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W. Edwards Deming

W. Edwards Deming

A mission pursued on two continents

W. Edwards Deming, named an ASQ Honorary member in 1970 for his role as adviser, consultant, author, and teacher to some of the most influential businessmen, corporations, and scientific pioneers of quality control, is the most widely known proponent of statistical quality control. He has been described variously as a national folk hero in Japan, where he was influential in the spectacular rise of Japanese industry after World War II; as a curmudgeon; as the high prophet of quality control; as an imperious old man; and as founder of the third wave of the Industrial Revolution.

Deming was trained as a physicist, taking a doctorate at Yale University in 1928, following previous degrees from the University of Wyoming and the University of Colorado. His extensive list of published works (nearly 200 papers, articles, and books), include early publications on a variety of topics in the field of physics. Later publications reflect his growing interest in the application of statistics.

While working as a mathematical physicist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1938, Deming was responsible for courses in math and statistics at the Graduate School of the USDA, and he invited Walter Shewhart to lecture there.

Later in I938, Deming moved to the Bureau of the Census, where he was an adviser in sampling. In what is probably the first application of statistical quality control principles to a non-manufacturing problem, Deming brought Shewhart's principles into use on clerical operations for the 1940 census.

In 1942, while at the Bureau of the Census, Deming was retained as a consultant to the Secretary of War and was asked by W. Allen Wallis, a statistician at Stanford University, for ideas on ways to aid the war effort. Deming suggested a short course in Shewhart methods to teach the basics of applied statistics to engineers and others. The idea was adopted quickly and enthusiastically, and the first course was held in the summer of 1942. Among the instructors were Deming and Ralph Wareham, and the attendees included Holbrook Working and Eugene L. Grant of Stanford. The courses were repeated many times, often with Deming as instructor. The influence of the courses on the individuals who formed the core of the statistical quality control movement in the United States and who founded ASQ is well known.

Because of his work at the USDA and his expertise in statistics, Deming was sent to Japan in 1946 by the Economic and Scientific Section of the War Department to study agricultural production and related problems in the war-damaged nation. He returned to Japan in 1948 to conduct more studies for the occupation forces.

During these trips, Deming made contact with Japanese statisticians and developed a lasting admiration and fondness for the Japanese people. Deming convinced Kenichi Koyanagi, one of the founding members of the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers (JUSE), of the potential of statistical methods in the rebuilding of Japanese industry. Koyanagi, in turn, suggested the idea to JUSE, which invited Deming to teach courses in statistical methods to Japanese industry. Under the auspices of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, Deming arrived in Japan to teach in June 1950. He returned five times as teacher and consultant to Japanese industry.

Deming successfully influenced a new group of managers who had risen to the top in Japanese business after the war. They were hungry for new ideas to help them correct serious and persistent quality problems. Their interest was in contrast to behavior in the United States, where management was abandoning the precepts learned in the wartime quality control courses.

Deming gave his Japanese students not only statistical theory, but also confidence. "I told [Japanese industrialists] Japanese quality could be the best in the world, instead of the worst," he said. Still, many were skeptical. "I was the only man in Japan who believed that Japanese industry could do that." Deming made his prophetic statement that the Japanese could capture world market within five years if they followed his advice. "They beat my prediction. I had said it would need five years. It took four."

In recognition of Deming's efforts in Japan, JUSE created the Deming Prize in 1951. He was awarded the Second Order Medal of the Sacred Treasure by Emperor Hirohito in 1960.

During the period of his activities in Japan, Deming pursued a similar mission in the United States. However, it has taken the United States much longer to pay attention to his teachings. In 1946, he became a professor of statistics in the Graduate School of Business Administration at New York University, and he began the consulting practice that he maintained until his death in 1993.

The need for a working understanding of basic statistical principles is at the heart of Deming's teaching. "Statistical theory has changed practice in almost everything. Statistical techniques, in their ability to aid the discovery of causes, are creating a science of management and a science of administration," he said in accepting ASQ's Shewhart Medal for 1955. His message, directed primarily at management, is stated succinctly in his famous 14 points for management: Create constancy of purpose for improvement of product and service. Adopt the new philosophy. Cease dependence on mass inspection. End the practice of awarding business on price tag alone. Constantly and forever improve the system of production and service. Institute modern methods of training on the job. Institute modern methods of supervision. Drive out fear. Break down barriers between staff areas. Eliminate numerical goals for the work force. Eliminate work standards and numerical quotas. Remove barriers that hinder the hourly worker. Institute a vigorous program of education and training. Create a situation in top management that will push every day on the above points.

These points and many others distilled from a lifetime of consulting, teaching, and listening, were collected in his influential 1982 book Quality, Productivity and Competitive Position.

In the years before his death, Deming was in demand as a consultant and lecturer. Among the quality control masters, only Deming gained anything approaching cult status. His notoriety in the popular media dated to a 1980 NBC television documentary called "If Japan Can, Why Can't We?" in which he was featured prominently. The attention sometimes focused on his bluntness and brusque lecturing style, ignoring the substance of his message and leaving some misperceptions about the man, according to those who knew him well.

"Deming tends to be thought of as confrontational; in fact, he is a very kind and thoughtful person. He has always taken the time to help anyone who showed a desire to learn. It is no coincidence that so many people have come to think so highly of him. If he appears impatient, particularly with management, it could be that he sees a large task ahead of him and not much time left," quality consultant William Latzko said. "He's a very ethical man. He practices what he preaches," Edward Baker of the Ford Motor Co., a frequent Deming client, said.

In rare moments when he was not pursuing his mission, Deming polished his skills as an organist and music composer. His version of the national anthem, which addresses people's inability to hit all the notes, serves as a metaphor for one of his points for management: don't blame the singers (workers) if the song is written poorly (the system is the problem); instead, rewrite the music (fix the system). In life and in art, Deming simply wanted to make it easier for people to sing.

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