Remembering Deming, The Godfather Of Quality

The old man shuffled to the front of the classroom at New York University. W. Edwards Deming, the guru of the total quality movement, was a frail figure in three-piece pinstripes, with bifocals, hearing aids in both ears, and thin white hair.

"Why are we here?" he scribbled on the blackboard.

A few MBA students attempted answers; none were adequate. Finally, he shrugged and turned back to the board.

"To have fun, and maybe learn a little," he wrote.

NEVER SATISFIED. Deming's death on Dec. 20, at 93, reminded me of that scene three years ago. Eager to meet the man who helped Japan become a major industrial power, I had arranged to interview him and to sit in on a few of his classes.

It was not, frankly, the most pleasant experience. Deming was cranky, obstinate, and obscure. He asked as many questions as he volunteered answers. He spoke in a raspy staccato, in short declarative sentences, many of them followed by awkward pauses.

By then, Deming was concerned that he had run out of time. Despite success stories at Xerox Corp., Motorola Inc., and many other companies that embraced his teachings, Deming felt he was a prophet without honor in his own country. In truth, he had become father to a sweeping movement in U.S. industry--but he remained unsatisfied that management's interest in quality was deep enough to ensure lasting improvement.

Deming achieved credibility in the U.S. only late in his long career--despite his status as Japan's great American sensei. The former Census Bureau statistician visited Japan in 1947 as a War Dept. consultant to help rebuild the nation. Year after year, he returned to lecture leading business executives on how to use statistics to determine how consumers define quality. By 1951, Japan had established the much-cherished Deming Prize for corporate quality in his honor.

It wasn't until 1979 that Deming landed his first key American client. William E. Conway, then chief executive of Nashua Corp., an office and computer products manufacturer facing increasing competition from Japan. On his trips to that country, he recalls, "all they talked about was Deming."Conway phoned Deming on Mar. 7, 1979. Two days later, Deming arrived at Nashua's New Hampshire headquarters. For hours, he proselytized on the need to use statistics to enhance quality and productivity. "When he broke to go to the men's room, I turned to my vice-presidents and said, `This fellow knows what it's all about.' They looked at me like I had a paper hat on. `Bill,' one said, `he's a nut.' `Well, we're going to hire him anyway,' I said."

Over the next four years, Deming preached in four-day seminars before every Nashua employee. Among other things, he spoke of the need to build employee trust, to work closely with customers and just a few suppliers, and to strive for continuous improvement. Nashua was the first U.S. concern to adopt Deming's teachings fully--and its profits rose markedly.

His success in improving the quality of Nashua's products led to a 1980 NBC television documentary that also credited his ideas for Japan's postwar economic miracle. Shortly afterward, Ford Motor Co. enlisted his help. So did General Motors Corp. and a spate of other U.S. companies. Yet Deming remained frustrated that many were moving too slowly. John O. Whitney, director of the Deming Center for Quality Management at Columbia University, recalls occasionally asking the guru how things were going. "He'd say, `John, I'm desperate. There's not enough time left.' There was something he needed to say to the world, and he was going to do it as long as he could."

EPITAPH. It explains why, even at 93, Deming wouldn't give up. In his final year, he led 30 four-day seminars despite phlebitis, prostate cancer, and the loss of much of his hearing. In early 1993, he collapsed on a stage in Rochester, N.Y., and was rushed to the hospital. At his last seminar, in California in early December, he spoke from a wheelchair while tethered to an oxygen tank.

To the end, he never lost his enthusiasm or his sense of urgency. What he scribbled on the blackboard three years ago is as good an epitaph as any. In his own way, Deming had fun and taught American managers something that few who heard him will forget: Quality matters, and it starts not on the factory floor but at the very top.