This podcast was originally published on In Their Own Words for The W. Edwards Deming Institute
How many people need to be “on board” in order to start implementing Deming ideas in an organization? Andrew and David P. Langford discuss Dr. Deming’s answer and what that means for folks trying to make changes.
0:00:02.6 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’s topic is, What is the Critical Mass for Transformation? David, take it away.
0:00:27.6 David Langford: Thank you, Andrew. It’s good to be back. So this idea about transformation, what is the transformation? What are we talking about? We hear a lot about the political transformations and things like that. And I stopped shaving, so now I have a beard, and is that a transformation? And what do we do with that? I also get the questions a lot over the last 40 years about, well, how do we get everybody on board? In fact, almost anytime I do a seminar, I almost always get a question from a principal, superintendent, or somebody in education, how do we get everybody on board? Well, and Deming talked a lot about that transformation starts with the individual. So you’ve got to get yourself on board to begin with. And I remember when I started learning about Deming and started reading the books and kind of going through things, it was a mental transformation for me individually. So that’s probably the first step if you’re thinking about transforming an organization, whether that be a classroom, a school, a company, a family, whatever you might want to think about, is, getting yourself on board.
0:01:46.8 DL: And then the second thing is, okay, well, now we’re going to transform a larger part of the organization. What do we do then? So I actually put that question to Dr. Deming one time, and he said, well, “I like to think about having the square root of the organization to cause a transformation of the organization. And this just blew me away because, let’s say you have 100 employees or 100 staff members on a school or whatever it might be. And if you have the thought that you’re going to get everybody on board before you do anything, well, if you understand Dr. Deming’s concept of Profound Knowledge, you’re never going to get there. You’re never going to have 100 people on board before you start anything. You’re going to have variability. You’re going to have variation in people. And even if you had 100 people say, “Oh yeah, we’re not bored, let’s do this,” well, what’s the degree of their commitment to doing that? That’s a huge amount of variation in the organization. So when I asked Dr. Deming, I said, “Well, how do I begin transforming a whole organization like that?” And he said, “Well, I like to think of the square root of the organization,” that you need the square root on board to cause a transformation.
0:03:15.3 AS: So I was thinking about the square root and I was calculating it. So if we have 100 employees in an organization, that’s 10 people. If we have 1000, that is 32 people. If we have 100,000, that’s 300 people. It’s a relatively small number.
0:03:34.2 DL: Yeah, think about that. And that as a leader, sort of liberates you from thinking that, “Okay, I’ve got to get everybody on board before we can start doing stuff.” And that’s just really not true at all. Or in a classroom, you’ve got 25 kids in a classroom. I really only need about five kids in that classroom that are kind of on board with me and the thought processes, and we can begin a transformation in that classroom. I’ve told that to so many teachers and it’s like this huge revelation in their mind is like, “Oh wow, I just never had thought about that.” And it enables you to sort of get to work. Almost anybody can like pick off the names of five students that would be supportive of working with you or 10 employees out of 100 that would be really supportive to working with you or 100,000, what’d you say? 320 or?
0:04:32.2 AS: 100,000 would be 316, just 300 people.
0:04:32.7 DL: Yeah. And it actually makes it doable. And so I used that for years…
0:04:39.8 AS: I’d literally go out and ask people to volunteer, to say who would be interested in being involved in a transformation and that type of thing. You’re going to get more than 300 people out of 100,000 that are going to volunteer.
0:04:54.2 DL: Yeah. Dr. Myron Tribus was another one of my mentors and he was a colleague of Dr. Deming. And he used to go with me to universities because he’d been the Dean at Dartmouth. He’d been the Dean at MIT and he just had a tremendous university background and stuff. And so we would go together and give presentations and we were at a major university. I won’t name it. But the Dean of Education was being pressured by the President to have us talk to faculty members. And so we, first we talked to the Dean of Education and Dr. Myron Tribus was sort of a genius at working people in higher ed. And the Dean says, well, “I’m very interested in Dr. Deming’s thought processes and I would be willing to do this, but we just won’t have… We just don’t have that many staff that would be willing to start learning about this and applying it in classrooms,” et cetera, et cetera. And Dr. Tribus said to him, he said, “Well, if you did have people that were interested and willing to start learning and get on board, would they have your full support?”
0:06:05.1 DL: And he was like, oh yeah, they definitely have their full support. So we go do a presentation in front of a hundred and some faculty members at this university and Myron Tribus at the end of the presentation, he says, “The Dean has said that he’ll give his full support for anybody that wants to start learning about applying Deming in their classrooms and moving forward. So raise your hand if you’d be interested in getting on board.” Now, if that 100 faculty members, there must have been 60 or 70 hands that went up. The Dean disappeared and we never saw him again. And we never got a chance to actually go further than that. But it’s kind of a good example about this, that, wow, that’s way more than the square root that wanted to get on board and wanted to start learning. But the problem is so many…
0:06:57.2 AS: And that goes back to the intrinsic stuff that we’ve talked about that people are there. They want intrinsic.
0:07:04.3 DL: Oh, yeah. They want it.
0:07:05.8 AS: They want to see change. They want to see improvement. They don’t want to see nonsense going on.
0:07:08.9 DL: Well, the problem with most leaders that I’ve encountered and etcetera, is they spend a huge amount of their time sort of trying to placate the naysayers. So anything you want to do, whether that’s bringing in Deming principles or not, but any kind of a change or any kind of a movement or whatever you want to do, you’re going to have resistors and people that resist and don’t want to get on board. And leaders spend so much time trying to massage their egos and help people get on board thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to get everybody on board,” where actually you just need to leave them alone. The people that actually need your support is that square root. They’re the ones that need your support and actually protection from the mob basically, because they’re going to come under attack as well, within that. But one of the things that lessens the attack is when you can just say to people, “Look, you don’t have to, you don’t have to do this. This is a choice.” And we learned about that in intrinsic motivation study that we did, right?
0:08:20.9 AS: Yeah.
0:08:21.0 DL: This is a choice. You don’t have to do this, but you also don’t have the right to take other people down. That, to me, that’s a real strong role of leadership is that you have to be the one that’s going to protect other people that are trying to get on board and create their own square root for that transformation. So it’s no doubt it’s challenging. If you don’t and… If you don’t have that individual transformation and you don’t have that depth of knowledge of what it is you’re trying to do, I’d say, take more time to just work on that first before you think “I have to get other people on board.”
0:09:06.3 AS: Just to put it to work.
0:09:06.4 DL: But that’s about every organization where I’ve said, how many people would be interested in learning more about this and studying it. I get way more than the square root of the organization and then that.
0:09:16.9 AS: I was just, while you were talking some, you may hear me tapping away as I was kind of looking for what’s the definition of transformation. I thought, hmm, okay. And Oxford languages dictionary, as well as Google, the ultimate, maybe, says, “Transformation is a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.” And what it makes me think about when you said about focus on yourself first, is that you’ve really got to make a thorough or dramatic change before you can lead a thorough and dramatic change.
0:09:56.7 DL: Yeah. Or larger and larger organizations. So the other… So Deming called that the critical mass. You have to have critical mass. He talked a lot about critical mass. And I didn’t think too much about that for years. And then I realized that Deming was also a physicist. And I looked up critical mass… And you’re tapping away trying to look up critical mass.
0:10:23.0 AS: Yeah. Exactly.
0:10:25.4 DL: But it’s the… From what I understand, it’s the tiny amount of material that it would take to create a nuclear reaction.
0:10:33.8 AS: Exactly.
0:10:34.5 DL: And you’re talking about almost infinitesimal amount to create this nuclear reaction, whatever that might be, powering a ship or a bomb or whatever you want to use it for. That’s more of a study of values than anything.
0:10:52.6 AS: Yeah. “The minimum amount of fissile material needed to maintain a nuclear chain reaction or also the minimum size or amount of something required to start or maintain a venture.” But what’s interesting, when I think of critical mass, I think of big. But what I get from what you’ve just said, and this is, actually, critical mass is small.
0:11:08.6 DL: Yes. Very small.
0:11:10.7 AS: It’s the minimum.
0:11:12.7 DL: And if you think of it, I want to cause basically a nuclear reaction in my organization, right? I want to get us from point A to point Z or wherever we’re going to go. Well, what’s the fastest way to do that? That small critical mass of people that are committed to moving forward. And it’s amazing how fast an organization can change when you’re thinking like that. Not thinking, “Well, I’ve got to get everybody on board.”
0:11:42.2 AS: I don’t know about you, but I know for the listeners out there and the viewers that it’s exciting and it’s inspiring. I feel excited by this when I think about… Because sometimes when you think about transformation, you do think about “How am I going to deal with the naysayers or the people who aren’t going to go along? Or, “Oh, I need everybody on board.” But what you’re explaining that Dr. Deming said to you was that it’s actually not as daunting. And maybe I can tell a kind of a funny story about critical mass. And I was in… I was asked to give a speech in the Philippines and I went to the Philippines and my speech was in the afternoon. And I was talking about my worst investment ever podcast and the lessons I learned. My audience was 900 people who are young students.
0:12:27.3 AS: And so I was pretty excited. I went to the venue early in the morning and they were just starting. My speech wasn’t until 3:00, but it was like 9:00 AM. And the organizers had said to me… I said, “How are you doing?” And I know them pretty well. And they said, “We’re doing terrible.” I said, “Why?” They said, “Because our keynote speaker that’s going to speak at 10:30 just told us that he can’t make it because he’s got to take his mother to the hospital.” And I said, “Well, can I help?” And he said, “Well, can you give a speech on ethics?” And I said, “Oh, yeah, I can.” And so I said, “If you give me an hour and a laptop computer and one of your staff, I can pull together something and get up on that stage.” Well, at the end of that, in an hour or so later, I was ready. I got up on stage and I gave a knockout presentation of something I had given before, but I packaged it for that audience. And the crowd went wild and it was 2000 people for the keynote session. But what they didn’t know was that once I finished my preparation, I went to the back of the audience and I knew that they were university students in groups. So I went to the back left-hand corner of the audience and I said, I’m going to be speaking next and I’m going to ask the audience to shout out, when I get up there, like, “Who over there is ready to,” and I said, “When I do that, will you guys like stand up and shout out?”
0:13:42.2 AS: And they’re like, “Yeah.” And “What university are you from?” And then I did the same at the right hand side. So when I got up on stage and I started to get the crowd going, I said, everybody over on the right hand side of this, on the left hand side, I called out and basically the crowd went wild. And what they didn’t realize was it was just a small number of people that I had, basically so, started in this process so that they were prepared to be a player in this process when it started to happen. And then that tiny critical mass led to the explosion of the audience. So that’s a little, a fun example of my own case.
0:14:19.3 DL: Yeah, that’s perfect. And what happens in, whether it’s a classroom, a school, university, whatever, as you start with that critical mass and as you bring more people on board and that expands, there becomes less and less room for things that are the antithesis, what it is you want to have happen. And then my experience is that people will either eventually start to get on board and start to learn about what you’re teaching and what you want to have happen and etcetera, or a lot of times they’ll just find another place to work, which is fine too. And then you get to, move it forward with somebody new coming in, etcetera. But either way, you’re not spending all your time trying to placate people and bring them on board and soothe their egos and etcetera, etcetera. And you just keep moving on. And pretty soon there’s just less and less and less space for those negative comments and people that aren’t doing anything.
0:15:26.9 AS: So let’s take it another step further. Let’s say you get that critical mass. Let’s say you’ve got 100 people in an organization, in a school, in a company, and you’ve got that 10 and you’re starting to work with them and maybe you’re doing some study groups and you’re starting to really open up and they’re starting to see. How should someone proceed from that position? Should you proceed by bringing out things and starting to test them or should you wait until you really have a deeper knowledge? I’m sure there’s a tension between those two, but I’m curious what you think about that and what you think Dr. Deming said about them.
0:16:01.5 DL: Well, there’s another reason that this is a almost magical way to approach a transformation, is that you yourself are probably… Let’s go back to the 100 people that you have in the organization. If you had 100 people all of a sudden get on board and asking you questions all the time and “What do we do and how do we do this,” and all of that, you couldn’t handle that, right? You couldn’t handle that much change, but you could probably handle 10 people that really want to know and really are trying to understand and work through stuff and thereby get them to think about the small ways in which they can begin their own transformations, whether that’s a department or a classroom or whatever it might be through that process. But it’s liberating in that way too, because it’s giving you a time as a leader to learn as well, what does this mean and how would this apply and what would we do in this circumstance?
0:17:06.5 AS: And I guess in that…
0:17:07.5 DL: It’s a powerful concept, and I’ve used it so many times and it’s just, it’s really caused a transformation in many organizations, no matter the size.
0:17:15.4 AS: One of the things I was thinking about is that the transformation that those 10 people are going through in that organization is probably going to mirror what their next group of people go through as the organization starts to understand. So maybe keeping notes, identifying what are the questions and maybe having like a Frequently Asked Questions document where, okay, what are the questions we have and how do we come up with some ideas of how do we answer these questions based upon what we want to do with this transformation? And then that way we’re prepared when we go out and say, we’re going to get the same questions from the people as they start first being exposed to the transformation.
0:17:58.5 DL: I use the example a lot about, Jesus only had 12 and he changed the world. And he changed the world. Or Confucius or any movement like that always started with just a small, minute number of committed people willing to move forward.
0:18:20.7 AS: Well, I think that’s interesting and I want to wrap it up just by summarizing a couple of points. And the first one is that, the first thing that you talked about is that people often say, “How do I get everybody on board?” And your point that you’ve made is, you’re not going to get everybody on board and that shouldn’t be your aim. And what you said, is Dr. Deming said, when you asked him how many people does it take to start that, to make that transformation? And he said he likes to think of the square root of the organization. So 100 people, maybe 10 people out of that. A 100-person organization, maybe 10 people. A 100,000-person organization, maybe 300 people. And I think that you’ve also talked about how people are hungry for that because we’ve already talked about intrinsic motivation. So if you go out and say, “Hey, who would like to be involved in making this a better place and making a transformation?” then that’s cool. And I think the other thing that, talking about the critical mass, which I had kind of a misunderstanding of that, but the critical mass is the minimum amount to cause a massive change.
0:19:33.0 AS: And so also you mentioned about, that we’re not forcing this on people. You’ve got a choice, but the one choice that may be a hard choice is just staying in place and not changing and improving. And therefore there are times that you have to say, this may not be the culture for you and there’s other places that have them. Anything you would add to that summary?
0:20:00.0 DL: No, it was very good. But I mentioned Dr. Myron Tribus, but he used to constantly tell me, “You preach to the masses, then work with the volunteers.”
0:20:10.4 AS: That’s beautiful.
0:20:11.9 DL: Yeah. You have that 100-person organization. You’re going to preach to the masses and you’re going to explain what this is all about, etcetera, etcetera. And then you’re going to work with the volunteers and let other people just go back to doing what it is they were doing, because they’re probably not going to do any worse or better. And it’s going to give you time to work with the people that are volunteering to actually transform the organization.
0:20:36.4 AS: Preach to the masses, work with the volunteers
0:20:38.5 DL: And work with the volunteers.
0:20:42.7 AS: Love it. What I wanted to do before I end this episode is, I want to speak directly to the listeners and the viewers. This, what we’re doing with this material is to try to help all of us think about a transformation. And I don’t know about you, but from what I just heard from David and what Dr. Deming said about the square root of the organization, it really fired me up to think about how can I bring that transformation to my own organizations. And it inspired me, but it also helped me to understand that it’s not as difficult as it is sometimes in our minds. So let’s lay down the challenge. Time to start the transformation in your organization and in yourself. And David, on behalf of everyone at The Deming Institute, I want to thank you again for the discussion. For listeners, remember to go to deming.org to continue your journey and listeners can learn more about David at langfordlearning.com. This is your host, Andrew Stotz, and I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Deming. People are entitled to joy in work.