Deming’s Third Point

One of the most profound things I’ve heard W.E. Deming say was, “You cannot inspect quality into a product.” I’m using Deming’s 14 points, originally used as a framework for addressing the crisis in American manufacturing in the 70s and 80s, to understand some of the systemic behaviors parents can end up using as the leaders of their family. I am not attempting to say that a family is a kind of business or vice versa; I’m merely suggesting that managing effectively in one arena, properly interpreted, can be translated into other areas where the management of people is important.

If you’d like to get caught up then you may want to visit my entries on the first two points linked here and here, or linked below.

Now onto the third point. Deming wrote, “Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.” If you’ve ever studied any manufactured product you’ve probably come across a loose tag somewhere in the packaging with an inspection number. That item was inspected to meet certain criteria of quality. This is a good thing. We don’t want defective items going into the marketplace. However, Deming argued that expecting the inspection to bring up the quality of a product is absurd. I can’t be sure exactly why it’s absurd but I have a vague understanding of how it could be.

The first thing that comes to mind would be student grading. Every student gets a grade so that we understand if the student meets certain criteria. But, we can reliably predict how many students will graduate, and most teachers can generally predict who will graduate. The problem with inspection at the end of the production line is that it’s too late to do anything about it. Child development may have the same downfall; graduation day is too late to make a positive impact in that child’s life. What does the grade do for them then? Is there some principle parents can glean from Deming’s wisdom here?

Grades are a result of a student who has paid attention, studied, and learned the material needed for a class. If grades were needed to bring quality learning into life then we would grade our child’s dishwashing techniques, sweeping abilities, and food cooking abilities. (Many parents actually do this but not in the form of percentages or grades. They’ll use criticism or complaints to help their child understand the “grade”). If we accept the first two points then we may need to ask ourselves if we have created a constancy of purpose for improving the relationship. Are there things we are doing that point to a loss of their trust if they’re not studying when and in the same way we want them to? Have we adopted a respectful relationship philosophy that depends more on support and negotiation than criticism and fear? Quality learning is done along the way and doesn’t always look the way we think it does. Most often children are engaged and focused in high-quality play when they aren’t receiving any feedback from others. They are only experiencing the natural consequences of their behaviors. For our purposes, I think we can think of inspection as a form of criticism or judgment. Let’s revise Deming’s third point for the parent-child relationship.

Cease dependence on criticism or judgment to teach skills. Eliminate the need to criticize or to place some value on every activity a child tries.

Like it or not, many people actually use criticism to try and teach kids things. Criticism is assumed to be just correction but it is rarely taken at face value. We may be right in the content of our message but our attitude is perceived as controlling, negative, or judgmental. We can fight on our dependence on criticism by taking a matter of fact view of many activities. Criticizing a child’s activities isn’t the only problem. We can often use praise as a form of criticism or judgment. Praise can undermine the value of the work our child is doing. Carol Dweck has argued very persuasively that our praise can build within our children a mindset that resists challenges and failures and only takes the safest and easiest paths to much of life.

I’d like to use an example to try and explain what this might look like. Let’s establish a scene where a child is drawing on paper. His father comes in the room and decides to see what he’s doing. Let’s imagine that the child is a boy, age 4.

Father: It looks like you’re doing some drawing here.

Son: I’m writing a letter to grandpa about his bulldozer.

Father: I see. Do you want to tell me what’s in the letter?

Son: You can read it when I’m done. (Continues scribbling)

Father: I don’t have to. I was just curious.

Son: I’m done. Look at what I did!

Father: You seem to be excited about your letter to grandpa. Would you like me to help you send it to him?

The father doesn’t know if this activity is extremely important to his son or just a whim. It would be shortsighted to assume the letter is trivial or meaningful. What parents will often do is praise a child for anything the parent perceives as positive and criticize anything perceived as negative. Just imagine if the parent had replied, “Wow, that is so sweet to write a letter, but you’re not writing. You’re just scribbling lines all over that page! We’ve reviewed your alphabet. Why don’t you use the letters you’ve been learning?” This type of interaction is full of many messages: Letters are good, scribbling is bad, the alphabet is good, and wasting time is bad. To an adult, the activity can feel very useless as it is, but to the child, they may be enacting something they saw a person do at a different time. They’re emulating adulthood with their play. We can support their play by giving them the freedom to experience it as is, without our attempts to make it more or less valuable.

Childhood emotions are a mystery. Most parents have experienced a wide array of emotions from their children. They are surprisingly nonchalant about topics and events that shatter our hope in human decency while they break down at what seem to be the most uninteresting and trivial things. We may never understand why a child chooses to engage in an activity in a certain way, but we can control how we project our value system onto them and give them the space to construct their own.

Let’s take a look at our revised points so far.

  1. Create constancy of purpose for improvement of the relationship between parent and child, with the aim of remaining a trusted influence during their whole lives.
  2. Adopt a respectful relationship philosophy. We are leaving the assumptions of behaviorism behind and parents must learn their responsibilities and take on leadership of their families.
  3. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.


From the first post in this series:

Here are the 14 points as written by Deming.

  1. Create constancy of purpose for improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and to stay in business, and to provide jobs.
  2. Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for a change.
  3. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.
  4. End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag. Instead, minimize total cost. Move toward a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.
  5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.
  6. Institute training on the job.
  7. Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers.
  8. Drive out fear, so that every may work effectively for the company.
  9. Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service.
  10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.
  11. A and B. Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership. Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.
  12. A and B. Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objective.
  13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.
  14. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.”

W. E. Deming – Out of the Crisis

If you’d like to see Deming describe these 14 points:

NBC documented some of the outcomes of this management style in an NBC White Paper Special:

Philip Mott

I've been working with families for two decades now. I write about topics pertaining to parents of children ages 4-12.

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