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Deming’s path to ‘profound knowledge’


Four components of Deming’s path to ‘profound knowledge’:

Recently, I read W. Edwards Deming’s paper titled “Foundation for management of quality in the Western world,” presented way back in 1989 at a conference in Osaka, Japan. One of the concepts that Deming introduced in this paper – “profound knowledge” – struck a chord with me. First and foremost, for those of you who don’t know who W. Edwards Deming is, just Google his name. You will learn a lot about quality, productivity and management. He has written extensively on not only what he believes are good ways of doing business (decision-making) but also emphasizes how not to go about doing things.

Now, let’s get back to the theory of “profound knowledge”. Based on what I learned, I have summarized the concept below in simple terms, fully acknowledging that some aspects of it are genuinely profound and extremely philosophical. “Profound knowledge,” at its core, challenges several aspects of workmanship – whether it is at an individual level or regarding management behavior. Deming encourages everyone to apply better practices to any situation which comprises four elements at its core:

i. Psychological factor (LEARN)

ii. Theory of variation (UNDERSTAND DEVIATION)

iii. Transforming information to knowledge (APPLY KNOWLEDGE TO REDUCE VARIATION)

iv. Appreciation for systems (RESPECT SYSTEMS AND MANAGE THEM)

While each component is critical, the psychological factor is a lifelong endeavor that requires deep introspection (self-examination) and also understanding of others. This journey helps create an environment between management and staff that is conducive to both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Each individual is motivated to a different degree, but at the core of it all, everyone is born with a natural inclination to learn.

Theory of variation is much talked about in statistics and Six Sigma classes these days. Deming’s argument is that all of us need to be aware that there will always be variation but the goal is to get predictable (only common-cause variation) to make processes capable. Variations with special causes must be addressed and everyone needs to be aware of the consequences of tampering with common-cause variations that could result in costly and avoidable mistakes (self-inflicted and unwanted problems). Subject-matter experts need to be adept at analyzing data, specifically in identifying different sources of variation, and decisions should be data-driven with the ultimate goal of predicting behavior (not reactive, not even preventive).

At the core of transforming information to knowledge lies the assumption that information and familiarity should not be confused with knowledge and mastery – this is intense stuff, isn’t it? Tests (what we call hypothesis testing) should run with a deep predictive mindset that is based on the knowledge of the subject matter itself and also analytical know-how.

The final component of Deming’s theory emphasizes the appreciation for systems. Systems must be set to serve specific goals and need to be managed and improved continuously. It is best if the system’s scope is limited and boundaries for tasks and ownership are defined in advance. Various groups within an organization must cooperate to make it a success.

In summary, professionals who use all of the above four components will be uniquely armed to deal with the problems they face, and in the process gain insight to help develop a productive path forward. It is hard, but it will contribute to the joy in work for you and everyone around.

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