I am a great admirer of Lean thinking in general and Deming‘s work as a foundational part of it. In an age where everyone is talking about how ideas spread in seconds, his ideas were so subtle and counterintuitive that they are still being discovered many decades later.
One reason great ideas take so long to spread is that they are often misunderstood and miscommunicated as more and more people try to adopt them. John Seddon has some damning criticism of the way that Deming’s ideas have been peverted by a number of Lean consultants. By copying lean manufacturing practices instead of lean thinking, they have managed to make lean synonymous with mindless standardization in some quarters. Seddon shows that you need a very different set of tools when applying Lean ideas to the service sector as compared with manufacturing.
Great ideas are also susceptible to the tendency to create a religion of sorts around them (and the people behind them). Great ideas are meant to be the building blocks of even greater ideas, not an endpoint. People often quote Deming as if his statements are facts simply because he uttered them. That is a disservice to both Deming and the reader. It also ignores the fact that the world that Deming was part of has changed.
The 94% quote
A prime example of the deification of Deming is what can be called the “94% is the system” quote. When people discuss how best to change an organization, Lean proponents will invariably cite Deming and argue that since he has shown that 94% of the potential for improvement is in the system there is little point in working with organizational culture. This is disingenuous for two reasons. First of all, Deming was not being precise when he said this. The actual quote is:
“I should estimate that in my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to proportions something like this: 94% belong to the system (responsibility of management), 6% special” (Out of the Crisis, p. 315)
The first thing that is apparent here is that Deming’s thinking is a lot better than his english… More to the point is that he is obviously not saying that 94% is an accurate measurement. If you think about it, there is no way Deming could have measured the relative importance of these things with this kind of precision.
The second (and most important) reason you should treat this quote with caution is that Deming was speaking of one particular context. Most of Deming’s work is in manufacturing. Even if 94% was the correct number in manufacturing, it is very unlikely that all other types of business follow the same rule. The relative importance of “the system” must vary depending on what your context is.
If lean is ever going to become more mainstream people must start treating it less as a religion with its own gods and more as a collection of insights that have to be carefully tailored to the context you are working in.