by Clare Crawford-Mason
Journalists specialize in explaining complicated subjects quickly to a general audience. We practice all the time -- in restaurants and bars for hours -- discussing at length such issues as what headlines would sell the most newspapers. The present winner in that category is "Pope Elopes", but we are always open for new entries.
My favorite headline, or actually the documentary title, is "If Japan Can, Why Can't We?" a question we asked in the well-known NBC White Paper in l980. We have been looking for an answer since. There are many reasons, some apparent, some not, why the question is so difficult.
In 1979, NBC executive producer Reuven Frank asked me to help produce a documentary. The working title was, "What Ever Happened to Good Old Yankee Ingenuity?" which was television for asking: What's Wrong With The Economy? Frank recalls a first title something like "What to do About America's Falling Productivity?" an even better way to turn off a potential audience.
Immediately, we realized that the failing economy was not interesting or useful television. We decided to see what was working, which isn't the usual documentary method.
We knew that the way to explain complicated subjects was to tell stories. So Ray Lockhart, the other producer, myself and Lloyd Dobyns, the reporter, went out looking for stories. None of us was very enthusiastic. We were mourning our weekly news show, "Weekend" which had been praised by the critics and audiences. It had been cancelled by NBC, which has never learned how to schedule a successful news magazine and only at that time able to produce one.
We, including Frank who had suggested it, thought the Yankee ingenuity documentary was the least interesting of 20 possible topics he had proposed.
Early in our research, Herbert Striner, dean of the American University business school, suggested to Frank that I talk to an elderly man, who lived up the street from the University. Striner said he was an NYU professor who had helped the Japanese repair their economy, and would stop by and talk to classes when Striner invited him.
I called the man's office and set up an appointment. It wasn't difficult; his schedule was open. I recall postponing the first meeting. I was directed to go to the side of a residential house and come down the basement steps. I did. I knocked on the cellar door and walked into a two-room, below-ground office, filled with books and papers and overflowing desks and a blackboard covered with mathematical formulas.
The old gentleman was pleasant, courtly and vehement.
We talked for almost two hours, and I didn't understand much of anything he said. I caught the phrase that he had "taught the Japanese to work smarter, not harder" and that sounded good. But I couldn't seem to find out what he had taught them. It was to take me 10 years.
I did understand, after seeing a medal and pictures of him with Japanese and his picture on the cover of some small business magazine, that he was saying that the Japanese credited him with teaching them how to succeed in the world marketplace.
I couldn't quite believe it. It didn't feel right. I would have heard of this person and people all over the country would be consulting him, if what he said were true. He lived six miles from the White House and certainly they would know if the man with the answer to their problems was here. I smiled and nodded, excused myself and said I would call back, not really sure I would.
But I did decide to check out the story. I dropped by the office of Charles Schultze, the chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers. Did he know, I asked, a man named W. Edwards Deming, who may have helped the Japanese?.
"Is he Joe Deming's son?" suggested Schultze.
"Not unless Joe Deming is 105 years old," I said. "This Deming is 80 years old."
I talked to Striner again and he assured me that Deming, indeed, had helped the Japanese and was a hero in Japan, right up there with Douglas MacArthur.
We checked with our Tokyo bureau, and they said there was this Deming prize awarded every year to Japanese businesses. They said Deming was well-known for helping Japanese industry, but they weren't quite clear about just how he had helped them. But he and the prize were a big deal, they said.
Reuven Frank said, "Aha! a prophet ignored in his own land. A good story."
So I returned and talked to Dr. Deming some more. He was, as I said, pleasant and charming but oddly vehement. A question that seemed reasonable to me would upset him. "No, no. no!," he would almost roar. I can't remember my exact questions, but all I was trying to find out was what it was he had taught the Japanese. He frequently answered my questions with his own, particularly, "How could they know? How could they know?" when I would quote someone else. He seemed very excited. I was very confused.
I arranged for Dobyns and Lockhart to come to Washington for an interview. But Dr. Deming said no interview unless we agreed to look at a film he would show to us at his daughter's home.
He only had one copy of the film. He would not lend it to me to show them in New York. He wanted to be with us when we saw it...at his daughter's house, he insisted.
This did not please either Dobyns or Lockhart, who disliked anything to do with Washington, particularly being there, and who took professional umbrage at any conditions placed on an interview.
I picked them up at the airport and we drove to Dr. Deming's house as they grumbled in the rear seat. I helped Dr. Deming into the car and made the appropriate introductions. They were surprised, even stunned, that he was not younger. I asked him how to get to his daughter's house.
I asked again.
He didn't seem to hear me.
I looked in the rear vision mirror and Dobyns and Lockhart were frowning. Their mouths hung open with disbelief that I had called them from New York to look at an unknown film and interview an 80-year-old man who apparently didn't know where his daughter lived.
I was embarrassed, but I asked Dr. Deming again where his daughter lived. This time he gestured for me to drive straight ahead. He would not give me an address despite my pleas and falsely-jolly, frantic questions. He only gave me directions to turn on various streets at the last possible moment. It was a jerky ride. So much for the myth of the powerful media.
In the rear vision mirror, I saw Dobyns' and Lockhart's not-nice gestures and faces. They were convinced we were lost, and worst than that, wasting valuable cocktail time.
Eventually, we did arrive at a house in the Maryland suburbs. Dr. Deming's son-in-law turned out to be a Lloyd Dobyns' fan, which cheered up Lloyd. The son-in-law, himself, was surprised that his father-in-law, a lofty academic who did not own a television set and had only watched it once (the moon landing) would turn up with a cult reporter like Dobyns.
We had drinks and saw the film of the 1960 Deming prize and everyone was cheerful. The next day Lloyd interviewed Dr. Deming in his office in front of a striking picture of a Japanese vase.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment in the interview occurred when Lloyd started to ask, "If the country doesn't adopt your system or some other system---"
"What other system?" shouted Dr. Deming pounding his desk.
It was the first and only time I have seen Dobyns speechless.
In New York, I tried to edit the interview. None of us understood what it was Dr. Deming had taught the Japanese and there was no way to put the interview together. I returned to Washington to interview Dr. Deming again.
The picture of the Japanese vase was gone. It had been on a calendar, and the month had changed, and Ceil Kilian, Dr. Deming's secretary, had ripped it off and thrown it away. I was distraught and not for the last time. Eventually, we filmed Dr. Deming from a slightly different angle and cut the two interviews together. If you examine the Deming sequence in "If Japan Can, Why Can't We?" sometimes there is a vase behind Dr. Deming's head and sometimes there isn't. But we did it so cleverly no one has noticed.
As Dobyns wrote the script, we called Dr. Deming's office again and again to consult. I visited with him for a total of 23 hours. He tried again and again to explain. But none of us still understood what he had taught the Japanese in a way that we could explain it to anyone else. Dobyns spoke around it and no one seemed to notice except a reporter from Fortune Magazine who wrote that it was statistical process control that Deming had taught the Japanese and weren't we dumb at NBC because we didn't say that.
We felt dumb for about five years until we began to work with Dr. Deming on the Deming Library and discovered that statistical process control was only a small part of it.
I called Dr. Deming in mid-June l980 to tell him the report would appear on the 26th and warned him that it would probably prompt people to call him. Within a week, representatives of Fortune 500 Companies were lined up outside his basement door--a slight exaggeration. But it is not an exaggeration to say that Dobyns and I still run into people who say that they were in a cabin in Minnesota or a living room in Maine, polishing shoes or flipping channels and watched "If Japan Can..." and decided to call their bosses, leave teaching, open a consulting business, contact Dr. Deming or somehow change their lives. Thousands called NBC News. We were surprised.
"If Japan Can... -" was only broadcast once but it has sold thousands of copies in video cassette. Many people credit it not only with introducing Dr. Deming to America, but with making American competitiveness and quality a national issue. It was the first time anyone had said that if America did not improve its productivity our children would be the first generation of Americans who could not expect to live better than their parents.
We kept in contact with Dr. Deming over the years and in l985 decided to see if we could explain his philosophy on video. It wasn't easy. The first volumes weren't ready until l987 and the subsequent volumes followed Dobyns' and my learning curve.
Dr. Deming looks a lot like my late father. Both correct my grammar without hesitation and talk in endless detail and scientific words when what I want is a thirty-second sound bite. In the beginning that family resemblance was most of what Dr. Deming and I had in common.
I had never been in a factory, never taken a business course, and had no idea what managers did or that there was even a theory or an actual profession of management. My family on both sides had never been industrialized. No one had punched a time clock. It was a long line of adventurers, poets, Southern planters, journalists, and Irish peasants. (The same was pretty much true of Dobyns, except it was Native Americans and Welsh miners who never punched a time clock.)
Some days studying quality were better than others. Dobyns and I went from insights de jour to revelations of the week and occasionally the epiphany of the month. First, in the linear fashion of journalists, we recognized the New Economic Age (Volume 1) which Dr. Deming's philosophy had helped create. Then we looked at his 14 points and realized that they were as big a change in thinking as going from a flat earth to a round one. (Volume 2)
We had cartoonist Pat Oliphant use his penguin, Punk, to be Dobyns' co-anchor and illustrate the 14 Points. We thought that would liven up what was a potentially dry subject. However, many Deming devotees thought cartoons were irreverent. In response, Dr. Deming said: "They are only one percent of the population. I am trying to reach the other 99 percent. I like the penguin."
I did an interview with Donald Peterson, then CEO at Ford, and he explained how Dr. Deming helped him change his thinking from emphasizing production to emphasizing quality and how well that worked. (Volume 3). Senior Ford executives explained how they adopted, communicated and applied the Deming philosophy and how important people were to practicing it. (Volumes 4,5 and 6).
Then Dobyns and I decided we had to understand the Red Beads and the Funnel Experiments. And learning by editing and writing helped us to absorb that the system did cause most variation, and that blaming people and tampering makes things worse. (Volumes 7, 8 and 9)
Dr. Deming kept talking about "profound knowledge" and we weren't clear what that was. We interviewed a number of his best students and made a list of how they defined profound knowledge and asked him if the list was a definition of profound knowledge. He sent a seven-point memo. I played the memo back to him as voice over on a video the next week and he said (with his roar), "Where did you get that?"
I showed him his memo and he said, "I can do better than that." Soon longer and longer memos came from him, and eventually we did three videos on profound knowledge (Volumes 14, 15 and 16): which include an appreciation for a system, an explanation that this system is deeply affected by how people learn and their psychology, and the idea that there is variation in all things: variation in how all processes and systems work; variation in the psychology of people and variation in how all of these interact.
We wanted to see his philosophy work in a small company and how workers liked it. (Volumes 10 and 11). And we started to explain the 14-points in more detail by looking at why it was important to move toward better relationships with suppliers. (Volume 12).
While producing the profound knowledge tapes and the subsequent Quality... Or Else documentaries we finally began to understand what he had taught the Japanese.
They had asked him what they could to do to help their country recover. He said they could export manufactured goods. He pointed to his MacAfee shoes from London and pulled out his German camera and told them they could capture the markets of the world by learning to produce quality goods for less effort and materials.
He put a diagram on the blackboard to show them how to think about doing this. That flow diagram showed production as a system which included the supplier and the customer with continuing information going into the system to improve it and the product.
We had known for some time that he had taught the Japanese to regard manufacturing as a system that included the customer and the supplier and to continually improve not only the product, but the design, the processes, the material, the communications, the skill of the workers and so on.
It had taken more years and many lobster dinners to capture the drama of the moment. We are storytellers not scientists or statisticians. We had been looking for that instant of recognition and change. That historical moment brought together the group of Japanese wanting to help their country and Dr. Deming knowing there was a way to think about and improve systems. It was a revolutionary meeting: their need and question and his knowledge and answer. It was perhaps as important and significant as James Watt realizing he could harness the steam in his tea kettle.
Dr. Deming is a hands-on producer. He suggested the interview with Peterson. He reads all scripts and marks them up again and again. He suggested that a speech by Dobyns to the Ohio Quality and Productivity Forum be included in the library (Volume 13).
We work together on Saturday evenings when Dr. Deming is in Washington. We look at scripts and rough-cuts and sometimes shoot a video interview and always have the same menu: lobster, corn-on-the-cob, salad, baked potato and ice cream. All CC-M employes can make a lobster dinner for 12.
Our guests for video conversations have included authors Robert Reich, Alfie Kohn, Michael Maccoby, and Russell Ackoff; Professor Joyce Orsini, medical doctor Paul B. Batalden and the Undersecretary of the Navy Dan Howard. A lifelong learner, Dr. Deming took notes on all they had to say.
Using the conversations with Maccoby and Kohn and footage from General Motors, we produced four more cassettes: People Systems, The Toughest Challenge (Volume 17); Competition Doesn't Work; Cooperation Does (Volume 18); Profound Knowledge for Leadership (Volume 19) and Leadership for the Transformation. (Volume 20)
More volumes on the application of his philosophy to education, health care, services, government and the Baldrige Award are in the editing process.
We took notes too and learned that management is simply a way of trying to predict the future. And that the Deming way of thinking makes it easier and more accurate to predict what will probably happen every time based on how you organize and treat your workers.
We learned that the most important change of the new quality management is that there is a new and better way to think about, to design, to produce and to deliver ever-improving goods and services. A new way to find out what your customers want. A new philosophy of quality for a new economic age.
It has changed, as Reuven Frank says, how things are made, how employers and employees work together, how we live our private lives and how America stands in the world.
Dobyns has written that the quality philosophy is the greatest transformation since the Industrial Revolution, which said the machine was more important than the worker. Producing quantity that belief is correct, but to produce quality how the worker is managed is more important than the machine.
We have also had to unlearn--mostly ideas we didn't know we had. We have included 11 of them in the latest Deming Library tapes, which are the 21st and 22nd. They are a profile of Dr. Deming. We decided not to give them numbers and just label them an introduction to the library. The title is: "W. Edwards Deming, the Prophet of Quality" and they report his life story, trace his intellectual development, the development of the quality philosophy, and explain why it is so difficult to adopt. The profile is for beginners as well as longtime students.
We believe the profile of Dr. Deming along with Quality... Or Else and the rest of the Deming Library answers that 1980 question: "If Japan Can, Why Can't We? "