Obituary: W. Edwards Deming

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The Independent Online
William Edwards Deming, statistician: born Sioux City, Iowa 14 October 1900; Special Lecturer in Mathematics and Statistics, Graduate School, National Bureau of Standards 1930-46; Head of Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Graduate School of USDA 1933-53; Consultant to the Census of Mexico 1954-55; Consultant to Central Statistical Office of Turkey 1959-62; Professor Emeritus, New York University 1975; National Medal of Technology 1987; married 1923 Agnes Bell (died 1930; one adopted daughter deceased), 1932 Lola Shupe (died 1986; two daughters); died Washington DC 20 December 1993.

IN APRIL 1992 an extraordinary statistician, then in his 91st year, gripped my arm as I helped him walk to the stage of a Birmingham conference centre. W. Edwards Deming was the keynote speaker for a conference on quality management. His audience were senior managers, directors and chief executives from all over the UK and a sprinkling from Europe - barely 400 in all.

With his assistant on his other arm we struggled to help him climb the three steps to the stage which he eventually managed with a joke about British steps being higher. We settled him, frail with age and illness, on the platform, adjusted his microphone and gave him his iced water and tablets.

Moments later he rose carefully to his feet, looked challengingly at his audience and, in a low, powerful growling voice, said, 'I'm probably the only person in this room who was alive in the reign of Queen Victoria.'

For the next hour and a half he spoke with incisiveness and vigour, sharing his unparalleled knowledge with his audience. He had spent over 60 years developing a management philosophy of great insight and power and he wanted us to understand it. 'Ed' Deming could have commanded huge fees on the conference circuits of the world if he had wished. What other nonagenarian would fly to Britain from the United States despite illness and frailty, speak at a conference, charge no fee, and pay his own airfare? The occasion was the annual conference of the non-profit- making British Deming Association. It was Deming's last appearance in Britain before his death.

Deming will be remembered particularly for his enormous influence on the post-war industrial and economic miracle in Japan - a country where he is greatly revered. His portrait hangs in pride of place at the headquarters of Toyota, in Tokyo. The award of the Deming prize for quality achievements is prime-time television in Japan. Deming was decorated by the Emperor of Japan in 1960 with the Second Order of the Sacred Treasure. Despite the success of his work in Japan, he remained virtually unknown in the United States and Britain until the early Eighties when a US television documentary on the revival of Japanese industry showed how much Japanese success was based on the teachings of Deming. Documentaries about his work have been broadcast in Britain by both ITV, in 1988, and the BBC, in 1992.

Considered one of the most influential management theorists in the modern world, Deming based his concepts on a strong systemic approach and a statistician's understanding of the real meaning of data - particularly variation in data. He also had great understanding of the value of people and was deeply concerned by the waste resulting from treating people like commodities.

For decades Deming explained that if you improve quality at source then productivity will rise, giving both higher quality and lower costs. He advocated ridding workplaces of fear and competition and replacing them with teamwork and co-operation. He was talking about customer care and continual improvement over 40 years ago whereas the rest of us did not grasp the importance of these concepts until comparatively recently.

I first met him at a four-day seminar he was giving in Florida a few years ago. He gave hundreds of these seminars in the last dozen years or so including several in Britain. They were extraordinary affairs where initial cynicism was gradually replaced by understanding and even excitement as the days progressed. The standing ovations from five to six hundred managers at the end of the four days were often very emotional. Deming was a consultant to many large US companies including Ford and General Motors, the former in particular an important influence in rescuing the company from near disaster in the early Eighties.

Over the last few years I was privileged to spend time with Deming in the United States, Europe and Britain. One of the most memorable occasions was almost exactly a year ago when my wife and I visited him in his modest house in Butterworth Place, Washington DC. We learnt of his lifelong love of music, of cats and of fresh tomatoes. We saw his study and office in the basement of his home.

His entire operation was controlled from there by his secretary of nearly 40 years, Cecilia Kilian, who took dictation by telephone from all corners of the world as Deming continued writing his books on aeroplanes, in airports and in hotels. He told amusing stories and his face lit up with laughter.

Deming was an extraordinary man, with an extraordinary life, but, much more importantly, an extraordinary legacy. Japan is a special case but in Britain and the United States in particular he has left a legacy of knowledge which is capable of transforming our industries and our societies.

Many hundreds of men and women in Britain are committed to developing and spreading his teachings and applying them in all walks of life. Deming was Honorary President of the British Deming Association and gave great personal help and guidance to me and my

colleagues.

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