Coaching and Deming

Coaching and Deming

Photo of Dr. W E Deming

I regularly lament the relative obscurity of Bill Deming and his work. I’m not the only one. God only knows why he’s not better known. Just about everyone who knows of him – and in particular his System of Profound Knowledge – is a fan. How could it be otherwise?

Even just one aspect of his work – his so-called 95/5 rule – has so many implications for businesses everywhere.

I’m not going to get into that today, nor into all his many insights and contributions. Except for the seeming contradiction the 95/5 rule raises in the whole field of personal and team coaching (and, incidentally, training, as well as my immediate specialism these days, therapy).

Aside: By ‘personal coaching’ I’m thinking of things like agile coaching, life coaching, executive coaching and so on.

Here’s the thing: if we accept Deming’s observation that the system – the way the work works – is responsible for 95% of an individual’s (or team’s) performance (in a job or task), why “work on the five percent” (the individuals)? Is that not rather… incongruous?

Granted, folks sometimes hire their own e.g. life or fitness coaches for their own personal reasons. Let’s set aside these cases and focus on those rather more common cases where organisations hire the coaches for one or more people in the organisation. Agile Coaching seems a common example of this.

The aim of such coaching appointments is often to get the individuals being coached to “perform better”. And most often, the implicit assumption is that it’s the performance of said individuals (or, more rarely, teams) that should be the focus of the coaching efforts.

How many folks who seek coaches for their people and teams actually consider the 95/5 rule? How many coaches see their role as more like working on the system than working on the individuals concerned?

“If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do.”

~ Frederick Herzberg

I can personally attest to the endless frustrations arising from coaching situations where it’s been the system that needed to change, not the fine folks already doing their best in badly designed, badly organised jobs.

– Bob

Further Reading

Herzberg’s Motivation Hygiene Theory 

  1. Some people really don´t understand how this works. Once I was told: “Hey, that employee is not comfortable with his work. Coach him till he is happy” :(( Obviously he was doing a crappy work, that was really the problem.

    Anyway, I think that we need to act on the 5% to change the 95%. People change the system. You can´t act on the system without changing people, or can we? Probably we need to coach (and train, and help!) the person who has the “power” to change the system.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. As Jose mentions, systems are constructs developed, changed and sustained by people. Coaching has the potential for a return on investment by helping people understand how they can change the systems that obstruct their success…and that may mean they need to start by changing themselves.

    I’d add the rider that the client and coach create a system together, so it needs to be one that enables systemic change, rather than one that focuses on individual change, or on maintaining the status quo. And the biggest determinant here is the capability and quality of the coach…

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. I am in general agreement with your observations, excepting the last sentence. Let’s not forget that coaches themselves are as much subject to the 95/5 rule as everyone else.

      – Bob

  3. In my opinion, focus in the personal performance of the people is missing the point. Try to improve it through coaching is wasting time and money.
    The leaders / manager function is to add value into the system to make sure that the employees can constantly create value for the customers and improve the system themselves.

  4. Hi Bob – true. I think I meant to suggest that the coach who makes a difference is the coach who is capable of both being part of the system and being able to observe, critique and challenge their role in that system whilst enabling their client to do the same.

    One of the tools I often use to help my clients work on their systems is Hawkins and Shohet Seven Eyed Supervision Model. Here is a link to an overview

    I change the ‘Actors’ so that the ‘Client’ is the organisation, the Coach’ is the person I’m coaching and the ‘Supervisor’ is me.

  5. I’ve added this to my blog after the link to your post.

    Thanks Bob, for bringing Deming to the conversation about coaching. His work changed and it is still changing how I see mine. I can understand how revolutionary (even weird) it was to the Japanese leaders that were listening to him decades ago. It still is.

    Let me try to define how I see Agile coaching: helping teams, the individuals that form them and the organizations and individuals that interact with them to improve the system we form altogether so we can stay in business longer and produce better results for all involved.

    It’s admittedly still green and the idea is not new at all. The simplest proof is there have been a number of ways to refer to the changes required in the system beyond the team’s autonomy, like organizational impediments. I am trying to articulate it well and let it drive my work as a coach.

    A practical implication of this mindset when coaching is that I ask teams not to focus on improving the personal 5% span of influence, or even the team’s x%, but looking at the overall system we form, identify the factor with the biggest impact on our work (it may be impacting the value we can produce, our capability to produce or our wellness as teams or individuals). Once identified, we should establish a theory on how that factor works, i.e. how it influences the overall system. Then we put it to test on some small experiments and see if we can improve the overall state of our system. If the theory doesn’t stay… well, you know the method.

    As already mentioned by Bob in his answer to a comment, the coach is one more part of the system and as such it can not be isolated from it when establishing a working theory. We are part of the system we want to improve and that is just one more rationale not to buy the metaphor of an engineer improving an external process. A more organic metaphor may be more useful, such as a network of relationships (i.e. a family) in which you are one of the parties. If you want to help your family, or marriage, or team improve you have to keep in mind you are still an interested party.

  6. Hi Bob, all fine points. But who should we talk to to change the system? The system? I think that in most organizations we talk about the system forever, instead of focusing on the human beings around us.

  7. I just recently commented to someone a quote from Austin’s book on measuring/managing performance in organizations (

    Austin says that the (non-measuring) manager needs to convince the employees to do their best “by example and through persuasion, and in clearly communicating direction to employees”.

    I think one of the hardest things is getting managers used to the idea that they can’t really measure performance of individuals, or even teams. The whole idea of “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” has been harmful to organizations’ health.

  8. Hi Bob,

    Granted, most coaching that happens is not probably done with the “System in Mind”, however there is a field of systemic coaching, which I do find fascinating. Here are a couple of places where to look for further information:

    Long article with examples:

    Some books about Systemic Coaching:

    Systemic coaching and especially constellations has roots in Family Therapy, and you might find that interesting.

    Here’s also a book that combines SFT and Constellations and Systemic view for therapy and organisational change:

  9. Paul Beckford said:

    Edward Deming obscure? Are you sure? He is the biggest self publicist there has ever been. The 60 minutes documentary that marked his rise to fame, is a complete mis-respresentation of history. To claim that he was single handedly responsible for the post war Japanese industrial rise ignores the fact that he was only actually in Japan for a very short time, and most of what we know as Total Quality came from the Japanese themselves. The Japanese Standards Association (JSA) and the Japanese Union of Scientist and Engineers (JUSE), invited Deming as a guest speaker for only 8 days, but went on to define the 7 tools of total quality themselves.

    Here is a paper that gives a somewhat more accurate portrayal of history:

    Click to access InTech-The_development_and_changes_of_quality_control_in_japan.pdf

    That aside, Deming is good stuff 🙂

    I’ve always found the 95/5% rule somewhat confusing. If the system is 95% responsible for performance, then who is responsible for the system? Aren’t Managers workers too?

    I think the 95/5% rule represents where the Japanese industrialists were at in 1945. At that time an industrial system was seen as a separate thing for the workers who worked in that “system”. In 1945 this was not an unreasonable view point. Most industrials systems back then were not designed by the people working in them. Instead they were designed by external “experts” in true Taylorism style 🙂

    How does this idea now play in our modern world of knowledge work? I would say that today the people are the system, so the people are 100% responsible for performance. The crux though is that not all people are equal within organisations, so some people are more responsible for others 🙂

    So to rephrase Deming (and the 1940’s Japanese): The people responsible for designing the system are 95% responsible for performance. Or put another way, the buck stops at the top 🙂

  10. Paul Beckford said:

    “I can personally attest to the endless frustrations arising from coaching situations where it’s been the system that needed to change, not the fine folks already doing their best in badly designed, badly organised jobs.”

    Just incase it wasn’t clear from my last comment. The people we should be coaching are the people creating these dodgy systems in the first place. This normally means the leadership team.

    Here is an article where I make the same point:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: