Book Review: Out of the Crisis

I describe this book, by W. Edwards Deming, as the worst book every manager absolutely must read.

Its lack of organization is readily apparent in the repeated references to other pages and chapters. A typical pattern goes like this: Deming pontificates on a point and promises additional depth by referring the reader to a future chapter. The hopeful and patient reader reaches the chapter and finds that the point is simply taken for granted by reference to the earlier page. Also infuriating is spotty use of footnotes. Instead, Deming refers to friends, acquaintances, colleagues and predecessors right in the prose, frequently interrupting his train of reasoning. There is much use of sarcasm and implication, which confuses what he is trying to say. Deming also slips into and out of imagined or remembered conversations between workers, managers, and himself.

These complaints aside, Deming is widely credited for improving productivity in the US and for helping the Japanese reach high levels of quality and productivity after World War II. Later popular management techniques including TQM and Six Sigma are founded upon his work. Furthermore, many of his ideas simply resonated with my own experience, especially the notion that poor performers can excel if put in circumstances where they can take pride in their work. The book is full of memorable quotes. I was pleasantly surprised when Deming quoted a Japanese poem in emphasizing the importance of understanding the interaction between the product and its user.

Kane ga naru ka ya? Shumoku ga naru ka? Kane to shumoku no ai ga naru?

Translation:

Does the bell ring? Does the hammer ring? Does the meeting of the bell and hammer ring?

Many of Deming’s exhortations disturb the reader in a good way. They seem revolutionary and ahead of their time (e.g. completely eliminate the annual performance review) yet they are discussed in the context of older low-tech industries.

I particularly appreciate that Deming honors the inherent value of human beings and their work, while simultaneously treating the corporation as a system that can be measured and optimized by competent managers for long-term viability. This seems a difficult balance to strike. Focusing on people and personalities too much turns managers into politicians and psychologists. Focusing on the system can demean the people who participate in it.

Tags: Business, Reading

Updated at: 12 December 2005 5:12 PM

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