Are You Expecting Perfection? Role of a Manager in Education (part 11)

Are You Expecting Perfection? Role of a Manager in Education (Part 11)

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

Perfection may be your goal, but unless you create an artificial environment, you’re not going to get it. David Langford and host Andrew Stotz discuss how good managers/teachers let go of perfection and, instead, understand variation, then work on the system to produce better and better outcomes for everyone.


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. The topic for today is a discussion and a continuation of 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. Today we’re talking about point number 11. And that is, “he does not expect perfection.” So we titled this one, “Are You Expecting Perfection?” David, take it Away.

0:00:51.8 David Langford: Great. Good to be back again, Andrew. Thank you.

0:00:53.7 AS: Indeed.

0:00:54.9 DL: So, yeah. Five simple words for a whole podcast. So what, what is Deming talking about here? Well, I think underneath these five simple words about expecting perfection is the whole concept of understanding variation and understanding systems, and understanding psychology and understanding how do you implement new theories and come up with new ideas and innovation. And that’s Deming’s concept of Profound Knowledge. And if you don’t have some Profound Knowledge and understand basic statistical variation, then you do go about thinking, “Well, I can just, I can just expect perfection.” I remember Deming talking about this point and saying, “I don’t… ” And I don’t know if I have this exactly right. But he said, “I don’t demand perfection, but I’m happy when I get it” or something to that effect.

0:02:04.0 DL: Meaning that when something just turns out perfect, you know, that’s fantastic, but that doesn’t take into account the variation in people and systems and process and everything that goes into a system. So basically in a school, in a classroom, I mean, one of the ways you can, you can get perfection, have everybody score 100% on a test or something like that, is to have students cheat. [chuckle] Because then everybody can get the same answers and do the exact same thing and there’s no variation and there’s no reason to have any discussion or anything like that. And actually, that actually happens in classrooms.

0:02:55.4 DL: If you make the expectation so high and then you create an artificial scarcity of top marks by grading on a curve or, or there’s only one, one winner of a system, then the only way some people can get there is to cheat, is to do something. I remember a friend of mine got his MBA, Master’s in Business Administration, and the environment was so competitive that when the teacher would give an assignment, the students would immediately run over to the library and check out all the books that had to do with that assignment, so other people wouldn’t be able to learn. [chuckle] And because you know they’re expecting perfection, expecting you to master this to get this. And it’s really interesting because when people do things like that in systems, we often wanna blame the people without first blaming the system and basically, you as the manager of that system. So a teacher in a classroom, if you’re not getting the perfection that you wanna have, you want to think about you know, “What am I doing? What can I be doing differently that might get us closer and closer to more and more people getting those top marks?”

0:04:31.5 DL: So when I first started learning about this, and this point actually really goes to Deming’s work in education about grading, grading systems, and him talking about eliminating grades and so on and so forth. I went through the same process, because I couldn’t stop giving grades, or I wouldn’t have a job any longer. So I had to think about, “Well, I could stop…I could create processes whereby more and more people could get that A or could get that perfection or could get that top mark.” So I actually went to my principal and asked him, I said, “Is there any state law or school rule or anything else that prevents all students from getting an A in my class?” And he laughed at me [laughter] and said, “Oh, no, it’s not possible, but we’d love to have all the kids getting A’s.” Well, at the end of that year, I think out of the 134 students, I saw that I had I think about 132 A’s. And as soon as I pushed that button and turned in my grades, the principal was in my room in about 10 minutes.

0:05:41.7 AS: Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.

0:05:42.8 DL: “What are you doing?” [chuckle] “What are you doing?” And the academic counselor was right with him, and he said, “You’re destroying the whole grading system.” I said, “Well, thank you very much. That was my aim.” But yet you’d have to think about if you want more and more students to get top marks, or whether you call it an A or whatever you wanna call it. By the way, sometimes I work with districts, they say, “Oh, we don’t have grades anymore, so we just rank kids, four, three, two, one.” [laughter] So it doesn’t…

0:06:18.0 AS: That’s smart.

0:06:19.6 DL: It doesn’t matter. Yeah. It doesn’t matter what you call it, yeah, you’re still doing the very same thing. But you have to think about, “What would I have to do if I was to get every year more and more and more students to get those top marks?” Well, I would have to manage differently. I would have to let people… If they got something wrong, I would have to let them learn about it, right? And go back and fix it, and make it right. I remember talking with Dr. Deming about his own classes at New York University, and I said, “Well, what do you do?” And he said, “Well, you know, you’re supposed to write a paper on something. And I read that and sometimes I’m a little concerned about what people have written or what they’ve done, and I’ll say, ‘We need to have a chat about this and talk about it.'” He said it’s also a very good chance that they’ve come up with a different way of looking at things and a new idea that you didn’t even think about, right? So it’s not a matter of just doing it exactly the way, you know, the teacher wants it done. So anyway, that’s my take on this.

0:07:40.2 AS: While you were speaking, I went on the Google, which is now our new brain. And I’m afraid that I feel like the definition of perfection or perfect has been changed. I haven’t looked at it for a while, but it says, “Make something completely free from faults or defects.” Okay? That kinda makes sense. That’s what I always thought was perfection, but it has a further part. It says, “Or as close to such condition as possible.”

0:08:12.2 DL: Ah, yeah. That’s very Deming-esque, free of fault or defect. And Deming used to lamb-blast programs that were trying to teach people to be defect-free. And and I think that goes a lot to this very same point of thinking that you’re gonna get perfection on things, not understanding that the normal variation that’s in every system.

0:08:38.5 AS: So I think I’ve got my interpretation is for this one, “he does not expect perfection, he expects a distribution of outcomes.”

0:08:52.1 DL: Yes.

0:08:54.6 AS: That’s the way I would see it. That we understand that it has nothing to do with perfection, it has to do with understanding the outcomes of a system and the distribution or the variation of those outcomes. And when you truly understand that, it’s much more valuable and important than understanding or sitting there and going, “I want perfection.” So that, that… You talked about variation and stuff, to me, that’s really a key thing that I interpret from this.

0:09:28.3 DL: Well, if you take any process, whether that’s in a school or company or military or anything, and you implement this process and you have some kind of data on how did it go? What was that distribution of who did it really well, and the people in the middle, and some people at the end. Basically you look at the average performance and say, “Am I happy with the average,” right? And I always tell teachers, “If you’re happy with your average and you know it, clap your hands,” which is [laughter] basically what you have to do. It’s just to take a look at and using some Profound Knowledge. You look at the situation and you realize, “Yeah, I am happy with that average.” Let’s take for example, maybe you gave a test or you did something and everybody scored between 85 and 95, and the average was 90, right?

0:10:22.6 DL: But you know that you’re probably going to revisit the same material two or three times coming up. Well, it, it doesn’t make sense for you to spend a whole bunch of time trying to get everybody to get a higher score right now, because you know that your Profound Knowledge tells you that you’re gonna be revisiting this later on. And that’s what Deming’s talking about here. And basically if you’re not happy with your average and you know it, okay, then don’t blame the students, because 98% of the reason you’re getting the results you’re getting is coming from the system itself.

0:11:06.6 AS: I was just thinking about a rocket that I believe Russia recently sent a rocket to the moon, and it ended up crashing, from what I remember reading. And it made me think about aiming for perfection and aiming for that one absolute outcome, when in fact there’s a range of outcomes. And particularly when you’re shooting something to the moon [chuckle], you know, like, and it may just be that there’s a little mountain…

0:11:34.7 DL: Complexity of that, yeah.

0:11:36.2 AS: Yeah. There’s a little mountain right there that you hadn’t planned for, and how are you adjusting for various potential outcomes and understanding that rather than just pinpointing and saying, that’s where we’re gonna be ’cause chances are you’re not gonna be there, so.

0:11:53.5 DL: Yeah, it’s probably a good analogy. I imagine if you ask people that had been around NASA for what, 40, 50 years, et cetera, and ask them, how many perfect flights did you ever have? I would bet a large amount of money that they would say zero, [chuckle] because there was variation and complications of every single flight.

0:12:19.8 AS: Yep. Yep. So, I’ll wrap this up by challenging the listeners and the viewers out there to focus on that distribution of outcomes. Someday one of those outcomes may be perfect but most days or almost every day, it’s not gonna be, it’s gonna be a distribution. And so if you do not expect perfection, rather focus on the distribution of outcome, I think you’re gonna be in great position. David, on behalf of everyone at the Deming Institute, I want to thank you again for the discussion. As always, it’s fun. For listeners, remember to go to to join, continue your journey and list…listeners can learn more about David at 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.”

Deming in Education

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