Deeming Deming and Profound Knowledge

PDCA Cycle

W. Edwards Deming was, amongst many things, a statistician, electrical engineer and author who lived from 1900 to 1993. He is fascinating to read about – someone with varied interests who spent much of his working life applying his theories to Japanese manufacturing and who is most widely known for the plan-do-check-act cycle.
But besides his thoughts on quality control and continuous improvement, he has an underpinning philosophy that I wanted to explore today: The Deming System of Profound Knowledge.

It sounds ambitious doesn’t it? An integrated framework for deep thoughts and great results. Well it sounds (at least according to Wikipedia!) that this is exactly what Deming was aiming for. Here is the crux of what his system was about.

“A system cannot understand itself. The transformation requires a view from outside.” (This Deming quote and most of the information I include here today is sourced from Wikipedia’s entry on him.)

Brilliant. Obvious and yet so often overlooked. This is something that is well understood in the manufacturing industry. It has been clear for over a century now that to improve the speed, cost effectiveness, quality and consistency of producing a given product, the workers can’t just stand around, scratching their heads, saying “well I’m sewing as fast as I can, so there’s nothing else that can be done to improve the factory’s outputs”. No, that’s laughable. We now know that a factory is made competitive by looking at the integrated system of their operations and seeing where changes can be made to the processes, handovers and components themselves. To see this change you have to view the business from the outside, you have to piece together the puzzle, you have to understand the web, you have to look at the big picture, you have to look at it all from above… Do I need any more metaphors to make my point?

This isn’t a new thought to me. I struggle to get my head around details and minutiae without having the broader context. For me I have to have the wardrobe before I buy the clothes because without having anywhere to hang them they end up strewn all over the floor in piles, hard to sort through and needing a good iron. But I like having this validated by my new hero, Deming, in such a neat way!

So what is his System of Profound Knowledge? If I understand it him correctly, it is a framework of four lenses through which he advocates all managers in an organisation should view their area of responsibility – and more than that, they should have an understanding of the theory as well as the application of these four lenses. I have possibly extended these a bit further than intended to show how I think these lenses can apply much broader than manufacturing. Or maybe it’s about extending the definition of ‘manufacturing’ itself.

A manager (or business improver) must understand:

1. The system – knowing the processes of their business, including suppliers, producers and customers.

2. The possible variation – knowing the range and reasons for varying quality and testing methods of that being produced. I see that could also be interpreted as risks and useful performance metrics.

3. The facts – knowing what subject matter or decision making criteria actually is evidence-based and what subject matter can or should be evidence-based.

4. The psychology – knowing about human nature and behaviour and how that may impact or be influenced by / influence business activities.

I like this. I mean, there are an unlimited number of lenses one can look through in viewing the world and these are just four of them. But without overanalysing them I think these are four good ones to at least be aware of as a manager – and the focus of this blog is on providing a framework for organising and understanding the first three of these. We’ll leave the psychology factor to the psychologists and change reform experts!

The other reason that I like the idea of these lenses is that they – and the overall concept of having an actual framework for understanding a business area – revalidate the point of this blog – that of the importance of having a model / system / framework / lens / whatever you want to call it for recording and understanding how an organisation or organisational unit works.

So as if it wasn’t pretentious enough to call my model the ‘Superior business analysis’ organisational model, I’m thinking about giving it a new sub-title… Sophie’s System of Profound Knowledge. I like the sound of that 🙂

What do you think?

What other lenses may be important in managing / improving a business? And can you share any examples from your own work where it has been important to step back and look at the big picture?

What do you think?