Thriving on Chaos: Deming in Education with David P. Langford (Part 14)

Deming Institute Podcast

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

In this episode, Andrew and David talk about chaos, authority, and when calming the chaos can feel like a loss of control. They explore the “psychology” aspect of Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge, and how that applies to classrooms and and school systems.


0:00:02.4 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 Thriving on Chaos. David, take it away.


0:00:28.4 David Langford: Thank you, Andrew. It’s good to be back again.


0:00:30.9 AS: Oh, yeah.


0:00:31.0 DL: So, yes, Thriving on Chaos. So I started thinking about this because of my work with executive coaching, both with principals and superintendents and people like that. And it’s sort of like a pattern or if I go and visit a campus and actually start to see what’s happening at the campus, either a university or a school or whatever, and it applies to Deming’s concept of Profound Knowledge and the concept of Psychology and how does psychology fit in with the variation systems thinking and so on and so forth. So this whole idea about thriving on chaos comes from… You have to start to think about the neuroscience behind it as well, about who’s in charge or who’s in command of something. So if you’re talking about a military a military commander, well, that’s all based on your rank. Or you might have a formal position in a company, right? You’re a vice president or you’re president, and along with that there comes a certain level of authority too.


0:01:46.3 DL: Well, in a school, it’s the same kind of a thing. In a classroom, a teacher has a built-in level of authority in that classroom and especially like in younger years, elementary schools or primary schools, you’re physically bigger than your students or your clients or your workers or however you wanna think about students in a school system. So sometimes people get away from… Get by with a management style that, it’s just based on… That is bigger and sort of is threatening, and it’s scarier. And imagine if you had a boss that was like 20 feet tall and… Compared to you and stuff. It’d be kind of a scary thing, right?


0:02:38.0 AS: Definitely.


0:02:39.8 DL: Yeah, but I think…


0:02:40.9 AS: He could just squash me by just putting his foot down.


0:02:44.8 DL: Yeah. So just because you’re getting stuff done doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing things well or planning things through or something. You’re just getting things done because maybe you’re the loudest voice in the room or the squeakiest wheel or you’re the… All these other kinds of things. But along with that, when you have that formal position, I’ve sort of found that people have to go through a phase where they’re tired of the chaos, they’re tired of the craziness, but at the same time, the craziness gives you authority. “I’m the authority figure. And so, I’ve gotta fix this, and I gotta always be in control.” And so, Deming talked about moving from one burning fire to the next to the next to the next and managing the way of thinking like that.


0:03:44.5 DL: So if you really start applying Deming kind of philosophies to your management style, whether that’s in a classroom, school, company, whatever it might be, I’ve always found that over time, things start to calm down. [chuckle] Attitudes calm down, students just know more about what to do, how to do things. Maybe they have flow charts or operational definitions, and so they start to actually take control of the situation, etcetera. And that actually becomes threatening to somebody who has spent a career thriving on the chaos. And you walk into a classroom and none of the kids are doing what it is they’re supposed to do. And so, you get really angry, and you get upset, and yell at them and then everybody does what they’re supposed to do and that puts you in a position of authority.


0:04:37.9 DL: That’s much different than if I walked into a classroom and the students didn’t even know I was gone. They all know what they’re supposed to do, how they’re supposed to do it, they’re all working together, they’re all communicating with each other back and forth and there is no chaos. I’ll never forget the… I worked with a university in Southern California and I was coaching a number of the professors. And this one professor, I get a phone call one day and he’s whispering. He said, “I had a flat on the way to school this morning, and I was 20 minutes late. And we have a philosophy at the school that if a professor is more than 10 minutes late, you don’t have to stay. You can leave.”


0:05:28.1 DL: So he said, “I was totally sure that I was gonna get to my class and everybody’s gonna be gone. There wouldn’t be anybody there.” He said, “I came into my class, and they didn’t even know I was gone. They were all working in teams and they were working on their projects and communicating and going through stuff.” [chuckle] So he calls me whispering, and he said, “I need some quality therapy. They don’t need me.” Well, it’s just the opposite. Those kinds of environments don’t happen by accident. And he had steadily been turning the management, so to speak, of the class over to the students and… “You know what to do. You know what you do when you hit the room. Why would you even come to class? What’s my role? What’s your role? How do we define things?” And…


0:06:18.1 DL: So he actually had turned into much more of what we all wanna do, is become a facilitator of learning, that’s a very common term in education, but people don’t often realize you truly become a facilitator of learning, it’s kind of threatening. Because you’ve been thriving on chaos for years, and running stuff and being the person in control and everybody has to come to you for an answer and for a decision, and that in itself psychologically is a pretty heady thing. And if you start to change that, it becomes threatening.


0:06:56.1 AS: From your own experience, I’m guessing that there’s a small proportion of people that will never change that style, everybody line up when they in, everybody be quiet. Okay, you do this, you do that, and then you’ve got this group that on the other end of the spectrum, it’s like, you guys do it, but then you’ve got a lot of people in the middle, how do you convince the people in the middle that shifting… I guess what you could say is empowering one group dis-empowers another, it must.


0:07:31.0 DL: Yeah, what Deming says, leaders have three sources of power, so yes, you have your formal position, and then you also have your knowledge about things, and then there’s the psychology of how you manage and what you do and all that kind of stuff, but he often talked about formal leaders don’t use formal position. But you absolutely have to because you’re not gaining authority or you’re not gaining power or authority to change things by going through that. So yes, yes, you have the role. Yes, you have the position. Yes, you have the responsibility. And ultimately, the buck stops with you, whether that’s a teacher in a classroom or a CEO in a company, but you’re only gonna use that formal position to make decisions or overstep things, basically in a time of crisis or an emergency. But even then, as soon as you finish that time of crisis or that emergency you wanna spend time trying to figure out how do we make sure this never happens again. A really great example is every school in the world practices fire drills. Oh, why did we do that? Well, a child could go through entire school systems some place and never ever have an actual fire.


0:09:00.6 DL: Right. Well, we do that because… We have to practice that because the danger is so high, and if something did happen, that special cause, that one special cause, one time in 12 years or 20 years, the cost is so great that we have to practice it, we have to be ready and everything else, ’cause we can’t rely in a moment, on the leader being there to tell us what to do. Everybody has to know what to do in those kinds of situations. The same thing’s true today in lockdowns, schools, things like that, the danger level is so high, we have to practice it nowadays, and we have to go through the scenario, even though it’s such an extreme special cause, it may… In a whole teacher’s career of 40 years, they may never, ever experience an actual threat going on, but we practice it to make sure it doesn’t… This doesn’t happen again. So it’s the same thing, if you find yourself in chaos, again, something’s going on or some project didn’t go well, or whatever it is that you went through, the best thing is to just figure out how do we get through this? And then secondly, start using the people that were part of the process and part of the dysfunction to actually fix the process. What do we learn from this?


0:10:21.6 AS: And would we equate when we talk about, let’s just say we create a run chart on a production in a factory, and our job is to get the system in control to reduce variability, that type of thing, I guess that’s reducing chaos or chaotic outcomes. So is it a corollary here that as we start to apply the principles in education, one of our goals is to reduce that variation or that chaotic, chaotic-ness? I don’t know. How does that compare to what we would think in a factory, as an example?


0:10:56.0 DL: Yeah, no, that’s exactly the same kind of thing. You know, it can be so simple. I remember asking teachers all the time, How’s it going today? Oh, I’m having a really bad day, or I’m having great day, or these kids are driving me crazy today, it must be… Gonna rain. Well, they’re just constantly victims of their own reality, and so until you have that understanding of your variation or able to sort of step back and it very well could be that it’s gonna rain and that’s a sort of a special cause, except if you’re in Thailand it rains all the time, so it’s a common cause. But… And that could be having some kind of effect, but until you have some level of data to try to look at over time, then you’re on this constant psychological roller coaster.


0:11:53.2 DL: Great day and bad day, or I hate this job, or I don’t like this job or… Because you’re just riding those waves of psychology of the variation that’s going on, and especially in schools, there’s just so much random variation, like we try to control it to some level, but for the most part, still you really have no idea the variation, and students are gonna come into your classroom every year, right? So they could be coming from different countries, they could have different languages, they could have different backgrounds, all kinds of things within that. Now, unlike in a K-12 system, like we have in the United States and other places around the world, we do control that to some degree, because a certain percentage of those students are gonna stay in that system for the entire time that they’re going through that system, and then they… A high percentage sometimes are transient students that are coming in and out all the time.


0:12:54.4 DL: The real key is, are you just thriving on that chaos of that and it’s just, “Oh, woe is me, and I’ll look at this, we got all these transient kids and kids that speak 52 different languages and everything else,” or are you starting to understand that, “Oh, no, this is probably the norm of our system, and what are we doing about it?” How are we managing differently to bring all these cultures together and to manage it on a whole different level.


0:13:21.1 AS: So maybe I will try to summarize what you’ve been talking about. First of all, you’re saying this is part of the psychology aspect of the Theory of Profound Knowledge that Dr. Deming talks about. And when you talk about psychology in a statistician kind of background or education that Dr. Deming was in, it’s always kind of interesting like, “Wow, he really, really thought a lot about the human… The person involved in whatever activity is going on.” You also talked about who’s in charge or in command, you talked about in military it’s a rank. In a business, it may be like, “I’m a VP, I’m an executive VP.” So we see that, but one of the things you mentioned, which is so interesting, I hadn’t thought about it, is that the teachers are just physically bigger, and so there’s a certain level of power right there. And the other thing you were talking about is how people may be tired of the craziness, but the chaos makes them feel in control, like [snaps] get everybody lined up, and tell everybody what to do, and they’re perpetuating the problem that they’re kind of suffering from. And then you mentioned that Deming’s methods, when you start to implement them in a classroom, in a school, that things start to calm down. That…


0:14:44.6 AS: And that is a threat to the person that wants to thrive on chaos, and then finally the last part you talked about was the three types of power, formal power that’s derived from knowledge and power that’s derived from psychology, and you said ultimately, you only wanna use the power that comes from formal position in very rare cases, but the idea is try to get the… I guess what I would say is by empowering students, you’re reducing your power and let them produce from that. Anything you would add to that?


0:15:20.8 DL: No, you got it spot on.


0:15:26.4 AS: Well, there we are.


0:15:30.3 DL: Yeah, Deming talked a lot about that. Somebody that becomes more and more knowledgeable about managing situations and helping people becomes very powerful, and you may not have the formal position, so you could be a teacher in a building that has 160 teachers, but you become actually very powerful, and in some cases, more powerful than the principal, because you’re constantly applying knowledge and thinking to situations versus just reacting to the chaos.


0:16:00.9 AS: It’s interesting, ’cause I think about in my young days, what I did is I learned Excel. I learned how to use Microsoft Excel intensely, and that was when it was pretty… It’s still pretty basic, but still the point was, is it…


0:16:13.8 DL: And that’s when you could have memorized all the formulas.


0:16:16.5 AS: Exactly, exactly. And therefore, people would always go, “Go see Andrew, he can help you solve that.” And I had derived a certain amount of power through my knowledge, and I loved that, and I love people coming to me and going, “How do I do this?” “Oh, that’s easy to do it like that,” and my power and maybe respect for my knowledge rose over time, and so I definitely see that. In fact, I would say that that was a big part of my own education, my pursuit of education, is I saw knowledge as a source of power for me or a source of controlling the situation for good or bad.


0:16:55.3 DL: Yeah, when we talk about, Deming, talked about the three sources of power, when he… I said that psychology, I was really talking about personality. So somebody… You may have worked with people that they just have a great personality, they’re just fun to work with and easy to get along with and everything. Well, they actually get a lot of stuff done, right? So the most effective managers are concentrating on knowledge and personality as a way to get the stuff done and not just issuing orders through my formal position.


0:17:27.0 AS: Well, that is a great discussion on Thriving on Chaos and the pros and cons of it. David, on behalf of everyone at the Deming Institute, I wanna thank you again for the discussion. For listeners, remember to go to to continue your journey. Also, you 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.”

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