As Japan set about rebuilding industry after World War II, and U.S. industry was caught up in the Human Relations movement, one man was captivating Japanese management thinking. W. Edwards Deming, a tall, soft-spoken mathematician, began to give the Japanese a formula for regaining a foothold in global industry, first nationally, then beyond. His message was simple: focus on the quality of the output. His Fourteen Points arranged human and operational principles into a system to produce quality. Focusing on quality had two exciting prospective conditions for the Japanese: satisfying the customer, and doing so at the lowest possible cost. The problem, Deming argued, was poor quality and the cost of poor quality. In fact, in Deming’s system – known in the U.S. as Total Quality Management – defects were the root of expensive goods and services. Left unchecked, these defects would ultimately lead to a business’s end.
Deming’s system only caught on in the U.S. in the late 1980s, after the Human Relations movement had run its course and proven that tipping too far on the human side also created poor performance. In Deming’s system, the human and operational systems were balanced, something that made great sense to Japanese managers whose culture held balance in high regard.
One of the companies that took Deming to heart was automotive manufacturer Toyota. Like many other companies in post-war Japan, Toyota was faced with steep odds, having to produce a relatively high mix of vehicle options to low volume quantities. Using their history of innovation and Deming’s “new” thoughts for managing with a quality focus, Toyota’s production system and its “way” evolved.
Arguably, we are still in the Deming movement. Lean, Six Sigma, Lean Sigma and all of the variants find their origins in the post-Total Quality Management movement. As variations on Deming’s theme, they are nothing more than the current expressions of Deming’s thinking: defects are bad news, and we need to stop them and not repeat them. The common thread is attention to defects, or in common language: problems.