Dr. W. Edwards Deming was known for many things. The leading voice for quality, here and abroad, he single-handedly revitalized Japanese manufacturing after the devastating consequences they experienced following World War II. In fact, the Deming Prize is still a coveted award among Japanese firms today. Although he passed away 26 years ago, Deming’s contributions to American business remain–his statistical techniques are still used by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and his emphasis on teamwork has become a hallmark of successful companies. So, too, have his emphases on streamlining processes and his assertion that all work is process and all processes can be improved.
A PERSONAL NOTE
I had the extreme good fortune to have met Dr. Deming and to have had dinner with him. A correspondence developed and in my office, I have framed a letter he wrote, agreeing to co-author a book. Unfortunately, he passed away before that project got off the ground, but so much of what he represented remains with me still.
THE PEOPLE CLOSEST TO THE PROCESS
Among the things I will not forget are his words. He asserted, for example, that the people who are closest to the process know the process best. His words rang especially true when I worked with my mother to submit her invention to the Kirsch Company of Sturgis, Michigan. My mother dropped out of school in the eighth grade, to help support her family in the midst of the Great Depression. She had an immigrant mother, five siblings, and a family whose father had died at age 42.
My mother began sewing–for her family, for neighbors, and in time, for customers. When she turned 16, she also worked full-time at the local button factory. Despite a lack of formal education, she had remarkable creative skills. Many years later, she came up with an idea for a drapery road that eliminated the need for pleats. We submitted her invention to the leading manufacturer of drapery rods.
TONY SOPRANO AND UNCOUNTABLE OTHER FAMILIES
The acceptance process was challenging–we had no knowledge of how patents worked. Fortunately, Kirsch was exemplary in terms of helping us through that process. At one point, James Ford, an executive with the company, shared with my mother how pleased the company was with her submission. He also expressed some surprise. “You know,” he told my mother in a telephone conversation, “I have a whole department of engineers. They are highly schooled, committed, and hardworking. But none of them has ever come up with an idea like this.”
My mother, known for her quick-wittedness, responded, “I’ll bet none of them has ever had to sit at a sewing machine for sixteen hours in a row.”
The drapery rod had enormous success. It even appeared in Tony Soprano’s television home. All of this, from a simple woman, mother of five children, and a junior high school dropout.
THE GREATEST LOSSES
In my business writing, I often advise managers to turn to the people who do the work if they are looking for ways to optimize work processes, looking for ways to innovate. If they don’t seek such input, they will experience loss. And to quote Deming once again, “The greatest losses are unknown and unknowable.”
On a related note, when I conducted corporate training, I would sometimes ask students when was the last time their boss asked for their advice. The sad answer was often, “I’ve never been asked.”
Managers, ideally, are willing to take deep dives into the resources available to them. There is a beneficial, productive deep state or layer of possibilities that surround every problem waiting to be solved. When business leaders access this level, especially as they form teams, they illustrate why Yale’s David Sternberg recommends having three kinds of people on successful teams: at least one who is creative, at least one who is logical, and at least one who actually does the work involved with the process or product to be improved.
ZUCKERBERG ON INNOVATION
In speaking of innovation, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg acknowledges there are many ways to produce it. But he admits that at Facebook, they have avoided the plant-many-seeds-and-see-what-grows approach. Instead, he describes their unique process: “We go mission-first, then focus on the pieces we need and go deep on them and be [sic] committed to them.” Depth, to be sure, is an integral aspect of the innovation process.
Named the Continental Rod,