During the last week of March 1982, my wife and I were in San Diego. I was there to attend a Deming seminar on statistical control techniques.
On the eve of the seminar, we met Dr. Deming in the hotel hallway. There was no mistaking him so I introduced Rhoda and myself. He was as pleased to talk to us as we were thrilled to meet him. He held Rhoda’s hand in the most gentle way. When I asked for permission to record his presentation, he accepted my request as a compliment.
The next morning I obtained a seat in the front row next to a wall. Tea and Danish pastry to sustain the elderly guru were on a small table alongside of the lectern. He wore two hearing aids and often cupped a hand, sometimes both, in order to better hear a question.
As described in numerous newspaper articles, Dr. Deming demonstrated that he was an irascible critic by castigating traditional management. At one point he said, “Management does not know what its job is. They don’t understand their responsibilities. If they did, they don’t have the required knowledge.”
That statement triggered a stocky man with a heavy Eastern European accent. He rose from the middle of the group of over four-hundred people and shouted, “Just this morning the Space Shuttle landed…”forty-thousand American-made parts…all worked perfectly!”
With that, the odd champion of American management jerked at his lapels, slowly swiveled his head so as to stare down everyone in the room, and then flipped his chin in the direction of the lectern before resuming his seat. The room was silent.
For an instant Dr. Deming seemed to be transfixed. He quickly demonstrated that he didn’t need any aids when something was said that he wanted to hear, such as my murmured comment, “At what cost?”
Because of his closely cropped white hair, one writer described Deming as the personification of an American bald eagle. That, with wings outspread, is what he seemed to be when his right arm pointed directly at me and his left pointed at his challenger. He fiercely ordered, “Tell him!”
I was stunned. Deming brought me to my feet when he thundered again, “Tell him!”
Uneasy, I faced in the direction of the upstart and repeated for all in the room to hear, “At what cost?”
The agitator jumped up and babbled excitedly. I interrupted and said, “I am one of the managers of the National Shipbuilding Research Program. I have evidence, obtained via a unique association with the most-effective Japanese shipbuilder, which proves that we cannot improve U.S. shipbuilding productivity without significantly improving management.”
The managementhood defender persisted. Since Dr. Deming didn’t interrupt, I asked him, “Do you want me to continue? I’ll need fifteen minutes.”
The guru said, “Go ahead.”
He sat down and poured a cup of tea.
Afterwards, the representative of Georgetown University, the meeting’s sponsor, said to me, “You should feel honored. Dr. Deming has never before allowed anyone to give a presentation within his seminar.”
Copyright © 2006 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo