Reflections on Deming's Point 8

Drive out fear.

During my three decades of process improvement training and consulting, I have based all of my work on the teachings of the late Dr. W. Edwards Deming.  I always present his 14 Points for Management as a generic model of a healthy work environment.  Organizations must cast their unique flesh onto this model to end up with a system that fosters continuous improvements in work, learning, quality, productivity and competitive position.

The eighth of the 14 Points reads, “Drive out fear.”  In his seminal text, Out of the Crisis, Deming expanded on this point by noting how people cannot contribute their best performance unless they feel secure, without fear, not afraid to express ideas, not afraid to ask questions.  “Loss resulting from apathy or fear to ask questions or to report trouble costs the system.”

Deming also insisted that the dramatic improvements needed in American organizations require profound knowledge; but some people are afraid of knowledge.  New knowledge brought into a company might disclose problems and weaknesses, and someone might have to answer for them.  “A better outlook, of course, is to embrace new knowledge, because it might help us to do a better job.” 

During my own seminars, I always talk about the inverse of fear by using a phrase that I heard Dr. Deming use repeatedly; i.e., “He who enjoys his work is a joy to work with.”  I ask people if they’ve ever had a co-worker who really enjoyed his or her work.  I add, “What was it like?”  Among the more common responses are “uplifting, energizing, contagious.”  I then ask if they’ve ever worked with someone who did not enjoy their work.  “What is that like?”  Replies: “draining, stressful, infectious.”

An apparent inconsistency

During some of his workshops, however, Deming's behavior seemed to violate Point 8.  In the early 80’s, I attended a roundtable discussion at MIT that featured Dr. Deming and that was hosted by Dr. Myron Tribus.  At the end of his remarks there was a question-and-answer period.  In response to one of the participants’ questions, Deming growled, “Ignorance like yours assures me job security!”

In his seminars Deming was occasionally dismissive of people and their questions.  A senior executive walked up to a microphone in a center aisle and observed, “I understand your point about how performance appraisal might create fear.  After all, nobody likes to be graded.  But to advocate the elimination of the practice – wouldn’t that be throwing out the baby with the bath water?  After all, it’s at the front end of our appraisal process when people are told what’s expected of them; people are given their goals.”

I thought to myself, “That’s a pretty good question.”  Apparently, Dr. Deming didn’t think so.  He declared, “That question’s so lacking in logic that I don't know how to begin to answer it.  Next question!”

When I heard such dismissive responses to well-meant questions, I wondered why Deming didn’t follow his own Point 8.  After a lot of time and reflection, however, I recalled how he emphasized that people must feel “secure;” i.e., safe enough to ask questions, point out trouble, ask for help, etc.  But if they suffer dysfunctional tension on the job people will not feel secure.

Over the years I have observed how some people completely miss the point when they consider Deming’s teachings and in particular his call to “drive out fear.”  They look forward to the day when top management cleans up its act and we end up with a nice, laid-back, pressure-free, copacetic country-club work environment.

And those people miss the whole point!  Deming’s model is not laid back and comfortable; it is characterized by tension.  Consider Point 5, “Constantly and forever improve every process…”  Springs are coiled throughout the organization, ready to spring out at any and every opportunity for improvement – and it never ends; the pressure never lets up!

Fear, on the other hand, is dysfunctional tension.  It is the type of tension people experience on the job that leads them not to ask questions – because there’s such a thing as a stupid question here; that leads them not to ask for help – out of fear that it will be interpreted as an admission of incompetence; not to point out trouble – out of fear that they’ll be blamed for the problem.

Having arrived at this better understanding of what Deming really meant by Point 8, I realized that his behavior would not be inconsistent unless it resulted in dysfunctional tension.  In October 1989, I had the honor of assisting Dr. Deming in one of his four-day seminars in Chicago.  In that role, I served on the panel discussion and also facilitated deliberations among small teams of executives. Some of them were attending their second, third or fourth Deming seminar!

I realized that Deming’s abusive replies to some questions were not dysfunctional.  People kept returning to his seminars, trying to learn more.  He succeeded in his quest to provoke thought, to challenge current destructive practices, and to teach the profound knowledge we need to survive and thrive in this new economic age.

Today, 22 years after his death, I continue to feel the tension.  Because of it, I continue to learn.  Even though I was the target of a few of his impatient zingers, they did not result in fear…


W. E. Deming, Out of the Crisis, MIT Center for Advanced Educational Services, Cambridge, MA (1986), pp. 59-61.

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