery after WWII), the American quality revolution of the 1980s, and, most recently, in the race to develop and distribute vaccines for COVID-19.

As we look to what’s next, you will find we need Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge to face one of the biggest threats to the world today: cyberterrorism. The last four chapters of this book deal with understanding the severity of the cyber crisis and how Deming can save us yet again.

I’ve enjoyed the journey of bringing this book to you, and I hope you enjoy this labor of love.

Preorder Deming’s Journey to Profound Knowledge: How Deming Helped Win a War, Altered the Face of Industry, and Holds the Key to Our Future by John Willis here. Digital early release on August 8, 2023. Paperback release on January 16, 2024.

- About The Authors
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John Willis

John Willis has worked in the IT management industry for more than 35 years. John is currently working as a Distinguished Researcher at Kosli. He is researching DevOps, DevSecOps, IT risk, modern governance, and audit compliance. Previously he was an Evangelist at Docker Inc., VP of Solutions for Socketplane (sold to Docker) and Enstratius (sold to Dell), and VP of Training & Services at Opscode where he formalized the training, evangelism, and professional services functions at the firm. Willis also founded Gulf Breeze Software, an award winning IBM business partner, which specializes in deploying Tivoli technology for the enterprise. Willis has authored six IBM Redbooks for IBM on enterprise systems management and was the founder and chief architect at Chain Bridge Systems.

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