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– a new book of quotes straight from the godfather of lean. Edited by Niels Pflaeging

by Niels Pflaeging

Eighty-five percent of the reasons for failure are deficiencies in the systems and process rather than the employee. The role of management is to change the process rather than badgering individuals to do better.

W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993) is known for sayings like this that highlight the systemic nature of workplaces and organizations. Deming was perhaps the first to apply rigorous systems thinking and systems theory to entire organizations. He did so starting in 1950 in Japan, where his work soon gained wide-spread attention. Many Japanese firms, including Toyota, were impacted by Deming’s thinking. This culminated in what would later be called the Japanese economic miracle.

Deming condemned management by objectives, incentive systems, merit ranking, appraisal, and command-and-control. A charismatic, witty and humorous figure, he became well-known in the West only much later, when, in 1980, he was featured in an NBC TV documentary called If Japan can... Why can’t we? Already in his 80s, Deming became hugely influential to the international Total Quality and Lean Management movements of the 1980s and 1990s. But the decidedly systemic nature of his thinking became sidelined there, after a while. Which is why, even in the Lean movement, this insight of Deming’s may still apply: “We are being ruined by the best efforts of people who are doing the wrong thing.”

Why Deming’s teachings matter more today than they did in the 1990s. Not less

It was around 1978 that W. Edwards Deming turned to writing and publishing about the topic of transformation of management. Nuggets on management theory had appeared in his books and in his many articles from the previous forty years, even though his writings were mostly about statistics and sampling theory. But it was the speaking, teaching and publishing from the last 16 years of his life that brought Deming’s practical and philosophical contributions to the world to full fruition, internationally. With some notable exceptions, the quotes in this new book of Deming quotes come from this last period of Deming’s life. As you can see from the pages of the book, Deming made excellent use of those years.

Deming consolidated his thinking in the books Out of the Crisis (1986) and The New Economics (1993). He continued teaching and consulting throughout the world until his death at the age of 93, in December 1993. Deming remains one of the greatest and one of the most wide-ranging thinkers in the history of organizational leadership.

I strongly believe, however, that Deming’s work and message are now more contemporary than ever. And that is for one very simple reason: Because the transformation of thinking, organizations and systems that Deming so vigorously demanded has not yet occurred. While our problems have been aggravated, by and large, we have not overcome command-and-control, systemic sub-optimization, and drastic waste of human potential, in both work and our societies.

Without Deming’s transformation, the promise of Lean will remain largely unfulfilled

Three decades after Deming’s death, we are still hesitant of putting Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge to work. At the same time, unsustainable patterns and practices in business and societies are looming large, and climate change has gathered speed, threatening human existence and our democracies. I believe that Deming’s work entails the complete solution to all the above-mentioned problems. I believe that Deming very clearly outlined what is needed, and what kind of systems design based on what principles we must strive for. Deming matters, now more than ever. We should listen to what Deming said and did. And put his teaching’s to good effect, at last.

It is staggering to me, however, that, in spite of the remarkable clarity of his words, and the coherence of his teachings, Deming’s work did not directly lead to full-fledged transformation anywhere, beyond Japan. On the bright side, Deming’s thinking has been incorporated into new methods that allow full-fledged transformation of entire systems with thousands or tens of thousands of people. I am firmly convinced that the world now possesses practical approaches to make such transformations happen everywhere: open source management concepts like OpenSpace Beta, Cell Structure Design and Relative Targets are consistent with Deming’s teachings, and available to everyone. These new concepts offer resolve. We now also have the means to accelerate education, using conceptually sound, virtual approaches to learning. We need to employ Deming’s thinking, and combine it with methods that are consistent with his thinking. Deming’s wisdom cannot be lost. We need him now.

The structure of the book and some examples of quotes

While researching the individual quotes, I also came to realize that the cult around Deming’s with and personality has turned into a problem, over time: If you look for Deming quotes on the internet these days, maybe 80 percent of the search results you get are not his. They are incorrectly attributed and not Deming’s at all. A good example is the quote “In God we trust, all others must bring data”, which is wrongly said to be one of Deming’s a gazillion times online. It is quite shocking how much the line between Deming’s original insight and misattributed stuff has blurred, at least online, since his passing in 1993. This blurring of lines is another reason why I think it was time to get a book with proper Deming quotes published – for those who already love his work, but also for those, including younger readers, who may not know anything about him.

Consequently, I tried to arrange the quotes in this book in a way that the multi-faceted meanings would shine through: the importance of Deming’s insight for work of the individual, for the individual organizations, our societies, and the world! Deming’s thinking certainly eclipsed the boundaries of “organizational development.”, even though it is here where, according to Deming, we must act, and much more decisively than in the past.

Deming himself put the connection between organizations and society so perfectly in sayings like this: “Paper profits do not make the pie bigger. They give you a bigger piece. You take it from somebody else. It doesn’t help the society.” Or: “It is important that an aim never be defined in terms of a specific activity or method. It must always relate to a better life for everyone.”

A lot of quotes in the book are more directly related to Lean, of course. Deming’s insight into the systemic nature of organizations was outstanding. He said: “We know how to optimize pieces, but optimization of a larger system is difficult.” Or: “It is a mistake to assume that if everybody does his job, it will be all right. The whole system may be in trouble.” Or take this pretty well-known Deming axiom: “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”

One of Deming’s quotes that I often think of during my consulting work is this one: “Sure we want best efforts, but best efforts must be guided by theory and knowledge. Those who only give us best efforts – let them stay at home, in bed, and sleep late. We would all be better off. They only tamper and make things worse. When these approaches [quick fixes] are used without the benefit of profound knowledge, they are counter-productive.”

And then there are those great truths about work and human nature that Deming articulated so beautifully. A good example of this: “When one understands who depends on me, then I may take joy in my work.” I am sure that every single reader will find a lot of pleasure, and also much to reflect about, in What Would Deming Do!

About the book:

What Would Deming Do?, published by BetaCodex Press, 2023. Edited by Niels Pflaeging 186 pages. More than 160 quotes of and 11 photos of W. Edwards Deming.

Get the book on Amazon. Get the book from the publisher in print and ebook formats


Niels Pflaeging is a passionate advocate for a new breed of leadership and profound change in organizations. He is founder and associate of the BetaCodex Network, as well as co-founder of Red42 and investor at the learning technology company qomenius, with headquarters in Wiesbaden, Germany. Niels authored 11 books on organizational leadership and change, including the award-winning Leading with flexible Targets and the best-seller Organize for Complexity. Together with Silke Hermann, Niels Pflaeging is co-creator of a variety of influential concepts, such as Change-as-Flipping and Org Physics, as well as the open source approaches Cell Structure Design, Relative Targets and OpenSpace Beta. Since 2006, Niels has been strongly involved in transformational change projects for organizations across Europe and the Americas. The Financial Times Germany wrote: “When Pflaeging shakes the dogmas of management, they crumble in his hands.”

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