In the late 1970s, an impecunious young writer needed a new car. After looking at several American models, he settled on a Japanese import. Though he knew nothing of engineering or mechanics, the Japanese vehicle seemed more solidly built and a better value.
That Japan was able to compete in the U.S. auto market little more than a quarter-century after its industries were devastated jTC by World War II was in large measure due to the pioneering efforts of quality-control expert W. Edwards Deming, who died recently at 93. He eventually lived to see his ideas taken up by his own countrymen but only after he had proved their effectiveness abroad.
Mr. Deming went to Japan after World War II. Previously he worked for 18 years as an obscure federal government mathematician and statistician, developing techniques to improve business procedures. The American occupation force commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, asked Mr. Deming to assess Japan's ability to rebuild and soon had him touring the Japanese countryside, lecturing corporations on how to assure efficient operations and reliable products.
There was nothing mysterious about Mr. Deming's approach. He taught that flaws didn't suddenly appear in products, but instead developed over time as machines gradually got out of adjustment or tools wore down. Companies, he said, should train their workers to do constant monitoring and measuring of products and processes, so that very slight deviations could be detected and corrected before major flaws developed.
Later, Mr. Deming expanded those ideas into a management theory that stressed worker involvement, goal-setting and communication over competition. Quality lapses, he believed, could be reduced by improving the process, not by hectoring workers about mistakes. "Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation," he wrote.
American businessmen, however, stubbornly resisted Mr. Deming's ideas as impractical until the late 1970s. Then, facing ruin, they rushed to embrace him as savior. In the early 1980s, Mr. Deming was hired by Ford Motor Co. to improve the quality of the company's automobiles. Ford not only regained its profitability but grabbed the industry lead from giant General Motors. By the time of his death last week, Mr. Deming was acclaimed not only as the man who helped engineer Japan's economic miracle, but as a long-ignored prophet who finally taught America to make quality Job No. 1.