Does Competition Create Wins? Role of a Manager in Education (Part 14)

Does Competition Create Wins? Role of a Manager in Education (Part 14)

This podcast was originally published on In Their Own Words for The W. Edwards Deming Institute

Who wins when teams and team members compete with each other? In this final episode in the Role of a Manager in Education series, David Langford and Andrew Stotz discuss why cooperation beats competition, particularly in schools.


0:00:02.5 Andrew Stotz: My name is Andrew Stotz and I’ll be your host as we continue our journey into the teachings of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Today I’m continuing my discussion with David P. Langford, who has devoted his life to applying Dr. Deming’s philosophy to education, and he offers us his practical advice for implementation. Today we continue our discussion of Dr. Deming’s 14 items that he discusses in The New Economics about the role of a manager of people after transformation. And we’re talking about the 14th of these different 14 items. And this one I want to read out, it is, “He understands the benefits of cooperation and the losses from competition between people and between groups.” We decided to title this one: “Do you think you’re winning from competition?” David, take it away.

0:00:53.7 David Langford: That sounds great. Great. It’s good to be back again, Andrew.

0:01:00.4 AS: Yeah.

0:01:00.6 DL: Yeah. This is a great point, and it really is the basis for Deming’s philosophy about everything that he brought to management and it got people to think differently. When I would give seminars with educators around the world and stuff, and we’d start talking about the differences between competition and cooperation, I’d often get people speaking very strongly that, “Competition is the way the world works and you have to have competition to get people to do stuff. And sports teams are always competing.” And when you start to think about it, sports teams that, that usually have a sole focus of just beating the, the other team, generally don’t have multi-year winning streaks, [chuckle] because you’re not building a program, you’re not building a whole philosophy, a whole basis to how you do things.

0:02:06.0 DL: And I’ve made it a point to really listen to all kinds of interviews with coaches over time. And one common theme I usually hear over and over and over from really good teams is they’ll talk about the next game that they’re playing. They don’t talk so much about, “We’re gonna beat these people.” They talk about, “This will be a really good test for us.” Or they’ll say something about, “We’re probably gonna really learn a lot this weekend [chuckle] at this game.” Well, to me, those are really good coaches because they’re lowering the fear level, they’re lowering the anxiety. And the better we… The irony of this statement, this point number 14, is the better you cooperate, the better you compete. [chuckle]

0:03:04.0 DL: And when you’re not doing that, you potentially could just go down in flames. And the same thing happens in a classroom. If you set up a classroom so everybody’s competing against each other, or what Deming called the artificial scarcity of top marks, you’ll end up with a whole bunch of people that are just basically at each other’s throats, not cooperating, not getting along. You’ll have all kinds of discipline problems and behavior problems and things that are going on in classrooms like that because it’s all just set up on a competition level. So grading on a curve is a scarcity, artificial scarcity of top marks. So if there can only be three top marks or three A’s or whatever it might be in this class, and people that are actually struggling in the class and actually trying to learn, they’re gonna quickly learn, “There’s no point in me actually trying because there’s no way I’m ever going to get to that point. There’s only gonna be three people that are gonna get the A.”

0:04:14.2 DL: And that’s the biggest thing about this, is getting to the point where you’re understanding the losses of setting up artificial competition for, whether it be grades or points on a soccer field, or whatever it might be. Deming often used the analogy of the difference between a bowling team and a orchestra in terms of cooperation. So people that go bowling, they’re generally just out for your own score and whatever you’re trying to work through, and it’s not really a team activity. Even if you’re on a bowling team, it’s still… You’re just doing your own thing and doing your own score.

0:05:07.8 DL: So they have a very low level of interdependence in that environment. But I used to be a band teacher and orchestra leader and things like that. And so when Deming used the analogy of an orchestra about that being the pinnacle of interrelationships, it really struck home for me that like he said, “A 1OO people in an orchestra or a band, they’re not there to compete [chuckle] who can play the loudest or who could play the biggest solo or… ” Right? ‘Cause that’d be a terrible thing to listen to if you went to a concert like that.

0:05:47.3 DL: But the reason we give people standing ovations, is because we recognize the interdependence and the cooperation it takes to reach a pinnacle performance. Even in a very small group, maybe just three or four people in a band or something, it takes a tremendous amount of cooperation to get to that level of performance. And just imagine some of our famous rock bands and stuff, if everybody on the stage was competing against each other, it would sound terrible. [chuckle]

0:06:24.9 AS: Yeah. It’s interesting about the orchestra concept. I like to talk… When I’m speaking to audiences about Deming’s teaching, I say, “Imagine that we have a new generation of leaders that are KPI managers, and they sit down with every person in the orchestra and say, ‘You’ve got a KPI, we’ve got a limited pool of bonus here, and we’re gonna distribute it amongst all the players based upon who was the A players, and C players you’re going to get zero.’ And so now you need to think about what is your contribution here. And then you pull up… The curtain goes up and you rise up and everybody claps. And then everybody in the orchestra stands up and plays to their best ability.”

0:07:03.6 DL: Yeah. You’d have chaos.


0:07:07.5 AS: It’s interesting in this one that he sees the need to highlight that it’s… He’s talking about competition between people and between groups. Why did he have the need to say that rather than just competition in general?

0:07:25.1 DL: He did talk about competition in general a lot. He also talked about… He made statements like, “It’s really good to have a good competitor.” And that seems like it’s the opposite of what this statement is about, but I think there’s a difference between competition and comparison. So if you have another company, another school, another grade level. So let’s say I’m a fourth grade teacher in an elementary school or something, and there’s maybe three other fourth grade teachers in that same building. Well, I’m not trying to compete to [chuckle] win in that situation, I’m actually trying to cooperate. And the more that we all three cooperate together, share ideas, maybe even share kids and make a very fluid situation, everybody wins. The number of people that get to higher and higher and higher levels of performance increases and increases and increases.

0:08:35.9 DL: You may never get to a 100% of the people learning a 100% of the material a 100% of the time, but you’re gonna get closer and closer and closer, the higher, the more that you cooperate. And the more that you set up competition, we’re not talking about games, Deming talked about the difference between games that everybody knows it’s a game. You go to a soccer game, everybody knows this is a game. We even call them games. [chuckle]

0:09:07.8 AS: Games.

0:09:09.4 DL: Something we can play, but that’s not real life. And that’s why I always try to explain to teachers that you can’t set up your classroom as a game, because really what you’re doing is teaching life and death situations. Somebody that can’t learn to add is gonna have a tough, tough time in the rest of their life. So we can’t just reduce it down to a simple game, or do this and you get a lolly or an M&M or a piece of candy or something. And we often have teachers that would say things like, “Oh, well, kids like that.” “Okay. Well, I like that.” [chuckle] But don’t tie it to something so critical as performing well on fractions, [chuckle] that if you do really well on this, then you’re gonna get a prize or you’re gonna get something out of that. I remember, ’cause we’re talking about the orchestra thing, as a band teacher, I had to learn the hard way when I was teaching young kids how to play, say, “Look, you need to be practicing 20 minutes a night. And that’s the firm rule, is just you need to be doing that.”

0:10:23.9 DL: Well, it was really pretty foolish on my part because they have a system too, and they have all kinds of things going on in their lives, that was what was happening. And when I really pushed it really hard, and they’d get little cards that they’d have to fill out how many times they’d practice, and their parents had to sign it and all this stuff. Well, what I found out is I had a bunch of kids cheating, writing down times even though they didn’t practice. Some of them would even forge their parents’ signatures, [chuckle] all kinds of stuff. And it’s really easy to blame the individual and say, “Wow, look how ineffective kids these are. If I can get some better kids, we’d have a better program here.”

0:11:05.7 DL: But after learning about Deming and studying all this, I made just one simple change. I just gave them a little run chart and I said, “All I want you to do is just mark down how many minutes a night you practice, that’s it. And all you have to do is just, I don’t care if it’s one minute or no minutes, or whatever it might be, you just put that on this chart.” And then we would turn that into a little run chart for a whole week’s performance. And lo and behold, the average number of minutes per night that kids were practicing just went up and up and up because they wanted to see their chart get better. [chuckle] It’s a human phenomenon that Deming tapped into, that people want to improve. And when they could just see the number of minutes going up.

0:12:00.5 DL: And I’d have really good conversations with them and sit down and say, “Hey. Well, how do you feel about that? Look at this. Look at your chart?” And you didn’t have to have anybody verify it or anything else, but it was just you keeping track of your own performance within that. And then when we come together as a group, that’s our time to optimize the situation. And Deming talked a lot about that. Sometimes people or groups would have to be sub-optimized, they may not be working to their full potential, so that the whole group or the whole system will work more efficiently. That’s a hard concept to get somehow. But again, back to the orchestra thing, there’s a lot of people in an orchestra when you play a piece that they’re sub-optimized, [chuckle] they’re just playing one little part of the whole big piece. [chuckle]

0:12:57.7 AS: Yeah. The cymbals.


0:12:57.9 DL: Yeah.

0:13:00.8 AS: There’s a moment.

0:13:02.7 DL: But it’s necessary. [chuckle]

0:13:04.7 AS: There’s a moment. T And just because the cymbals guy is sitting there and not participating, as long as he’s contributing that moment, that’s really performance in that sense. There’s a quote that I like by what Dr. Deming said that’s somewhat related to this, and I see this in my work with companies here in Thailand. And that is, “A company could put a top man or woman at every position and be swallowed by a competitor with people only half as good, but who are working together.”

0:13:40.1 DL: Absolutely. Yeah, exactly. [chuckle]

0:13:43.4 AS: Yeah. I think that really says it all, as to what…

0:13:46.2 DL: Yeah. That’s what he is getting at here. The more you cooperate, the better you’re gonna compete, even though competition was not… Were really never your goal to start with.

0:13:57.9 AS: Yeah.

0:13:58.9 DL: Well, this made me think about when I was a high school teacher, and I tapped into how much the students really loved learning about Deming and everything. And we started going out and doing presentations actually, and going to the universities, corporations, all kinds of places to do presentations. And every person that did a presentation had to have like four or five people that were helping them, making sure that their video was working and making sure that the sound was right and all kinds of things. And the idea being so that they could concentrate on their presentation. And I’ll never forget, we were at a state department somewhere, and somebody at the end got up and said, “The information you shared with us and everything is very [chuckle] profound and very wonderful, but the real show was the high degree of cooperation going on amongst all the students as things were happening.” So somebody just didn’t get up and do their thing and then just go sit down in a corner somewhere and just wait, everybody had an interrelated job to help people put on a really good performance, basically.

0:15:15.5 AS: Well, what a great way to end our discussion on the role of managers of people. And this was 14 items that Dr. Deming talked about in his book, The New Economics. And this final one, I think really stands out to me, and that is the idea of today, starting right now, stop pitting individuals and groups against each other and start figuring out how we can get people cooperating and how we can coordinate effort, because the coordination and the cooperation is where the real value is created and the real experience is created, whether that’s in a classroom, whether that’s on a factory floor, or whether that’s in an office. All of those spaces, the idea of cooperation is so valuable for performance and getting the most out of people, but also, gosh, it makes it a happier day. [laughter]

0:16:17.8 DL: Absolutely. And not just limited to businesses and organizations, family works the same way. I have five children and I used to always tell people in my seminars, “How do I go about figuring out who amongst them is the greatest child?”


0:16:38.0 AS: Child of the month.

0:16:38.1 DL: Yeah. And out of five kids, what? Two or three of them were gonna be below average probably. [chuckle] And so, if you start thinking about it that way, you start thinking about, “Oh, we wouldn’t wanna do that.” But I had the opportunity to take our family to Europe, we went to Singapore, we went to all kinds of places. And I remember when we went to Singapore to visit relatives there, we had 15 pieces of luggage [laughter] that we flew with for the seven people that were all going on this trip. Well, no one person can be responsible for all that, it has to be an interrelated related system. And everybody’s working for the common aim of to pull this off and make sure that we can go on another trip. And it’s really enjoyable and everybody had fun. And so… That’s my final comment.

0:17:32.0 AS: Well, let’s wrap it up there. David. On behalf of everyone at Deming Institute, I wanna thank you again for this discussion. And for listeners, remember to go to to continue your journey. And listeners can learn more about David at This is your host Andrews Stotz, and I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Deming. “People are entitled to joy in work.”

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