The Power of Precision: A Lesson in Questioning

Renowned quality management expert W. Edwards Deming was often characterized as an enigma by those who interacted with him, not least William E. Conway, a pioneer CEO who collaborated closely with Deming. Anyone who had the privilege of attending Deming’s revered four-day seminars would undoubtedly endorse Conway’s portrayal.

Deming was a champion of the Socratic method, a pedagogical style characterized by the use of probing questions to spur critical thinking and illuminate concepts. Having assisted at his seminars, I witnessed the potency of this method on numerous occasions. One particular instance from 1988 remains etched in my memory. In the middle of a discourse on the cruciality of comprehending numerical data before launching into statistical analysis, Deming posed a seemingly simple question: “How many people are in this room? There isn’t any answer to that question.”

In the wake of the seminar, I steered a discussion among a group who were keen to decipher Deming’s cryptic statement. The group consisted of colleagues from the same firm who were eager to interpret Deming’s philosophy from various angles. Under the warm Californian sun, we huddled around a table beside the pool.

The group’s senior manager, Bill, expressed his befuddlement. “There certainly is an answer,” he argued, “and it’s quite straightforward to establish. One simply counts the people in the room.”

This statement seemed to strike a chord with the others. They appeared to be on the brink of dismissing Deming’s comment as an unintentional error. However, I was convinced that Deming’s statement had more depth and wanted them to independently arrive at that conclusion. I realized how I could guide them towards it.

Pivoting the spotlight onto them, I asked, “How many people are here?”

Caught off guard, the group fell silent.

“What exactly do you mean?” Gaylene finally asked.

Resisting the urge to explain, I excused myself with a little white lie, “I must assist another group momentarily. I’ll return in half an hour to hear your response. Surely, this simple question will not require more time.”

Upon my return, I found the group engrossed in a fervent discussion.

Interrupting them, I asked, “Have you determined how many people are here?”

“Not yet,” retorted Bill, clearly frustrated. “Your question was far from simple. We require additional information.”

“What kind of information?” I queried.

Nancy replied, “For starters, by ‘here,’ do you refer to this table, the pool area, the entire patio, or something else?”

John added, “And does ‘people’ encompass only guests, or does it include the staff, delivery personnel, and even taxi drivers searching for their passengers?”

Beverly chimed in, “And do you mean people who are here at this moment? What about those who stepped out momentarily? Are they to be counted?”

“Your thoughts?” I asked, emulating Deming’s style. After a moment of contemplation, the group began to understand.

Jacob suggested, “The definition of ‘people’ and ‘here’ would depend on why we need the count in the first place. If we’re interested in the number of guests using the pool facilities, we wouldn’t include staff or delivery personnel.”

Bill agreed, “Similarly, if we’re determining the number of tables required for outdoor dining, we wouldn’t count the people in the pool.”

Beverly added, “And to accurately answer for a specific purpose, we’d need to conduct multiple counts at different times. The crowd varies throughout the day.”

This insight led to a moment of collective silence as each person digested their newfound understanding.

Suddenly, Bill had an epiphany. He recalled an issue with their top customer who had returned products claiming they had defects, but their quality control team disagreed on the presence of the defects, referred to as ‘voids’. Bill remembered demanding his inspectors “count the voids,” much like he had dismissed Deming’s question as simple. The group decided to operationally define a “void” to prevent such misunderstandings in the future.

This article, thus, underscores the necessity of defining parameters and understanding the context when attempting to interpret data or solve problems. It’s a testament to Deming’s wisdom and his Socratic method of teaching, highlighting that what seems simple at first glance may indeed require a more profound level of comprehension.