The Prophet Of Quality


By Andrea Gabor

Times Books -- 326pp -- $21.95


By Rafael Aguayo

Lyle Stuart -- 289pp -- $19.95


By Mary Walton

G. P. Putnam's Sons -- 249pp -- $21.95

You can't turn on the television or open a magazine these days without hearing or reading about quality. General Motors Corp. trumpets that its Cadillac division has won a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Federal Express Corp. crows that it has done the same. "Quality" has infiltrated the corporate mindset.

The man behind the movement is W. Edwards Deming, an American statistician who first gained fame for his role in the postwar transformation of Japan. So taken were the Japanese with his lectures on quality that in 1951 they created the Deming Prize, the inspiration for the Baldrige. By 1960, when he received a medal from Emperor Hirohito, the American had become an icon of Japanese quality management. It wasn't until the 1980s that Deming, now 90, received the acknowledgement he deserved in his home country.

For all his present acclaim, Deming did not create quality control. That distinction belongs to Walter Shewhart of Bell Laboratories, who pioneered the use of statistics to control manufacturing quality in the 1920s. Neither did Deming coin the phrase "Total Quality Control." That now-popular term originated at General Electric Co. in the 1950s. Still, the cranky old man has come to symbolize the current quality movement.

In the age of the quick fix, Deming has been a refreshing antidote. Sure, he promotes a set of succinct guidelines dubbed the "Fourteen Points" and a set of no-nos called the "Seven Deadly Diseases." But there's nothing simple or easy about his approach to managing.

While earlier quality-control concepts focused on limiting product defects, Deming looks for quality in all aspects of business: what goes on in the factory, how products are sold, how managers deal with workers. Limiting defects is not enough, he contends; the goal must be to eliminate them. And while American managers tend to blame quality problems on labor, Deming says, management must take the initiative to enhance quality and productivity. The only way to improve business systems, he believes, is to use statistical tools that chart the variations that cause problems, to pinpoint where difficulties lie.

A trio of reverential new books celebrates Deming's management principles. In Deming Management at Work, Mary Walton, a writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, focuses on how six organizations, including the U. S. Navy, have applied his methods. You get much of the same from both Rafael Aguayo's Dr. Deming: The American Who Taught the Japanese About Quality and Andrea Gabor's The Man Who Discovered Quality, even though their titles suggest biographical accounts. Aguayo, a former bank executive, essentially offers a schematic for putting Deming's teachings to work. What little biographical information he provides is shuffled into a dry three-page appendix.

Gabor, formerly a staff editor for this magazine and now a senior editor at U. S. News & World Report, provides far more insight into the man, which makes hers the most accessible and enjoyable of the three books. Born in Iowa, Deming grew up in a tarpaper shack in Wyoming. He earned a scholarship to Yale University, where he graduated in 1928 with a PhD in mathematical physics. He worked for the Agriculture Dept. and then the U. S. Census Bureau before the War Dept. sent him to Japan in the late 1940s to help rebuild that war-torn nation. Gabor vividly describes Deming's early visits, using his personal diary to bring to life his rise to prominence.

Deming, she tells us, is a precise man, given to dating the eggs in his refrigerator with a felt-tipped pen to make sure the older ones get eaten first. He also is something of a curmudgeon and holds American managers in contempt. Invited to lecture to a group at Ford Motor Co. in the early 1980s, Deming glowered at the auto executives with his steely blue eyes. "Why can't America compete?" he asked in a rage. "The answer is management!" At General Motors, Gabor reports, even as managers began to preach his gospel, some avoided being seen with him. In 1983, Deming had given then-GM President Jim McDonald a public dressing-down, blaming him for 85% of the company's problems.

Gabor incorporates these tidbits into a book full of readable case histories of companies that have treated Deming's teachings as gospel, including Nashua Corp., the first U. S. company to adopt his quality management, and Florida Power & Light Co., the first American company to win Japan's Deming Prize.

What becomes clear in all three books is that U. S. companies have a long way to go to even approach the obsession with quality that marks Japan. In the late 1950s, the Japan Broadcasting Corp. was broadcasting quality correspondence courses for foremen. Most Japanese bookstores feature sections devoted to quality, and statistical theory is part of the basic high-school curriculum.

How great is Deming's influence in Japan? On the walls in the main lobby of Toyota's headquarters in Tokyo, three portraits hang. There is one of the founder and one of the current chairman. But Deming's is the largest of all.