William Edwards Deming – Inventor of the Kaizen Principle

April 9th, 2014 | Posted by Don Boylan in Continual Service Improvement | Favorite

W. Edwards Deming
Oct 14, 1900 – Dec 20, 1993


From Back to the Future Part III
No wonder this circuit failed. It says “Made in Japan”.
Marty: What do you mean, Doc? All the best stuff is made in Japan.
Doc: Unbelievable.









Remember Datsun? Remember the Datsun B210? Wow, what a piece of crap. That thing would rust if you looked at it too hard. But then Datsun grew up. It grew up to become Nissan.

Here are the top 5 selling passenger cars in the US for 2018 (source):

  • Toyota Camry
  • Honda Civic
  • Toyota Carolla
  • Honda Accord
  • Nissan Altima

The Nissan Altima is on the list for very good reasons. It is an elegant car that has excellent resale value and is known for its trouble-free maintenance. What about the rest of the list? Notice something that they all have in common?

So what happened in Japan? How did it go from a perceived purveyor of low cost, poor quality products, to the economic powerhouse that provides of some of the world’s highest quality products?

William Edwards Deming is what happened.

How it Began

After World War II, Japan had basically been bombed back to the stone age. All of their industry was in shambles, their government had unconditionally surrendered, and the population would have starved if the US hadn’t interceded.

Along with the food aid we provided, we also sent representatives to help them rebuild their government (in our image), and economics professors to help them rebuild their economy (maybe that was a mistake on our part). One of the experts we sent over was named William Edwards Deming, and his ideas changed the world.

The sad thing is that Deming brought his ideas to the US government first, and we rejected them. It was probably just bad timing. His proposal was made during a time in American history when Quality was definitely not Job One. At the time, Quantity was the only thing that mattered, because we were in the middle of World War II. If there were quality issues in our factories’ production lines, we didn’t care. We made up for it with quantity. More guns! More tanks! More warships! If one or two of them didn’t work perfectly, then just grab another one off the shelf and get back to killing people!

And Deming was all about Quality. What’s more, he invented a practice that iteratively improved quality over time, allowing organizations who followed his theory to dominate the marketplace.

So after WWII, along with all the food, political advisors, and economists we sent to Japan, we also sent over a statistician named William Edwards Deming.

By the time Deming died in 1993, he had received Japan’s highest civilian award from Japan’s Emperor, and he had witnessed the beginning of Japan’s dominance of the American automotive market.

How can one man, one idea, one way of thinking, transform the world?

Continuous Improvement

Deming’s concept was that it was everyone’s job to continually make incremental improvements in everything we do. All the time, never ending, always improving. Japan took this concept to heart, to the point where any factory worker was authorized to (indeed, they were expected to) walk off the factory line, pull an automotive engineer into a conference room, and show the engineer how making a tiny change in the car’s design would save 5 seconds on the factory floor. Or 3 seconds. Or 1 second.

They weren’t revolutionizing the design, they were making small, incremental improvements, and they were doing it continuously.

This is how the company that made the Datsun B210 grew up to make the Nissan Altima.


In Japanese, the word Kaizen means “improvement” or “change for the best”. Kaizen is the term most commonly associated with the Deming Continuous Improvement Cycle. The Deming Cycle can be summarized as Plan->Do->Check->Act.


What Deming taught was that you must first come up with a Plan. You must then write up the plan. Yes, for the Deming Cycle to work, you must actually write stuff down!

Literally sit down and write “If you change the hiring process so that the form filled in by the hiring manager doesn’t include the field Expense Center, the hiring manager will save 1 minute filling out the form. That information can be more quickly looked up by the HR person processing the form because they have a comprehensive lookup table for Department to Expense Center codes. The overall savings in the on-boarding process will be a net gain of 30 seconds per new hire (1 minute saving from the hiring manager – 30 second cost by the HR department = 30 seconds net saved).”


Put what is in the Plan into effect.

Do everything that is in the Plan.

Don’t do anything that is not in the Plan.


See if the expected results as defined in the Plan are achieved.


Act by reacting to results achieved by implementing the Plan. Did you discover other areas where you can achieve efficiencies? Did implanting the Plan uncover additional steps you could have taken? Guess what? It’s time to write up another Plan.


Repeat this forever.

Do it continuously.

All the time, never ending, always improving.

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10 Responses

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  • Alberto Paludetto says:

    The impact Deming has had on management of organisations and their processes should be made part of curricula for teaching those who want to become Executives. The article should be read by Deming deniers..

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  • Richard Zultner says:

    Dr. Deming called “Plan-Do-Check-Act” the Shewhart Cycle, after Walter Shewhart, who invented it.
    In 1990, Deming revised this to “Plan-Do-Study-Act”, (which became known as the Deming Cycle) to emphasize learning aspect…

  • Gerry Hatton says:

    Was Deming involved in the resurgence of Toyota after WW2 using Kaizen methods? Also TQM? Thanks,

    Have a nice day!

    Gerry and Theresa

    • Don Boylan says:

      Yes, Deming taught the Kaizen quality process in Japan after the war and was directly related to Toyota emerging market dominance after WWII. Kaizen focuses on small, incremental, and continuous improvements typically initiated from individuals working within a process. TQM is a more systematic, top down approach.

      From Wikipedia article on Kaizen:
      “For the pioneering, introduction, and implementation of Kaizen in Japan, the Emperor of Japan awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure to Dr. Deming in 1960.”

  • Gerry Hatton says:

    Do you have any information on personal implementation on implementation of Kaizen methods in one’s own personal life?

    • Don Boylan says:

      Yes, my preferred method is to get the people involved in a process that needs improvement in a room for an hour. The first part of the hour is spent brainstorming. I usually warm up the group by asking them to brainstorm on “Reasons someone might be late for work”. Every item they suggest is written down on an individual sticky note and collected in a big stack. For the exercise, try to get them to think outside the box and get a little crazy. You know that the audience is ready to brainstorm on the true process that needs improvement when they start coming up with outlandish excuses for being late for work like “Abducted by aliens” or “Car ran off a cliff”. Then take the stack of sticky notes and paste them on an Ishikawa diagram with fish bones of People, Process, and Technology. You will see clustering of issues on one or two of the fish bones.

      Then, take them from the warm up exercise to the real process that needs improvement and repeat. This time, in addition to adding the sticky notes to an Ishikawa diagram, put a numeric “weight” or “pain” on each sticky note indicating how significant the issue is contributing to the health of the process. Create a spreadsheet listing the issues from highest pain to lowest noting what area (People, Process, Technology) the issue is related to and then create a plan to implement improvements. Do this repeatedly every few months until you can’t brainstorm any new issues.

      Pro tip: Process and technology are usually the easiest issues to address in the short term.

      • Gerry says:

        Hi Don,

        I used to do something very similar to this. I was on the Board of Directors for Make-A-Wish Foundation in Denver Colorado. I facilitated a two hour session to come up with ideas for creation of a corporate operations manual. The ideas were called out by members of the management and staff during the session, then written on Post It notes and attached to a large white board. They absolutely loved it! The system was called SCOPE((Scatter, Cluster, Order, Process and Engage). Might be an opportunity for collaboration here!

        I did not charge for the session, since I was a member of The Board.

        Have a nice day!
        Gerry and THeresa

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