Looking Back Provides Understanding for Moving Forward

October 2020 | By ALULA

In 1982, W. Edwards Deming published his 14 Points of Management and described what he called the System of Profound Knowledge. His ideas and writings continue to revolutionize manufacturing and organizational excellence by influencing innovators, thought leaders, and organizational teams throughout the world.

digital-tablet-and-eyeglasses-on-books-in-public-library-picture-id1135144614Dr. Deming wrote countless words of wisdom. Below is a non-ranked, random sampling of ideas he offered years ago—and they still inform the work we do today.

  • On Meaning and Purpose

“The emphasis should be on why we do a job.”

Manage the cause, not the result.

“It is important that an aim never be defined in terms of activity or methods. It must always relate directly to how life is better for everyone. . . . The aim of the system must be clear to everyone in the system. The aim must include plans for the future. The aim is a value judgment.”

Why his words still matter: People who find work meaningful tend to be more engaged, have longer tenure1, and give more Discretionary PerformanceSM.2 Helping people connect the contributions their daily work efforts provide to the organization’s mission, creates opportunities for leaders to continuously reinforce employee actions that lead to performance excellence.

  • On Transformation

Transformation is not automatic. It must be learned; it must be led.

The transformation will come from leadership.

Nothing happens without personal transformation.

Why his words still matter: Change is constant in business these days, but unfortunately, change does not always mean progress and growth. Successful transformations require leaders to engage and lead through the entire journey. Too often leaders delegate this responsibility and fade out after the initial phase. For an organization to continually evolve, leader-led transformation must include both an organizational and personal case for change, thoughtful alignment efforts, intentional execution, and systemic sustainability mechanisms.3

  • On Leadership

“It is not enough that top management commit themselves for life to quality and productivity. They must know what it is that they are committed to—that is, what they must do. These obligations cannot be delegated. Support is not enough; action is required.”

The most valuable ‘currency’ of any organization is the initiative and creativity of its members. Every leader has the solemn moral responsibility to develop these to the maximum in all his people. This is the leader’s highest priority.

“A leader is a coach, not a judge.”

Why his words still matter: Leaders leading at the right level, focusing on the few critical things, and creating an environment that brings out the best in others, are some of the most consequential factors for long-term organizational success. Effective Leadership unlocks Discretionary Performance as people willingly choose to give more than is required.

  • On Systems Thinking

Each system is perfectly designed to give you exactly what you are getting today.

“Put a good person in a bad system and the bad system wins, no contest.”

“Any time the majority of the people behave a particular way the majority of the time, the problem is not with the people.”

Why his words still matter: People don’t work in a vacuum. The context in which they work; the systems, processes, and actions of others—all impact the choices they make. The Direction, Competence, Opportunities, and Motivational factors (DCOM®) that define the organizational system will determine which performances excel and sustain. The alignment of these factors to the organization’s mission, values, KPIs, and customer needs will produce consistent operational excellence.

  • On Process Improvement

Eighty-five percent of the reasons for failure are deficiencies in the systems and process rather than the employee. The role of management is to change the process rather than badgering individuals to do better.

If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you're doing.

“We are being ruined by the best efforts of people who are doing the wrong thing.”

Why his words still matter: Performance excellence requires that people understand how they create value, keep sight of aspirational targets, and execute the right ideas, in the right order, at the right pace. Clear expectations, behavioral protocols, calibrated models of what good looks like, and leading indicators that allow people to proactively attend to progress and improvement—all of these are hallmarks of effective organizational systems.

  • On Listening to Understand

“We know what we told him, but we don’t know what he heard.”

“If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.”

“You should not ask questions without knowledge”

Why his words still matter: Demonstrating with words and actions that you understand the message a person is trying to convey is a powerful reinforcer for most people. Countless authors have written about people’s tendency to “wait to speak,” rather than listening to understand. However, this is a skill that continues to elude even those with good intentions. Listening to understand is a core behavior in building trust and relationships, and in promoting employee engagement. It is a skill that differentiates truly great communicators from those who wish to be great communicators.

A Note About W. Edwards Deming4

William Edwards Deming (1900–1993) was an American engineer, statistician, professor, author, lecturer, and management consultant. Educated initially as an electrical engineer (Ph.D., Yale University) and later specializing in mathematical physics, he helped develop the sampling techniques still used by the U.S. Department of the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Deming is best known for his work with the leaders of Japanese industry after WWII. Many in Japan credit him as one of the inspirations for the Japanese “post-war economic miracle” of 1950 to 1960, when Japan rose to become the second-largest world economy through processes partially influenced by Deming’s ideas.

Ford Motor Company was among the first American corporations to seek help from Deming. In 1981, they recruited Deming to jump-start a quality movement at Ford. To Ford's surprise, Deming talked not about quality, but about management, telling Ford that management actions were responsible for 85% of all problems in developing better cars. Ford Chairman Donald Petersen wrote, “We are moving toward building a quality culture at Ford, and the many changes that have been taking place here have their roots directly in Deming’s teachings.” By 1986, Ford had become the most profitable American auto company.

Deming’s methods and workshops regarding Total Quality Management have had broad influence. He founded the W. Edwards Deming Center for Quality, Productivity, and Competitiveness at Columbia Business School to promote operational excellence in business through the development of research, best practices, and strategic planning.


DCOM® is a registered servicemark, and Discretionary PerformanceSM is a servicemark, of CLG (dba ALULA).


[1] Michaelson, C. (2009). Teaching Meaningful Work: Philosophical Discussions on the Ethics of Career Choice. Journal of Business Ethics Education, 6, 43–67.

[2] Jacobs, S., et al. (2013). The behavior breakthrough: Leading your organization to a new competitive advantage. Chapter Two. Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group Press.

[3] Johnson, J., et al. (2008). SwitchPoints: Culture change on the fast track to business success. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

[4] Derived from Wikipedia.

Topics: Leadership, Operational Excellence


Written by ALULA