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Dr Deming – A Relevant Philosophy for Today?

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About This Podcast Episode

In this special episode of Uncommon Sense, we’re joined by former PMI Deputy Chairman Jan Gillett as we commemorate 30 years since the passing of the father of quality management, Dr. W. Edwards Deming.

Jan vividly recalls Dr. Deming’s profound impact on him from their very first meeting at a conference in 1987.  He shares how this encounter was a turning point, challenging his conventional thinking and inspiring him to make a difference in his own company.

Join us as we dive into Deming’s lasting legacy in the business world and how his philosophies continue to inspire and guide us today.

Inspired by this episode and keen to learn more about Dr Deming’s influence on PMI?  You can read more here as Jan takes time out from retirement to write about his experience with Dr Deming over the decades.

Watch the Vodcast

Join Susannah and Jan in the studio as they discuss whether Dr Demings philosophy is still relevant today.  You’ll hear about:

  • Jan’s connection to Dr Deming
  • His first experience of meeting Dr Deming and the impact it had on his thinking
  • Discussion of Dr Deming’s philosophies and their relevance in today’s world
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A Relevant Philosophy for Today?

In support of this special edition of our Uncommon Sense Podcast, Jan Gillett, a founder of PMI in the United Kingdom, takes time out of retirement to reflect on Dr Deming’s influence on how we work today.

Jan begins:  In 1987, I was the 41-year-old Managing Director of a company supplying Ford and was instructed to consider adopting the “Deming Approach” to Total Quality Management.  Apparently, 200 or so suppliers had received this instruction.  Later, I discovered that only a few MDs had taken up the challenge; most sent their Quality Managers.

What followed was life-changing.

Dr. Deming’s Philosophy and Influence

This Dr Deming had a philosophy that addressed so many of the frustrations I had endured working in big companies, and it enabled me to take a new approach to leadership and management, achieve some amazing improvements, and then build a consulting and training business (PMI) to work with clients and help them achieve striking results too.

Dr Deming had a lot going against him; he was 87 (yes, really), tended to go off on tangents, and could be direct in his response to what he considered trivial questions.

But… his portrait was displayed in the lobby of Toyota’s HQ, and as I struggled through his writings, I found him dealing with issues of improvement in ways that I, and many others, had recognised but not dared to articulate. I became involved with the British Deming Association, to which Dr Deming donated his services, and being one of a tiny number of MDs prepared to learn, I had the privilege of meeting him both here and in the US.

Dr. Deming’s Background and Expertise

As it turned out, his age and experience were precisely what made him such a valuable contributor. “Been there, done that, got the suit,” as nobody ever said but might have thought! He had studied with statistician Dr Shewhart who invented the “control chart” in the late 1920s. These charts remain the only way to make logical sense of the variation that plagues all processes (yes, every last one of them).

Deming studied with experts in many fields of philosophy, engineering, and psychology, adapting and synthesising. He had worked in the US census and Department of Agriculture in the 1930s, and in military equipment manufacturing during the 1940s. Across the US, his approach was lauded but largely abandoned after the war when profits flowed without effort.

In 1950 he was invited to advise Japanese top management from across numerous industries. Many of them heeded and credited his message for their remarkable rise in the 50s and 60s. Cars, ships, cameras, engineering, holiday resorts, telecoms… an endless list. He was, and is, honoured across Japanese industry and academia.

From 1990 (still working; he delivered his last seminar only weeks before his death in 1993), he summarised his message into four interacting topics: a system, as he emphasised. I was present at several of his remarkable 4-day seminars when he presented it, but it was a hard sell. People then, as now, wanted tools, examples, and actions, not principles. He called it a System of Profound Knowledge, consisting of systems thinking, theories of variation, theories of knowledge, and psychology. Profound indeed, but there was no help for seminar attendees in what they should actually do with it.

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SoPK as a Foundation for Success

I had joined Minneapolis-based Process Management International (PMI) in 1990 to lead their growth into Europe and was faced with several dilemmas; we had only a couple of customers, and no one would be impressed by this US guru. PMI’s teaching methodologies were terrific, but whilst the written materials were excellent, they were in US grammar and spelling, and paper format. I had seen first-hand how these details irritated British audiences.

Another issue was that Minneapolis-based PMI’s work approach had been developed in the mid-80s and hence had only a passing reference to the System of Profound Knowledge. I felt that we should base our offerings on it, referencing Deming as its author, and that would enable us to appeal beyond his lifetime and to any country. We set out to redevelop the training packages. After much experimentation with an early graphics package (does anyone now recall Aldus Freehand?) I came up with this “molecular” model. It reminds us that in considering any part of the system, it is essential that you think also of how it influences and is influenced by, the other three.

Half a lifetime later and the model has done all that we hoped for and more. All the parts are necessary, and it is complete. In 30 years, we have not found any aspect of leadership, management, improvement, and transformation that is not covered by it. If you are having troubles with any project or process, at work or in the other parts of your life, it provides a terrific first enquiry step. However well one or two aspects are set up, little thought may have been given to others. Or maybe several parts look OK, but they are not being integrated to optimise the whole. The power of PMI’s “outside view” can be vital in helping people diagnose their organisation using this lens.

Since 1990, PMI in the UK has established a strong client base that has taken us to various parts of the world, including returning to the US, where there was a decreasing popularity of Deming’s teachings after his passing. We have operated in probably all industries and sectors. Our approach is founded on honesty and clarity, using tools that reveal the truth, whether it is pleasant or not.

Is this a relevant philosophy for today?

In 30 years since Dr Deming’s death, the world has of course changed enormously. But think of the changes between 1930 and 1990 – they were huge too. We have not found it necessary to change the principles he outlined, but he had almost nothing to say about improvement programmes or transformation projects. Together with my business partner Jane Seddon and our colleagues, we spent many years inventing and developing ways of collaborating with clients to help them achieve their goals, which were once beyond their wildest dreams.

The last few years have seen unimaginable changes to the ways people work. But PMI’s current generation of leadership has created effective technology-based systems of providing services to clients whilst remaining grounded in the original principles.

I have no doubt at all that the System of Profound Knowledge will remain instrumental. Because it was developed in response to the demands of real work, not laboratories, and by paying attention to people, and people retain essentially the same wonderful variety as in all the centuries past.

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