Acceptance of Deming's theories has been pervasive; application has lagged behind.
Today all managers, know it or not, like it or not, are Demingites. W Edwards Deming, who died just before Christmas, aged 93, didn't invent 'quality'. But his sermons had a uniquely powerful effect because of his first pulpit and congregation: Japan and Japanese managers. Had his fellow Americans responded with the same intense application, post-war industrial history would have differed enormously.
Europeans, too, were equally ignorant of the transformation that Deming's theory and practice could achieve; and equally reluctant to apply his lessons once their significance was plainly and painfully clear. For all that, the great man's Fourteen Points have marched into the management consensus. So has the central notion that quality, as a measurable attribute of processes, products and services, is the key to achievement and to customer and employee satisfaction.
The acceptance of Demingite philosophy has been startlingly pervasive. Today, only Neanderthals deny the importance of strong and sustained corporate purpose, or the evidence that the Japanese have changed the name of management's game. The inefficiency of inspection, as opposed to statistical quality control (Deming's foundation discipline), is equally undeniable. In purchasing, too, co-operation and collaboration are pushing aside price-based confrontation: just as continuous improvement has become the only acceptable stance towards quality.
The pre-Deming industrial world seems as far away as life before the PC. Amazingly, that's only about a dozen years ago - but it's even fewer years since the factory-floor ethos shifted decisively to training and retraining, constructive leadership instead of order-giving, elimination of fear as a means of industrial control, removal of barriers between functions, and substitution of improved systems for slogans, exhortations, targets and quotas.
With those steps taken, as worldwide experience has shown, pride of workmanship can rise again. The whole process hinges on two further, familiar developments: the extension of training and retraining throughout, including top management, and working in teams. The latter is rapidly becoming the dominant organisational mode: the teams, just as Deming insisted, are more likely than not to cross the functional and departmental borders.
The last three paragraphs summarise the philosophical revolution wrought by the Fourteen Points. Practice, however, lags far behind the preaching - a hard fact that Deming, a notably acerbic teacher, was never slow to emphasise. The difficulty is familiar in management. You don't need great intelligence to see the disadvantages of departmental barriers. You do need great determination to break down their supports - custom, conservatism, pride, obstinacy and inertia.
Consequently, managers dodge the confrontation. Turf wars, conflicting goals and unco-ordinated actions therefore continue to waste time and money and blunt competitive prowess. Only recently Business Week quoted a senior General Motors executive on Chrysler's use of multi-functional 'platform teams' to speed and improve new model development: in his view, 'the school's still out' on this approach - which the Japanese have employed successfully, with devastating results for GM, for many years.
That stuck-in-the-mud reaction came from the man responsible for developing all GM's North American car platforms - a notably failed process which, however, 'we definitely are not going to radically change'. Of course, GM will do precisely that. Its competitive circumstances allow no other course. But reform will be tardy: even GM insiders think that the current corporate revamp is late - not by a few years, but by two whole, shameful decades.
Late was too late for many companies threatened by Japanese competitors yesterday: it's proving too late for many other businesses today, threatened not just from the East, but by westerners who have both heard the sermon and turned precept into action. That's the great contribution of Deming and fellow quality gurus, such as his contemporary, Joseph M Juran. While eminent thinkers, they created their ideas from practical experience and directed them towards practical, measurable ends. In the post-war half-century, management science has thus made real advances - with Deming in the van.
His work bridges the gap between science-based application and humanistic philosophy. Statistical quality control is as arid as it sounds. But results so spectacular as to be almost romantic flow from using these tools to improve processes in ways that minimise defects and eliminate the deadly trio of rejects, rework and recalls. As an example, Deming found one factory which had doubled production in a year, and was planning a further boost of 25%, 'with no increase in workers or hours - simply better control of quality'.
That factory was in Japan and made cameras, which constitutes a sermon in itself. The date, 1951, is equally significant. Deming was back in Japan that year for the first award ceremony for the now-famous Deming Prize, established only a year after Deming had told industrial leaders, 'Don't just make it and try to sell it. But redesign it and then again bring the process under control ... with ever-increasing quality ... The consumer is the most important part of the production line.' It was 1979 - a three-decade gap - before the first American client hired that prophetic teaching. Since then, the practical procedures which transformed that camera plant have been applied just as successfully the world over. But the philosophy is equally imperative. Deming's belief that 85% of defects are management's fault, and that variation between workers doesn't result from varying effort, is deeply liberal and liberating in its implications.
He provides empirical support for the belief that work is natural, and that releasing man's natural instincts and abilities, rather than coercion, creates the best outcome for everybody - worker, employer and customer. That optimistic credo, however, was held by a man with considerable grounds for pessimism. He was continually discouraged by the reluctance of western managers to practise as he preached. A fortnight before his death he addressed a final seminar from a wheelchair, breathing oxygen, in a last determined effort to inspire decisive change.
On one account, he would tell a colleague that 'I'm desperate. There's not enough time left.' For companies that haven't fully adopted the ideas and practices that Deming, as much as any man, made universal, those last five words will be their epitaph, not his.