A few days ago, Matt O’Keefe—Seven Cycles’ production manager—mentioned an online forum discussion about the merits of German versus Japanese motorcycles. As one might imagine, it was a heated debate. Somehow, the thread turned to W. Edwards Deming.
Chicken or the Egg
The commenter voiced the opinion—I’m paraphrasing—that Japanese quality and the Toyota Production System—TPS—would not exist, if not for W. Edwards Deming. Basically, America is fundamentally responsible for Japan’s global leadership in high-quality manufacturing. It’s an interesting comment; one with which many people would probably agree.
Matt brought up a good point that I had never really thought about before. Would the TPS exist if not for Deming? Was Deming the initial spark of TPS?
Can America somehow claim rights to Japan’s product quality success, and the fact that Japan eats U.S. lunch—Sliders™ and Blizzards™?—in the automotive world? Does America have claim to some sort of hollow victory here?
The answer is no. I won’t bore folks with a history lesson, but the timeline—in two simple steps—indicates the Toyota would have developed TPS on their own; the timing looks something like this:
:: 1950: The Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers—JUSE—sought out statistical process control—SPC—experts; JUSE saw significant value opportunity in SPC. That same year, they brought Deming in to help train hundreds of Japanese managers. JUSE also introduced the Deming Prize in 1950—an indication of the importance—and speed—with which the Japanese saw Deming’s teachings.
:: 1981: Ford first recruits Deming to help them with quality improvements. Ford is one of the very first US companies to work with Deming.
It took the US more than 30-years to catch on to Deming and Toyota. This 30-year gap, to me, is a strong indication that Toyota would have taken the statistical process control path that would ultimately lead to the Toyota Production System. Toyota was looking for this path, they found it, they took it decades before any US company did, and they took it significantly farther than any other company. Toyota would have taken this path even without Deming. For example, two other influential Americans influencing Japan at about the same time were Walter Shewhart—one of Deming’s teachers—and Joseph Juran. I’m certain that Toyota found value in these men’s ideas, and that Toyota could have developed TPS from these and other sources.
Deming IS Genius
In closing, I’ll let you in on a not-so-secret: that Deming is in my top five American business thinkers for most influence on my views. So, while I think Toyota would have taken the path they’re on, Deming’s individual contributions to manufacturing and business may be without peer.
Deming once said, "The worker is not the problem. The problem is at the top! Management!" Wait a minute, that can’t be right. Maybe the Americans were right after all—maybe Deming didn’t know what he was talking about…