Dr. W. Edwards Deming, 91, is the kind of fellow who would gladly stride into a room filled with geniuses and tell them in his firm, curmudgeonly voice that everything they know is wrong.
Deming's ideas of business management--based on the systems theory tradition made most popular in this country by Fritjof Capra and his book, "The Tao of Physics"--have been as revered in the Japanese corporate world as they have been obscure in his native land.
His message: U.S. companies can save themselves with cooperation, or kill themselves with fear-driven competition.
It comes through loud and clear in "The Deming of America" (at 1 p.m. Sunday on KCET-TV Channel 28), in which producer-host Priscilla Petty interviews Deming and a host of American corporate leaders on the new impact of the man who revolutionized post-war Japan.
With Deming, everything begins with "the system" in which everyone--ideally--is contributing their part to the whole, with management leading by encouragement and inventiveness, not by intimidation. Where quality replaces quarterly bottom-line results and workers feel they have room to grow, the theory goes, the entire company--from managers to union leaders--prospers.
Brian Rowe, head of General Electric Aircraft Engines, explains that when his organization adopted Deming's ideas, it began with "driving out fear." Procter and Gamble's John Pepper, another Deming convert, identifies the old company way as pitting quality versus cost and the new way as improving quality to improve profits. These kings of American industry sound humbled when talking of the "guru" Deming, realizing that everything they knew was, indeed, wrong.
Petty's fawning admiration sometimes gets in the way of the dialogue, and we're never given a full portrait of Deming's formative years. In fact, this is more a tribute than a report, but Deming's notions will be compelling news to most viewers. His stress on continual education and quality improvement makes "The Deming of America" the perfect lead-in to PBS' Tuesday-Wednesday airing of Robert Reich's superb diagnosis of U.S. economic ills, "Made in America?" Change is on the air.