Tuesday, August 9, 2016

W Edwards Deming and the Importance of the Consumer

I'm not sure when I first learned about W. Edwards Deming. I believe it was back when Tom Peters made his mark with In Search of Excellence. His book, and the subsequent PBS series, took quite a few jabs at American "quality"... or lack thereof. I'll cite one example. One day the president of a company in Japan called the president of a U.S. company that made hydraulic systems. The Japanese exec called to complain about the hydraulic system (that they had just purchased and assembled) because fluid was leaking out in six different places. The president of the U.S. company noted that there were 600 joints, so they only had one leak per 100. That's pretty good, he said. "No," the Japanese exec said. "This is a hydraulic system. It only works when there are no leaks."

That story exemplifies why Asian imports crushed the U.S. auto market over the past several decades. Two different definitions of quality.

W. Edwards Deming is often cited as the reason Japan became such an economic powerhouse, the second most powerful in the world. Here's a statement to that effect from Wikipedia:

Many in Japan credit Deming as the inspiration for what has become known as the Japanese post-war economic miracle of 1950 to 1960, when Japan rose from the ashes of war to start Japan on the road to becoming the second largest economy in the world through processes founded on the ideas Deming taught.

Deming's approach to manufacturing established Japan's reputation for innovative, high-quality products, and for its economic power. As a result, Deming is regarded as having had more impact on Japanese manufacturing and business than any other individual not of Japanese heritage.

Now my memory may be faulty on this, but it's my understanding that the reason Deming went to Japan was because they were interested in his insights and approach to things. U.S. manufacturers were stuck in a different kind of paradigm. As the saying goes, a prophet is not recognized in his own country.

For Deming, one thing was pre-eminent. The consumer. Companies exist for one purpose, to serve the needs of the consumer. The entire operation must be devoted to improving its ability to satisfy the needs of the consumer. Or as this webpage puts it, the consumer is the most important point on the production line.

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If you step back and look at what is happening day by day, at its most basic level life is a series of phenomenon. Events are happening all around the world, to us or in our presence or out of our presence from across the bridge to Timbuktu. I find it interesting how people interpret these things in different ways. Before I ever heard of Mr. Deming or the Deming Effect, my narrative for Japan's economic growth had to do with the fact that at the end of WW2 we forbade Japan from making weapons or building a military. As a result, their best minds were devoted to making better toasters and, later, electronics.

The truth is probably more a blend of these narratives. No question, though, that in an era where quality seems to have become a byword, real quality stands out when we encounter it. Here's an example.

When I worked at Chromaline (now Ikonics) in the late 80s/early 90s the president of our company, Tom Erickson, also received a call from a company president in Japan. What had happened was this. The Japanese company had ordered some goods from us and when the package arrived it was so exceptionally well packaged that the shipping clerk who received it told his boss, and his boss told his superior who ended up showing this package to the president of the firm. The president went out of his way to reach out to our president and commend him. The care with which it was packaged gave them confidence that the product itself was made with care.

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Doing things well is half the battle. You also have to be doing the right things.

Here's a brief bio of the man, which can serve as an entrance point to a website devoted to his teaching,

And a powerful book for transformational management, by the father of the quality movement. Here's a chart that outlines this book's basic premise. It's all about the consumer.

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Last week I bought my second weed whacker in three years. The first one permanently broke after only two years. So I got a second one. It was manufactured by a company that used to have a good reputation. After fifteen minutes the thing was no longer trimming or cutting and I noticed the string was a half inch long and wasn't coming out. I read the instructions for how to fix the problem and finally called the company's toll free number, whereupon I was told it had a defective part but they would send it free, along with instructions how to replace it. I would receive the part in seven to ten days.

I could tell this was not an isolated incident. They were selling broken weed whackers. What a crock. Out of kindness I will not mention the name of this familiar American company here, but I will also be avoiding them in the future.

Meantime, yes, life goes on.

Photo of Dr. Deming courtesy Creative Commons.

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