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Guru Who Preached Quality Finally Gets to Say 'I Told You So'

March 31, 1987|ALAN GOLDSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

CORONADO — Even at age 86, W. Edwards Deming, the curmudgeon of manufacturing quality, can deliver his message with evangelical fire.

"Can you blame your competitor for your woes? No. Can you blame the Japanese? No," he recently admonished a banquet room here filled with representatives from some of the biggest names in corporate America. "You did it yourself."

Deming is a statistician who has become an international business legend. To drive out what he calls the "five deadly diseases" that impair product quality, Deming urges clients and seminar students to adopt his 14 management points. The messages are backed by a simple statistical process: Tally defects, scrutinize them, trace the source of the problem, make corrections and record the results afterward.

But his statistician's fervor is born of bitterness. A native of Sioux City, Iowa, Deming is still best known in Japan, where he has been treated with reverence since the reconstruction days after World War II, when his advice was eagerly followed by nascent Japanese firms that helped trigger the country's extraordinary economic rebirth. All the while, Deming's own countrymen rebuffed him.

It wasn't until the 1980s, when the battle for global markets is won by those who, like the Japanese, make products better and cheaper, that the New York University professor emeritus finally found a following at home. Now, American firms turn to Deming for advice on how to match the Japanese in manufacturing quality.

"He's a national treasure, a charismatic leader who approaches management swinging a meat ax," said William A. Golomski of Chicago, another prominent quality guru. "And he's been able to capture their interest."

Deming is credited, for example, with helping to steer Ford Motor Co. toward building cars with fewer factory defects. Better products have yielded prosperity. Last year, for the first time since 1924, Ford chalked up higher profits than its bigger rival, General Motors.

GM has taken note. Its Van Nuys assembly plant is undergoing changes more sweeping than those implemented at any auto factory wholly owned by a Big Three company. Deming spent a week there as a consultant. The Van Nuys work force has been issued cards with a list of Deming's do's and don'ts. The workers are also getting more power in decision making.

For his consulting work, Deming commands as much as $10,000 a day. The octogenarian workaholic, who works out of a modest Washington, D.C., home, is already booking appointments into his packed schedule for 1989. Deming has 21 seminars scheduled for this year, including one in Australia in July.

Executives who attend four-day seminars organized by George Washington University pay as much as $900 per person. At the one here, 300 attended, many standing in line during breaks so that Deming could autograph their copies of his latest book, "Out of the Crisis."

Different View

Deming's philosophy is essentially based on a compassionate ideal: a faith in the worker's desire to do a good job. Deming advocates taking power out of the board room, bringing decision making onto the factory floor.

This is in direct conflict with the thinking that has dominated U.S. manufacturing since the beginning of the century. Most industrialists, dating to Henry Ford I, have viewed workers as most effective performing single, repetitive tasks on an assembly line.

"Henry Ford made great contributions, but the Model T wasn't a quality car," Deming said. "He treated people like commodities, and how can you have a loyal worker when you do that?"

A main Deming theme is that only a tiny fraction of all product defects are attributable to a single tool or worker. The rest, he says, are problems with management's system, wther it involves getting the right tools, the best materials, good training or a workable production process.

Deming opposes relying on inspection as a means of quality control. Instead, he advocates improving the process itself--that's No. 3 of his 14 points. But Deming abhors banners and posters with empty slogans even more (No. 9).

"You tell them, 'Get it right the first time,' " he says, pacing in construction-style work shoes that make an odd match with his gray, three-piece suit. "Sounds great, but how many have that privilege? Very few."

Indeed, much of what Deming says is jarring to executives. "The first thing we do is make management take a pay cut," Deming often says. "The second step is have them take another cut."

At the conference here at the Hotel del Coronado, managers and engineers from Control Data and Procter & Gamble, Eastman Kodak and Dow Chemical listened with rapt attention to Deming's advice. One executive asked Deming if American industry will survive.

"There's nothing compulsory about survival," Deming answered.

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