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A Look at Deming's System of Profound Knowledge

written by: Ronda Bowen • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 11/30/2010

Deming's Theory of Profound Knowledge consists of four parts to help you improve the quality of products or services offered by your company. Are you familiar with this theory? Even if you're not undertaking a quality improvement project right now, Deming's theory is important to be familiar with.

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    What is Deming's Theory of Profound Knowledge?

    Are You Familiar with Deming's Theory of Profound Knowledge? William Deming (1900-1993) is credited for his significant contributions to the theory of quality improvement. Deming is best known for his Fourteen Points for Quality Improvement and for his System of Profound Knowledge. Deming's Theory of Profound Knowledge consists of four parts:

    1. Appreciation for a system,
    2. Knowledge about variation,
    3. Theory of knowledge, and
    4. Knowledge of psychology

    The four parts of Deming's theory tie into his fourteen points. The reason that Deming believed his theory of profound knowledge was so important was that it would help individuals to transform within their organizations, which would, in turn, improve the outcomes in quality improvement efforts. Understanding and applying the four parts of Deming's theory, he believes, will create a better leadership culture.

    Each part of Deming's Theory of Profound Knowledge corresponds to several of his fourteen points. What do each of the above four parts consist of and how does each contribute to quality improvement efforts?

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    1. Appreciation for a System

    What does Deming mean when he talks about having an "appreciation for a system"? Appreciation of a system means more than seeing a system as a beautiful thing! Instead, it means that as a leader in a company (of a quality improvement project, or any project, really) you ought to understand the system that you are looking to manage - and that you should understand that system thoroughly.

    Imagine what might happen if someone who did not understand jets attempted to fix a Boeing 747 engine. That's not a pretty picture, is it? If you do not have an appreciation for the system you are trying to manage, then you won't be able to fix it. Gestalt theorists are onto something when they hint that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts - if you don't understand the system you are looking to improve, then how can you possibly fix any of the parts?

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    2. Knowledge About Variation

    Are the variations you're looking at in the data set part of the system, part of a specific cause within the system, or part of some error outside of the system? You cannot possibly have an answer to this question unless you have an understanding of the different types of causes of variation. There are two basic types of causes for variation:

    • Common Cause - Common causes of variation result from within-system structures and can be predicted with probabilities. When you're looking at variation with a common cause, most likely it is something that is consistent, and does not have statistically significant value that can be traced to a specific historical event.
    • Special Cause - Variation with a special cause is variation that occurs unexpectedly. The variation from a special cause can come after a change in the system (with or without realization that a change has occurred), and special cause variation cannot be predicted.

    If you are familiar with these two types of causes, and some of the reasons for variation that typify each cause, then you can be more ready for undertaking quality improvement efforts. Managers who are able to detect whether variation is arrived at through a common cause or a special cause are much more capable of conducting projects that eliminate variation.

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    3. Theory of Knowledge

    How do you know what you know? Are your facts correct? Is there another way you could be looking at things? Good leaders in Deming's System of Profound Knowledge are able to detect what theory of knowledge is being used. If you are looking at phenomenon with certainty, and "fixes" as an end instead of a continual process, then you are setting your system up for failure.

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    4. Knowledge of Psychology

    Finally, leaders within Deming's system need to have a knowledge of psychology in order to pull off effective quality improvement efforts. Do you know how to motivate team members? Are you familiar with ways to resolve conflict among team members? These are items that can make or break your ability to effectively manage a project. A large part of successful project management involves being able to work well with people.