W. Edwards Deming

Through his innovative ideas about quality control, Deming helped rebuild the Japanese economy after World War II, and decades later his ideas contributed to the transformation of American business as well.

After earning his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the University of Wyoming in 1921, W. Edwards Deming studied mathematical physics, receiving a master’s degree from the University of Colorado in 1925 and a doctorate from Yale University in 1928. Influenced by Walter Shewhart’s ideas about “statistical process control,” Deming worked for the next decade for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and then, from 1939 to 1946, for the Census Bureau, where he helped develop its statistical sampling methodology. After the war, he began his half-century career as a consultant on statistics, and in 1950, Deming persuaded JapanJapanese businessmen that their path to economic recovery lay in putting emphasis on quality control. Deming’s methods seemed to enable Japanese firms to produce higher-quality products than had been feasible in the past, at lower cost. Within a year, Japan had established the Deming Prize in his honor.Deming, W. Edwards

Thirty years later, in June, 1980, as America began to wrestle with the challenge of superior Japanese industrial practices, a television documentary, If Japan Can . . . Why Can’t We?, made Deming’s ideas famous in his homeland. He enjoyed belated popular recognition in the United States and played a major role in the decade’s “quality revolution,” through extensive consulting and through his books, including Out of the Crisis (1982) and The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (1993). Talk about Deming’s “fourteen points for management” soon became commonplace. He remained an active proselytizer for his ideas about Quality control“continuous quality improvement” and systematic “profound knowledge” until his death in 1993. He received numerous awards for his theoretical and practical contributions to statistics and industry.

Although Deming is often credited with revolutionizing Japanese business practices after World War II, there has been some debate about the nature of Japan’s economic turnaround and the extent of Deming’s influence on it. A few critics have viewed the alleged superiority of Japanese quality-control processes, including those encouraged by Deming, as mythical, and “quality guru” Joseph M. Juran, who also served as a consultant in Japan during the early 1950’s, in retrospect insisted:

Japan created its own quality revolution. If Ed Deming and I hadn’t gone there, they’d still be right where they are now, because the chief contributors to the revolution have been the Japanese managers. I learned a lot more from Japanese managers than they learned from us.

Perhaps the actual dynamic is suggested by a story told by Deming: He told a group of Japanese managers that, if they followed his suggestions, they could achieve their objectives in five years. In fact, they succeeded in four.

Further Reading

  • Dobyns, Lloyd, and Clare Crawford-Mason. Thinking About Quality: Progress, Wisdom, and the Deming Philosophy. New York: Times Books/Random House, 1994.
  • Eberts, Ray, and Cindelyn Eberts. The Myths of Japanese Quality. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall PTR, 1995.
  • Wood, John C., and Michael C. Wood, eds. W. E. Deming: Critical Evaluations in Business and Management. London: Routledge, 2004.

Japanese trade with the United States

Management theory