W. Edwards Deming: Productivity’s Forgotten Godfather


Ask the average person who they look to for advice on productivity. You’ll likely hear a response centered on Tim Ferriss’ ideas pertaining to extreme outsourcing or the fact that people Steve Jobs and Barack Obama eliminate choice from their wardrobes.  Maybe they’ll even throw a nod to Peter Drucker, the legendary management guru.

Chances are you won’t hear any mention of W. Edwards Deming, a 20th-century management consultant who is considered productivity’s forgotten grandfather. Turns out the guy was so influential in so many different disciplines that there’s even a think tank founded in his memory.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Deming examined corporate America and observed a number of factors he believed were preventing companies from reaching their full potential. To this end, he published a series of 14 points for management in his book, Out of the Crisis, which came out in 1986.

Deming believed that managers were looking at their workers’ performance through the wrong lens. Instead of focusing on what employees themselves were doing wrong, Deming believed that managers should direct their energies on improving the systems within which they worked. Though the 14 points are 30 years old, they remain surprisingly relevant today:

  1. Focus continuously on improving products and services so as to consistently remain competitive
  2. Technology changes constantly; adapt to modern ways or die
  3. Build quality into the product from the get go to eliminate the need for inspection
  4. Place a higher value on loyalty and trust than simply the price tag
  5. Always work to improve quality and productivity
  6. Train employees on a regular basis
  7. Nurture leaders who in turn can improve their teams’ output
  8. Eliminate fear
  9. Embrace a collaborative culture
  10. Eliminate quotas and exhortation; focus on improving employee morale, and productivity will follow
  11. Let employees be proud of their work; give credit where credit is due
  12. Let managers be proud of their work, too
  13. Invest in self-improvement programs
  14. Transforming an organization requires buy-in from all employees

So how can Deming’s words make today’s organizations stronger?

Invest in modern technology

Ever worked at a job where you had to use 10-year-old technology? It’s uninspiring, to say the least.

In addition to helping employees do better jobs, technology also helps companies retain their competitive advantage. For example, imagine a company that’s yet to deploy any sort of business messaging service or collaboration platform. Instead of employees being able to ask each other quick questions via a digital platform, they have to get up from their desks throughout the day, walk over to their colleagues’ desks, and ask the person in the flesh. While minor disruptions here and there won’t crush productivity right away, add it up over the course of the year and multiply it across an entire organization, and you begin to see just how devastating the lack of access to technology can be—at least from a productivity perspective.

When your organization decides not to invest in new technology, you have to operate under the assumption that at least some of your competitors made the opposite decision. As a result, you’ll have to play catch up.

This is not to say that you need to buy the newest technologies the moment they come out. Rather, you should never allow your company to be stuck with the same aging technology for the foreseeable future.

Deming stressed the importance of collaboration

There’s a reason we all know the phrase “two heads are better than one.” In many instances, it’s true.

Long before collaboration became a staple of the modern organization, Deming argued that businesses should do everything within their power to tear down any walls and divisions that may exist between different departments. In doing so, a more collaborative culture would be enabled.

Taking your business to the next level requires having all of your employees in all of your departments on the same page. With everyone working toward the same goal, there isn’t as much internal friction. As a result, there’s more energy pushing in the same direction—which makes success that much easier to achieve.

Support your workers

Everyone’s had a job where their boss didn’t really give them the support they needed to reach their full potential. You know, the boss who is constantly looking over your shoulder and scaring you into thinking you’re on thin ice.

Doesn’t sound like the best managerial philosophy now, does it? Deming understood that better workforces were built on the backs of happy employees, as happiness is linked to productivity. Bosses who inspire fear in their employees will have a difficult—if not altogether impossible—time getting their teams to produce to the best of their abilities.

That being the case, managers should always try to make the systems in which employees work as accommodating as possible. The easier it is for workers to do their jobs well, the more productive and effective they will become.

Deming was a 20th-century scholar who had a 21st-century mind. His insights into productivity ring just as true today as they did when he first put the pen to paper. In today’s day and age, it seems sacrilegious to speak about productivity without paying respect to Deming. It’s high time we revisit his teachings.

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