Curious Cat: Deming on Management

Dr. Deming on Zero Defects

Aiming to limit defects for the customer is a good idea. Organizations should continually improve products and services. They should applying mistake proofing concepts to eliminating mistakes internally (in your organization) and in the design of your products and service so your customers avoid potential problems. However, zero defects is not a good strategy.

W. Edwards Deming, New Economics, page 10:

No defects, no jobs. Absence of defects does not necessarily build business... Something more is required.
What is required? Innovation. Reducing defects is necessary but not sufficient.

Four Days with Dr. Deming by Scott M. Paton (from the W. Edwards Deming Institute website):
Throughout the day Deming took swipes at a lot of today's popular buzzwords. For example, he apparently doesn't care much for ISO 9000 or zero defects. "ISO 9000 shows a lack of brains," he chided the audience. "Zero defects," he said, "down the tubes we go."
Dr. Deming was specifically against slogans "encouraging" workers to achieve "zero defects." In versions of his 14 points for management he stated (quoted text from Out of the Crisis):
Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity.

A problem I have with zero defects (that I am not sure if Dr. Deming shared) is that there is a flaw in the thinking. Defects are really tied to current conditions. What is ignored today, if improvements are made, will be seen as a defect tomorrow. In addition, it gives an impression of focusing on improving to perfection but that is not the case. Even if you eliminate all defects (however you choose to count them) you can still have plenty of waste in the system. And as Deming stated it ignores innovation. The proper goal is continuous improvement not just eliminating a condition that is negative.

Another problem with focusing on defects is the tendency to then treat defects as special causes rather than treating them as one data point to be considered as part of a system - as a common cause. This is not an inevitable consequence of aiming at zero defects but rather a risk. Failing to determine the capabilities of the process, and to accurately determine what the data shows can lead to less effective improvement strategies.

So Dr. Deming believed in improving the system, of which one outcome would often be reduced defects. Using tools, such as mistake proofing, to reduce defects is a good idea. But lowering defects should be seen as the results of a part of a system to improve and not as an end goal.


Dr. W. Edwards Deming's management ideas have greatly influenced modern management practice. Many quotes and thoughts are attributed to W. Edwards Deming's system of management. Sometimes these represent his ideas accurately, and sometimes they do not. Here I attempt to clearly indicate what he actual said and include some of my thoughts on what he meant.

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Deming on Management