The Age of Mythology

About 30 years ago, I had the honor of assisting Dr. W. Edwards Deming at one of his seminars in Chicago. At one point during his remarks he growled, "Two hundred years from now, management historians will look back at us and refer to ours as the 'age of mythology'." They'll wonder what pagan gods we were worshipping. They'll wonder why we had the management rituals we have.

Deming's simple observation triggered a great deal of thought on my part. What did he mean by the age of mythology? What are the myths he was criticizing? And how might this apply to the American education system? (I was in the midst of my applied research on the application of Deming's principles to K-12 education.)

During a subsequent conversation with him, Deming suggested that I ponder the first component of the system of profound knowledge; i.e., appreciation for a system. He always insisted that managers must understand that most differences observed between workers have nothing to do with the workers. Most performance differences observed between workers are generated by the complex and dynamic system of which those workers are but a part. In this regard Deming wrote, "Would you sign your work? No! Not when you give me defective canvas to work with, paint not suited to the job, brushes worn out."1

The supposition that people have complete control over their performance is a myth. Exhortations for people to try harder, merit pay, sales comissions, incentives, grades, gold stars, and the like ignore the effect that other factors in the system have on people's performance. A salesperson may control whether he or she visits customer A or customer B this morning. But the salesperson does not control product design, production quality, delivery performance, billing practices, and many other factors that may please or displease the customer.

The sales commission system, however, ignores the fact that many variables influence whether or not the sale is made, whether or not there is a repeat sale. Locked in the age of mythology, our management rituals confound the salesperson with all the other variables. According to William Sherkenbach, we should know that outcomes are the result of the blending of many factors. "Certainly we see differences in performance; but are those differences due to the system or the individual?"2

A commission or merit pay system views end-of-month sales numbers and assigns them to the salesperson alone. Then the salesperson is rewarded or punished based on the numbers – as if he or she had complete control over those results. Ludicrous!

Similarly, systems thinking assigns most differences in student performance to the system, not the students alone. We must rise above the age of mythology; we must be willing to question everything we ever learned and believed about testing, grading, tracking, grouping, sorting, and labeling students. We must be willing to question if the concept of a high school honor roll is a rational concept, because most of the differences we observe between students and use as the basis for placement on the honor roll have nothing to do with the students!

Tests do not measure student achievement. Test scores are measures of the student, curriculum design, curriculum content, curriculum scope, the textbook and supplementary materials, the teacher, the lesson plan, the learning plan, teaching methods, learning methods – including homework and assigned projects and the effect of the home environment – the test itself, physical facilities and equipment, learning technology, classroom distractions, and many other variables. 

Workers and students can perform no better than the system allows. If you want to see better performance out of employees, improve the process. If you want to see better achievement among students, improve the system. Every time you improve a process, the performance of every person who works in that process can improve – and it doesn't matter whether it's a sales or production or teaching and learning process. In the absence of process improvement, people can perform no better than the process allows, no matter how many performance bogies and objectives you might have for the next test or review period.


1 W.E. Deming, Quality, Productivity, and Competitive Position, MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Study, Cambridge, MA (1982), p. 36.

2 W. Scherkenbach, The Deming Route to Quality and Productivity: Road Maps and Roadblocks, Mercury Press, Rockville, MD (1988), p. 55.

Much of this blog is excerpted from J.F. Leonard, The New Philosophy for K-12 Education: A Deming Framework for Transforming America's Schools, ASQ Quality Press, Milwaukee, WI (1996), pp. 9-11.

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