Who was William Edwards Deming?

Statistical management of a process improves its outcome

Published in the July 2012 Issue Published online: Jul 12, 2012 Jerry P. Wright, President CEO, United Potato Gro

William Edwards Deming is credited with saying, "What cannot be measured cannot be managed." What he actually said was closer to, "If it is measured, it will be managed."

William Edwards Deming grew up on his father's farm in Powell, Wyo. Deming received a B.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Wyoming at Laramie in 1921, an M.S. from the University of Colorado in 1925, and a Ph.D. from Yale University in 1928.

Both of his post-graduate degrees were in mathematics and physics.

Deming became famous, but not in his home country. He became famous in Japan. In fact, he is credited by Japanese industrial leaders for Japan's extreme success in quality manufacturing. His American countrymen found out about his method after it was too late. They turned to him only after Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mitsubishi, Hitachi and Sony had taken huge chunks of market share from them. What did Deming teach the Japanese that the Americans did not learn until it was too late?

While a student at Yale, Deming served an internship at renowned Bell Labs studying under Walter Shewhart, a pioneer of statistical process control or SPC, the application of statistical methods and procedures to improve a process's capability and outcome.

How does SPC work? In the 1960s, Ford Motor Company was simultaneously manufacturing a particular transmission in Japan and in the United States. When cars with the transmission hit the market, customers immediately requested models with the Japanese-made transmission, not those with the U.S.-made transmission. As both transmissions were made to the same specifications, Ford engineers could not understand customer preference for the Japanese-made product, so Ford engineers took apart each transmission. The American-made parts were all within specified tolerance levels. On the other hand, the Japanese parts were virtually identical to each other, and much closer to the nominal values for the parts-e.g., if a part was supposed to be one foot long, plus or minus 1/8 of an inch, then the Japanese parts were all within 1/16 of an inch. This made the Japanese transmission operate more smoothly and customers experienced fewer problems. Engineers at Ford could not understand how this could be done until they met Deming.

President Reagan awarded Deming the National Medal of Technology in 1987. In 1988 he received the Distinguished Career in Science award from the National Academy of Sciences. By that time Deming had returned to Japan many times to accept awards, to consult, and to witness the economic success that resulted from the techniques he had taught. So what's the point?

Statistical management of a process improves its outcome. United Potato Growers of America is currently testing a cutting-edge methodology for reporting regional and national prices and shipments. In so doing, our industry will distinguish itself by providing prices and shipment data and trends, which individual growers can use to make their own decisions about planting and selling their potatoes. As with Deming's process, correct information properly applied always leads to an improved outcome. In our case that means a more dependable grower return. 

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