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January 9, 2024

W. Edwards Deming: An Excerpt from the New Biography

By John Willis ,Derek Lewis

The following post has been excerpted from 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, with Derek Lewis.

What Ed Said

The black-and-white clip playing across the tiny screen shows the aftermath of a bitter conflict. A literal war zone. A city of millions reduced to rubble and ashes. Half its population lost. The caption reads: “TOKYO, 1945.”

In the summer of 1980, when that clip aired on TV, Kevin Cahill was a twenty-year-old boy living with his grandparents in Washington, DC. He’d come back to DC to work before he began his sophomore year at UCLA.

Kevin had been perplexed by a phone call from his mother weeks earlier. She could barely contain her excitement as she proudly told him that his grandfather was to appear in a prime-time NBC News special. Kevin’s grandfather had always shunned the spotlight, so she extracted a promise from Kevin that he would make his grandfather watch it.

But why? Why would millions of people be interested in my quiet, gentle, hard-working grandfather? he wondered. When he asked his grandfather directly, all Kevin got were polite deflections and a quick change of subject. The man was generally quiet and reserved but not downright secretive.

The special episode’s name didn’t help explain his grandfather’s involvement: “If Japan Can  .  .  .  Why Can’t We?” On the other hand, anyone who heard the episode’s name knew exactly what it was about: the Japanese takeover of American industry.

The Tarnish of the Golden Age

Whereas the rest of the industrialized nations of the world lay in ruins after World War II, the US was left virtually untouched. As the only game in town, US industry reigned supreme. Factories couldn’t churn out cars, radios, and other manufactured goods fast enough. Quality wasn’t a concern. The only real challenge was keeping up with global demand.

America entered what is commonly referred to as the “Golden Age of Capitalism.” From 1948 to about 1970, the nation ruled supreme. Its economy, manufacturing sectors, military, and ability to shape history and world politics were second to none. It was a heady time to call yourself an American.

The seventies knocked the US off its pedestal. The USSR dominated the 1972 Munich Olympics, whereas the US went home nearly empty-handed. Despite Nixon proclaiming Vietnam a success, the prolonged war and withdrawal demoralized the military and America itself. A few months later, the 1973 oil crisis, engineered by a handful of developing countries, brought the most powerful nation on earth to a halt. And finally, the Iranian hostage crisis embarrassed the US on a global stage. Nationalistic feelings of pride, superiority, and modern manifest destiny had given way to uncertainty, anger, and fear.

And Japan  .  .  .  

Outside observers called it the Japanese economic miracle, and for good reason. Upon its surrender to the Allied Forces in 1945, Japan was a ghost of its former self, its people on the brink of starvation. A significant portion of its industrial capacity had been wiped out. Not only had the entire country been bombed to nearly nothing, but it didn’t have the means to rebuild. What meager production it could muster was of such low quality that “Made in Japan” became a joke the world over.

After the war, the US stayed in Japan to oversee the dismantling of the Japanese military. From 1945 to 1952 the US’s mission in Japan was simply to help it survive. It wasn’t until US policy shifted in 1947 (known as the Reverse Course) that Japan began to rebuild itself. The US brought in several experts to advise the new Japanese government and what little remained of its industry.

By 1968, just twenty-three years after the country had been decimated, no one laughed when the island nation surpassed West Germany to become the largest economy in the world after the US, a position it would hold for over forty years.

By the seventies, the phrase “Made in Japan” conjured images of advanced technologies, the best electronics, the most reliable appliances, and the highest-quality cars. The oil crisis spurred many Americans to buy foreign cars over domestic. With better gas mileage, greater dependability, and superior engineering and craftsmanship, a Toyota topped a Ford, GM, or Chrysler in every way. The land of Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller was no longer the manufacturing capital of the world.

Americans could tolerate losing the battle for electronics and just about everything else, but Americans have a special relationship with cars. You can almost hear the average Joe muttering, “Well, at least we still have our cars.” Losing dominance in the manufacturing of cars, it seems, was the final straw (or the wake-up call, depending on how you looked at it). That’s when the everyday, red-blooded American realized the country was in trouble.

How had this happened? How had “Made in Japan” gone from joke to juggernaut? How had the once vanquished country come to usurp its conqueror? It was astonishing. It was impossible. It was nothing short of a miracle. From business leaders to politicians to factory floor hands, everyone shared the same bewilderment. They began to ask the question: If Japan can do it, why can’t the US?

And for Kevin, the question was, What did my grandfather have to do with any of this?

The Miracle Maker

On the day “If Japan Can  .  .  .  Why Can’t We?” was to air, Kevin dutifully went to the cramped basement of his grandparents’ little brownstone. There sat his grandfather, almost eighty years old, at his desk working with the vigor and determination of someone a fraction of his age.

Being the voracious reader and lifelong learner he was, it’s possible Kevin’s grandfather had that day’s edition of The Washington Post with the op-ed that read:

“Have you looked at the economic news lately and wondered who really did win World War II?”

Somebody at NBC News evidently did, and came up with “If Japan Can  .  .  . Why Can’t We?”—an “NBC White Paper” on Japan’s burgeoning productivity and our lagging one—to be aired tonight at 9:30 on Channel 4.

It is a thoughtful, often depressing and sometimes fascinating examination of what makes and maintains a work ethic, and why we may end up freezing to death in the dark but the Japanese won’t.

Kevin and his grandfather climbed the narrow, rickety staircase to join his grandmother and great-aunt around the tiny TV. The program began with the aforementioned black-and-white clip of the ruins of Tokyo in 1945, followed by another black-and-white clip from the formal surrender of Japan. Next, the screen showed an industrial smelter pouring liquid metal with the caption “TOKYO, 1980.” Then the images on the screen flipped in rapid succession, showing scenes of busy factories and electronics labs, automated robots and cars rolling off assembly lines—the very images that might spring to mind whenever anyone mentioned Japan in the 1980s. Then the overlay of the episode’s title: “IF JAPAN CAN  .  .  . Why Can’t We?

Suddenly, Kevin’s grandfather, Dr. William Edwards Deming, appeared on the screen. In his quiet, measured tone, he asked, “What can we do to work smarter—not harder?”

While the other people watching nearly burst with pride, Kevin’s grandfather seemed embarrassed. He made as if to go back to his basement office to keep working, but his family cajoled him into watching the rest.

Nearly halfway through the program, there had been no further mention of Deming. It was “an uncomfortable thirty minutes,” as Kevin would later note.

Then came a Japanese manager giving a speech  .  .  .  

Productivity gains were taught to us by Americans. We are very fortunate to have America as a good teacher and we always try to be a very good student, and that’s what made it possible for us to be somewhat competitive in an international market with US industries.

At the words “somewhat competitive,” the audience began to laugh. The speaker—Joji Arai, manager of the Japan Productivity Center—was being modest and humble. At this time, Japanese manufacturers outclassed their US counterparts to the point it was laughable. Literally.

The next cutaway changed everything.

One second, laughter at Mr. Arai’s understatement of the century. The next, a slow, solitary voice that everyone around the TV knew well: “The first time that I went there to teach industry, I taught four hundred-and-fifty engineers in several cities. Tokyo, Nagoya, and Fukuoka  .  .  . ”

As the screen showed clips of the family’s beloved, gentle giant smiling and shaking hands with Japanese executives, the voiceover of narrator-reporter Lloyd Dobyns explained:

W. Edwards Deming first went to Japan in 1950 to teach industrial productivity through statistical analysis. He was so successful that Japan’s annual award for productivity is called “the Deming Prize.” It is one of the most coveted awards in Japan and the medal that goes with the award is a profile of Dr. Deming—an American.

  ”.  .  .  We have said several times that much of what the Japanese are doing is what we taught them to do. And the man who did most of the teaching is W. Edwards Deming.

Some say this NBC special was the beginning of the quality revolution in America. At the very least, it brought the topic from the fringes to the mainstream. In just seventy-five minutes, it upended how the US and the world saw business and industry, sparking a wholesale adoption of Japanese methods and management. It dispelled many of the myths and misunderstandings surrounding the Japanese economic miracle and revealed one of its miracle makers.

No sooner had the documentary concluded than the telephone began to ring.

For Kevin’s grandfather, life was never quite the same after that.

History Repeats Itself

For the next thirteen years, Ed (as he was called by those close to him) traveled from coast to coast, delivering lectures on productivity and management. Ford, GM, Xerox, Procter & Gamble, AT&T, The New York Times—it seemed everyone wanted a seat at the feet of “the master.”

But history has a funny way of repeating itself. The lectures he gave were almost the same ones he’d delivered thirty years prior in Japan in the 1950s  .  .  .  and in the US back in the 1940s.

Yes, Ed had been down this road forty years ago, right after the US joined the fight against the Axis Powers in World War II. At that time, the country had to ramp up its industrial production of everything. From battleships and bombers to boots and bandages, the Allied Powers needed as much as possible as fast as possible, and there could be no compromise on quality. A defective washing machine meant drying the clothes on the line; a jammed gun might mean death.

The Allies didn’t win because of D-day or the atomic bomb. The Axis powers didn’t lose because of a misstep or overreaching. Victory came because the US outproduced the rest of the world. They achieved this despite the absence of millions of skilled American workers and experienced managers, who were on the front lines. It’s no stretch to say that the Allies won because of the quality produced by Rosie the Riveter. Rosie out-manufactured her male predecessors. And she did this using something called statistical process control (SPC).

Starting at Stanford University during the war, Deming trained over two thousand people in statistical process control methods. They, in turn, taught thirty thousand additional trainers. These thousands upon thousands of statistical process control evangelists went forth and spread the gospel, as it were, to Rosie’s supervisors and Rosie herself. The Allies won because of Rosie, and Rosie’s stunning success had Deming’s fingerprints all over it.

Then GI Joe came home and once again donned his business suit or factory coveralls. He took one look at how the war was won and said, “Forget all that—we’re going back to the way we’ve always done it.”

It took over thirty years to realize the mistake in throwing out Deming’s teachings.

In the NBC special, Lloyd Dobyns said of Deming, “In his own country he is not widely recognized.” After the war, Deming had been shunned by his own countrymen. He looked elsewhere for eager students  .  .  .  and there was no one more eager than the Japanese.

The Story of Profound Knowledge

So what exactly had Deming done in Japan? How did he bring about the economic miracle that had the US on its knees? He shared a collection of fundamental truths that show how any system or process can be transformed into something greater, what he would later call the System of Profound Knowledge.

Ed began his journey as a mathematical physicist right at the time Einstein’s and others’ theories about the nature of the universe were coming into vogue. This gave Ed an appreciation for the complexity of reality and was a clue that eventually put him onto one piece of Profound Knowledge, an appreciation for systems.

In his thirties, Ed found a mentor, Dr. Walter Shewhart, who introduced him to pragmatism and a theory of knowledge. Essentially, this school of thought approached the world via the scientific method, constantly testing ideas and reevaluating hypotheses.

Shewhart also grounded Deming in a theory of variation. In his work with physics, Deming already knew that the very nature of reality is random. From Shewhart, Ed solidified his thinking around variation, seeing randomness as inherent to any system or process, from stuffing envelopes to predicting radioactive isotope decay. Variability is a fact of life.

After World War II ended, Ed traveled to Japan to help with nationwide rebuilding efforts. By this time, he was well grounded in three pieces of Profound Knowledge: knowledge, variation, and systems thinking. But it was in Japan that he gained an appreciation for the final cornerstone of Profound Knowledge: a theory of psychology. In the Japanese, Ed found a culture of inherent respect between manager and employee. In truth, Japan influenced Ed as much as Ed influenced Japan.

For instance, Toyota’s world-class approach to business—called the Toyota Way—is a beautiful fusion of Eastern and Western ideas, bringing together and bringing out the best in both. By this time, Japan was an economic juggernaut, and American businesses were eager to learn from their Eastern counterparts. In his eighties, Ed was finally getting his due.

Just after he passed away in 1993, Deming’s book The New Economics was published. In it, he presented his masterwork, the culmination of his life’s experiences. He brought together all four pieces of Profound Knowledge and named it the System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK).

Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge encompasses four elements and includes fourteen points of management and seven deadly diseases of management.

These four elements of Profound Knowledge are:

  • A Theory of Knowledge: How do we know what we believe we know?
  • A Theory of Variation: How do we analyze and understand what we know?
  • A Theory of Psychology: How do we account for human behavior?
  • An Appreciation of Systems/Systems Thinking: Are we seeing the bigger picture?

Armed with this lens—these four ways of seeing the world—any person or entity can achieve transformational change in any system or process. In other words, this lens is a proven way to make the world a better place.

And as Deming said, these four elements are not something he made up. Rather, they are fundamental truths that he discovered along his life’s path, just like the Theory of Gravity or the Theory of Relativity.

From the balance of power in the US Capitol to NASCAR racing and globalization, the ripples of his work seem almost endless. While his story is fascinating by itself, this book isn’t strictly about his life. Rather, it’s the story of the gift he gave the world: a way of thinking that can be applied to any facet of life or work.

When Ed worked with Ford Motor Company, he didn’t try to fix specific problems, although he often did in the course of his true aim: to embed the System of Profound Knowledge in the minds of everyone who worked there. Ed’s mission was to work himself out of a job. He wanted to equip the people inside the company with the tools they needed to profoundly change the way Ford worked.

When he stood before the collective remaining industrial base of Japan in 1950, he didn’t try to fix individual companies’ problems. He taught them principles and gave them a different way of thinking about the work they did each day. He didn’t want them to change their practices so much as he wanted to change their mindsets.

It was the same with American manufacturers during World War II. It wasn’t enough that everyone pulled together to create as many war supplies as ­possible. The workforce and entire business had significantly changed, requiring a massive shift in how they operated day to day. The same thing happened forty years later: the American economy had profoundly changed, requiring a change in how organizations operated.

Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge is about learning how to bring about profound change on your own. That’s why, even three decades after his death, we’re still using his teachings as we head into the unknowns of the future.

I’m a software developer: I can tell you horror stories about cyberterrorists in the Digital Wild West. We’ve never before faced what we are facing today, and we need help figuring out how to deal with it. I and millions of others use Ed’s methods to arrive at profound insights we otherwise would have never found on our own.

This book chronicles not only the arc of Ed’s life but that of his thinking as well. The roots of the System of Profound Knowledge began even before he was born and reached a beautiful culmination right at the time he went to college.

Had he been born a few years earlier, I’m not sure he would have been as exposed to a new kind of thinking (quantum physics) as he was.

Had he not been raised in a hardscrabble life and interned at the cutting-edge social experiment that was Hawthorne Works, I don’t know that his system would have been as humane and human centered as it came to be.

Had he not taken a job as a mathematical physicist, he might not have had the opportunity to learn from the world’s foremost expert on variation and how it shows up in absolutely every facet of existence.

Had he not been an expert in statistical surveys, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to travel to Japan, and especially not at the crucial moment of a devastated and demoralized country trying to rebuild its economy, looking for hope and inspiration.

This book is truly about how the lens of Profound Knowledge was found.

It just so happens that its discoverer was a man called Ed.

- About The Authors
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John Willis

John Willis has worked in the IT management industry for more than 35 years and is a prolific author, including "Deming's Journey to Profound Knowledge" and "The DevOps Handbook." 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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Derek Lewis

Derek Lewis has helped authors create business books since 2009. His clients have published with McGraw-Hill, Harper Collins, Elsevier, Entrepreneur Press, and BenBella Books, among others. He released The Business Book Bible in 2014, still the publishing industry's only book on how to write business books. He holds a master's in economic development and lives in his native Louisiana with his wife and children.

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