Deming's System of Profound Knowledge - Interaction of Components

Even today, 21 years after his death, I still hear people refer to W. Edwards Deming's 14 Points for Management as "the Deming Philosophy." The 14 points are not the philosophy; the 14 points weren't even around when he taught Mr. Toyota and other Japanese executives in the early 1950s. Well, if not the 14 points, then how could we state "the Deming Philosophy?" Better yet, how could we state "the new philosophy for management" that Deming insisted was essential to survival in this new economic age?  In my work with a wide variety of clients over the past three decades, I suggest that we can state the new philosophy as follows:

1.  Learning and applying the system of profound knowledge in order to...

2.  Understand the statistical nature of work; and 

3.  View work as a dynamic process; then

4.  Take appropriate action to accomplish improvement; because

5.  In this new economic age, there is an can be no such thing as "good enough."

The system of profound knowledge consists of four components, each of which interacts with the others.  They are (1) appreciation for a system; (2) some knowledge of the theory of variation; (3) theory of knowledge; and (4) psychology.  For an introduction to the system of profound knowledge and its components, see the blog, "Dr. W. Edwards Deming's 'System of Profound Knowledge'," posted on this web site in October, 2012.  Here we will consider just a few examples of how the components interact with each other.

Dr. Deming insisted that the different components of the system of profound knowledge cannot be separated; they interact with each other. He once described, for example, how knowledge of psychology is incomplete without knowledge of variation, just as understanding of variation will be incomplete without appreciation for a system.1

For example, in statistical process control, we learn that one needs 20-25 subgroups of measurements in order to have sufficient data to calculate valid control limits for a control chart.  Suppose I was setting up X-bar and R charts for a process that's stamping out razor blades.  I determine that I want 25 subgroups of five blade width measurements each in run number order.  So, I go out to the production supervisor and ask him for 125 blades so I can measure their width.

How long would it take the process to produce 125 razor blades?  Seconds!  Statistically, I would have sufficient data to calculate "valid" statistical control limits.  But my resulting chart would not be representative of the stamping process.  I would have to spread my data collection out over a sufficient period of time to allow for shift change, lot change, set-up and other sources of common cause variation to be in play.  Only then will be statistical process control chart exhibit the system's true variation.  This is but one illustration of how the first and second components of the system of profound knowledge interact with each other (appreciation for a system and some knowledge of theory of variation).

Peter Senge cited one way in which the first component (appreciation for a system) interacts with the fourth component (knowledge of psychology). He observed that, over time, people will take on the characteristics of the system of which they are a part.  "The systems perspective tells us that we must look beyond individual mistakes or bad luck to understand important problems.  We must look beyond personalities and events.  We must look to the underlying [systemic] structures which shape individual actions."2

I like to ponder how the third and fourth components (theory of knowledge and psychology) interact with each other.  For example, Sigmund Freud and other determinists worked for the most part with the deranged; but their findings and therapies have been applied to people with healthy minds. In the absence of sound theory of knowledge, what damage might experts in psychology be causing?

Similarly, the work of Watson, Skinner, Pavlov and other behavioral psychologists was largely with animals; but many have applied their findings to people.  As a school superintendent named Jim McAbee asked in a letter to me, "How long will we continue to destroy our most important asset - our children - with grading practices based on [behavioral] carrots and sticks?"

Using extrinsic factors, behavioral psycholoigists demonstrated that one could create a conditioned response in animals.  What has that to do with people?  Without guidance from sound theory of knowledge, experts in psychology have unleashed terrible forces of destruction as children's joy of learning is submerged by extrinsic carrots and sticks.  Thus, too many students strive for high grades, not learning.  They work for high rank, not joy. By the same token, professionals work for merit increase, not quality.  They strive for high rank, not joy.

Experience without theory teaches nothing.

In this regard, Dr. Deming noted that experience (in psychology or statistics) without theory (of knowledge) teaches nothing.  A glaring example is the myth of so-called "gifted and talented" education in America's schools.  Years ago, the U.S. Department of Education published a report titled, "National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent."  Among other things, the report chronicled the poor performance of America's highest-performing (gifted) students in tests of international comparison with students from other countries.  It also reported declines in test scores and performance levels of the same students over time.

Charles F. Desmond, who at the time headed a initiative for gifted and talented students in Boston, criticized the Department of Education's report.  In an article published in the Roeper Review, Desmond observed,

"Regrettably, rather than an uplifting celebration of the progress and gains that have been made over the last twenty years, the report is a hard-hitting narrative chronicling the continued decline and ongoing failure of schools to responsibly address the intellectual challenges raised by our nation's most gifted children...  The crisis in educating talented students is pervasive... affecting learners as early as kindergarten and extending well into the college years."3

In other words, it seems that Desmond and others with a lot of experience in "gifted and talented" education don't want to think about facts and data that prove that our fastest students have gotten slower as a result of sorting, as opposed to education.  They would prefer to blame schools for failing to meet the needs of the few talented students (as if the rest aren't talented), beginning in kindergarten!  But how can one determine that this five-year-old is gifted and predict that she will be a success in life?  How can one determine that another five-year-old is not gifted and predict that he will be a failure?  How could one possibly know?

In the absence of sound theory of knowledge, decades of experience in gifted and talented sorting has yielded no new knowledge.  It has merely reinforced the same myth over and over and over...


1James F. Leonard, The New Philosophy for K-12 Education: A Deming Framework for Transforming America's Schools, ASQC Quality Press, Milwaukee, WI (1996), p. 188. 

2Peter Senge, "Building Learning Organizations," Reprint from the Journal for Quality and Participation, March 1992, p. 3.

3Charles F. Desmond, "A National Tragedy: The Retreat from Excellence in America," Roeper Review 16 (June 1994), p. 224.

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