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May 16, 2023

What's the difference between "perfect" and "that will work?" We use them interchangeably all the time. In this episode, Bill and Andrew discuss what "perfect" means and why it's standing in the way of innovation and improvement at work and at home. 


0:00:02.8 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 discussions with Bill Bellows, who has spent 30 years helping people apply Dr. Deming's ideas to become aware of how their thinking is holding them back from their biggest opportunities. The topic for today is The End of Perfection. Bill take it away.


0:00:29.0 Bill Bellows: The finish line of perfection. [laughter] Andrew, here we are, session four. And welcome to our audience.


0:00:39.7 AS: Yeah.


0:00:43.0 BB: And the end of perfection is a topic of a number of presentations that I've done for The Deming Institute and for others. Part of the reason it's on our list is a focus, is that I come across people who are improvement specialists, continuous improvement zealots, specialists, professionals who speak in terms of striving for perfection. And I just start sort of become... Actually, for some time now I've been bothered by that concept, but so let me just say, if I walk into a hardware store where you work, Andrew, and I'm looking for a bolt or something, some tool, something for some project I'm working on, and I'm just hoping you have it. And I come up to you and you say, How can you help me? And I say, I'm looking for this, and you bring me over. And again, I'm just praying that you've got it. And you say, Is this what you're looking for? And I say, perfect. Oh man, I am so excited. I don't have to run across town. You've got what I'm looking for. Perfect.


0:01:52.8 AS: So easily pleased.


0:01:55.5 BB: Yeah, but when I say perfect, what I'm saying is that's exactly what I'm looking for. I'm not saying it's the best saw blade ever known to man, beyond which they'll never be a better one. So I look in terms of casually, I hear the reference, the context of perfection being exactly what I'm looking for versus as lean professionals will use it and other continuous improvement professionals use it, they're implying perfect means you can't go past that point. It's a... And so what it means, Andrew, is that continuous improvement stops at perfection.


0:02:46.5 AS: There's an event horizon.


0:02:49.4 BB: And that I have a problem with. And so what I like to say that people is... Again, I don't have a problem with... I walk into the hardware, I would call it lower case perfect, small p, not capital P. Capital P, I don't believe exist, or I would say to people, you can't believe in continuous improvement and capital P perfection. And people will say, "Well, Bill, but we're... When Toyota's striving in pursuit of perfection, they're implying that, we'll never get there." I say, I don't believe there exists. And I said, it's like getting in the car saying, are we there yet? Are we there yet? So I would say a mindset of capital P perfection is the antithesis of continuous improvement.


0:03:41.2 BB: And why is that important? 'Cause I think there are incredible opportunities for improvement in any organization. I'm not saying they're all worthwhile to pursue, they have to be worthwhile, meaning the benefits from it have to offset the investment of time and energy, so I'm not saying we should improve everything in the organization. And that mind set exist. That is alive and well, that we can improve everything, we can improve everything. I say, when... People don't improve every aspect of their home, they improve bathrooms and kitchens, 'cause that's the highest return. And so likewise, we have a... I think there are people out there in their personal lives of a very pragmatic sense of we don't improve everything. So I think that's understood, but I think there's some confusion. So there, I just wanna say that capital P perfection, I challenge what that means, but where I wanna go next is how that mindset comes about and how prevalent it is. And in a future session, we're gonna talk more about this, but I just wanna hit the word perfection today. I gave some examples of where that thinking comes from. So we were talking earlier of, that Dr. Deming's Red Bead Experiment, and we appreciate, Andrew and I appreciate there are people in the audience that are wondering Red Bead Experiment, what is that all about? Another is saying, I've got a red bead kit right here in my office.


0:05:11.6 AS: Exactly.


0:05:14.3 BB: In fact, I've got a red bead kit right... Two kits right behind me.


0:05:18.0 AS: So for those people that don't know, Red Bead Experiment, we have that on The Deming Institute website. You just type in Deming Red Bead Experiment, and you can get there. There's videos also on the YouTube channel and in DemingNEXT, so there's a lot of resources and of course, there's also other people that are doing it. But for those people that know it, we've decided we're not gonna go through all the details of it, but rather talk about it.


0:05:44.1 BB: Yeah, so as a refresher for those who are familiar with it, and again, if this is brand new to you, then the suggestion is you pause here, go watch the videos on Deming Institute's web page and then come back and join us. But for those who are familiar with it, Dr. Deming, came up with this. I think someone at Hewlett-Packard exposed it to them him in the early '80s, and the way Dr. Deming had run the Red Bead Experiment as it's called, is he'd have a bowl with roughly 4000 beads that are you used to make a necklace, very small beads, maybe an 8th of an inch in diameter. And then the bowl would be mostly small white beads, and then roughly 20% red. Same diameter, roughly, again, about an 8th of an inch, and he would start off by having the beads, the mixture, and one bowl poured into another to mix them up and then pour them back into the other bowl, and then he'd have willing workers from the audience one at a time come up and put a paddle in. And the paddle is maybe the size of a 3 inch by 5 inch pad. And he put a paddle in with small holes. In those holes, the beads would collect. And in a given paddle, there would be 50 divots for the beads to collect, and so the workers with Dr. Deming's instructions would put the paddle in, shake it a little bit, remove the paddle, go to inspector number one, who would count how many red beads are in the paddle, go to inspector number two, count how many red beads, and then they'd be announced, the total is 13 red beads.


0:07:37.2 BB: Andrew, dismissed. Next worker. And so he would go through and have one worker at a time, go through this four or five times, each time being, say, a day of production. So what are red beads? What's implied in... Again, there's a chapter in The New Economics on the Red Bead experiment. The implications is red bead are defects, things the customer doesn't want, the customer wants white beads. So what are the red beads? Things that don't meet requirements: scrap, rework, defects. And if we go back to last our previous sessions, the difference between white beads and red beads is, question one, white beads meet requirements, they are good. Red beads don't meet requirements, they are bad. And so in the Red Bead experiment, Dr. Deming would go through and collect data from four workers, perhaps four times each, and the data being a spreadsheet, and then he looked row by row and point out there's highs and lows in the number of red beads in he'd start...Dr. Deming as the manager of this white bead factory, would start to berate the workers who created more red beads as if they did it all by themselves. And so the punch line, the reminder punch line for those who have seen this before, what Dr. Deming, what he was doing was blaming the workers for the red beads.


0:09:04.8 BB: And the workers had no choice but to think that they were causing the white beads. And so one of the big takeaways for people in the Deming community who really love the Bed Bead experiment is that the red beads are not caused by the workers, they are caused by the system, which includes the supplier of the red beads and the white beads, the instructions, the bowl, the paddle, the worker, the instructions. And you don't blame the workers separately, and so that becomes a really big takeaway. Well, where I would like to go with this beyond that, what I like doing in an audience or a class in a university class is we'll get to the point of collecting the red bead data, the number of red beads per day per worker, and we'll move it from a control... From a run chart to a control chart. We'll will calculate control elements, we'll talk about common cause variation, and the idea that the system is most likely not gonna produce special causes because the system is semi-closed, unless there's an earthquake and the paddle is broken or something like that.


0:10:18.0 BB: Well, the question I'd like to ask people is, now we appreciate that the red beads are caused by the workers... Are caused by the system which includes workers. But what I like to ask is, is your understanding of the Deming philosophy that the objective everywhere in the organization is to strive to eliminate all the red beads everywhere in the system, which can include going to suppliers, no longer buying them, working with their suppliers? And so I just like to ask people this, and I've had a couple of hundred people in the room and I'd just say, is that what you think where Dr. Deming is talking about, that the objective, one, is to understand that red beads are caused by the system, not the worker, but then we go the next step and say, let's strive to eliminate all the white beads everywhere, and if we do achieve that, are we done?


0:11:10.8 AS: Right. Wipe out all red beads everywhere?


0:11:12.8 BB: I'm sorry. Wipe out all the red beads everywhere? Are we done? Have we achieve perfection? And people will say... Or I'd say, but simultaneously Dr. Deming told us about the value proposition of continuous improvement. So then I'll say to the audience, do we stop at a 100% white beads, or can we improve? And if we can improve, what does that mean? And then we get, we can make them faster. I say, Okay, fine. We can make them cheaper. I say fine. I said, but can we make them better? And then people will say, "Well, we can make them faster," and I I'd say fine, we can make them cheaper, and I'd I say fine. And we're going around, around, and they'll say, everything can be improved. And I say, well, but how do you improve the white beads once they're all white? And people will say, you can always have a better mouse trap. Then I'll hold up the beads, and I say, I'm not talking about a better mouse trap, I'm saying, these beads, you can't get any... So what I love about the red bead experiment is, it's not a mouse trap with springs and wires, it's a really simple... It's just a bead.


0:12:24.4 BB: We've got white ones and red ones, how can you make the white beads better once they're all white? Now they're stumped. They are stumped, and they are... And when I lead them to... And this is the part of the Red Bead experiment that I enjoy is this piece, and the punch line is, it comes from what I learned from Dr. Taguchi is that the white beads are not uniformly white, they actually have different shades of white, which is question two, they have different diameters, which is question two, different weights, and point out that you can continuously improve the white beads once you understand that there's, questions two, that there's degrees of white degrees of diameters and things like that. And the idea being that in order to understand why that variation matters, now we get to what we look at the end of module three is we have to look at how the beads are used.


0:13:33.9 AS: And just to summarize, question one is, does it meet requirements, I think is right?


0:13:38.6 BB: Yes. Question one is does it meet requirements? Is it white or is it red. Well, it's white.


0:13:45.0 AS: Yep. So that was a fine...


0:13:48.1 BB: Good question.


0:13:49.5 AS: That was a definite or yes or no answer, as you said. So...


0:13:54.7 BB: Absolutely. That is a question one, does it meet requirements. Yes or no. Black and white thinking, we also talked about it. Question two is, there's shades of grey. And in this case, there's shades of white, there's shade... They're different diameters. And now we begin to understand, again, that the impact of different diameters and different shades shows up in how they're used, in terms of how they're used to make a necklace or however they're being used by the person downstream. And so at the end of module three, we talked about what are the types of things we could do at the end of module three to help people begin to understand the implications for Dr. Deming's work. And is go downstream and see how your work is being used. So instead of striving to make sure all you send downstream is white beads, not red beads... Again, I'm not underestimating the value proposition of getting to that point. But what I'm saying is, that's not perfection. Actually, if you look at it as perfection, then we say we are done, now let's go elsewhere, get all the red beads done and get the white. So the strategy is to... I think the overall strategy is, what's the best use of our time? Is it going from some red to all white, or is it going from all white to then look at the variation in the white, which is then looking at what are the opportunities for improving the organization by looking at how the beads are used?


0:15:28.4 AS: And if we think about this, it made me think like, let's just say that somebody's implementing Deming's teachings, and they've done a lot of great work to get down to that point of, let's say eliminating red beads, we've rooted out the red beads, and there is a huge gain there for the organization, for the customer, for costs and all of that. So you could even say that in some ways, that that's what they call the low-hanging fruit, but what's fascinating that you've talked about is going through the looking glass to the other side, and now you go to the step further where you have... It seems like it's incrementally not worth it, in some cases, because it's just tinkering around with something that's pretty close enough, but yet, if you go deeper to that, it's very possible that you reach a level of precision that brings an exponential improvement, not only in the system, but also in the outcome and also in the competitive position relative to your peers.


0:16:38.4 BB: A few things on what you just said, one, is... And I really like the metaphor you're using, and I like to say that people is that you have no idea what's on the other side of the doorway. So question one is getting to the point of, we want all the beads to be white, and then we're done. That's perfection. And so what I'm saying, there's more, there's more, and the more is going through the doorway and beginning to look at how are the beads used and what opportunities are there. But right, there's this economic sense of diminishing returns and measuring returns. I'd tell you, the excitement you're hearing is that I've seen so many situations where the gains are so significant for such a small additional effort, that I no longer... This idea that we run out of opportunities for improving. Nonsense, absolutely nonsense. What I say to people is, if you don't look, you won't find. If you do look, there's no guarantee, but also, as I said, there's three things, One is get to the doorway and move through the doorway and look at the variation in the white beads, and that gets us beyond perfection into the world of continuous...


0:18:06.8 BB: For the time, we'll call it continuous improvement. In a later session, we'll switch to continuous investment. And the reason I call it that investment is that it has to be worthwhile. We don't improve to improve, we improve because the gain we get in the marketplace, economically, market share, has to be more than what we're putting into the effort. It's gotta be worthwhile. But the other thing I wanna say is, I've seen people strive to make things... Well, just, I will save this for later. There's a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to everything being good. And again, which is why we've been talking for four sessions now about question one and question two, and the idea that I've not seen anywhere in quality management, let alone management, period, an appreciation of question two, whether it's program management, have the requirements for that task been done? In program management, they'll talk about red, yellow, green, green is good. We passed the floor. What does green mean? Mean green is good. So even in the world of program management, I see the same mindset of striving for everything being good, missing opportunities to manage the variation of things that are good to improve integration. And ultimately, everything has to integrate.


0:19:46.0 AS: Yeah, it's making me think a lot about the idea of once you get through the doorway, through the looking glass to the other side, that you're now really investigating what's happening further on down, and you may even find that the requirements, that the setting actually can be improved, then maybe they didn't even come with improved requirements 'cause they thought, Well, you can't even meet the requirements I've given you, so forget it. But then you just see that opportunities start to open up. And I think the other thing that...


0:20:21.6 AS: I remember a light bulb going off in my head about the Plan-Do-Study-Act, and thinking about it a lot and thinking about if you were to do a Plan-Do-Study-Act on one particular operation in a business, and let's say that you did it properly where you did it, you learn new information and you incorporate that information into the training manual for the people that are working in that operation, then you do another Plan-Do-Study-Act, and then you again, improve and then codify that in training. Then you do it again, and then you codify that in the training, so that you're never going back, number one, so you're never making prior mistakes, and you're bringing your operation to a higher and higher and higher level. Let's say you go through 10 iterations of that. The fact is that you've got all kinds of different improvements that have happened, but the biggest improvement is you have acquired knowledge in your company that your competitor doesn't have.


0:21:26.9 BB: Well, and let me add to that. Again, in the world of: if you don't look, you won't find, and if you do look, there's no guarantee, I've seen many a PDSA effort lead us in a direction we were not expecting, which can be disheartening. And essentially what you're discovering is not what you plan to discover. [chuckle] And I've seen people kind of fall off the horse because we discover something in the experiment... We discover something in the PDSA process which we never knew about, which turns out to be vital information, but because it wasn't what we were looking for, there's a disappointment more than a chagrin, of "darn." It's like we're using this piece of equipment, and we're trying to improve the equipment and in the process, we find out there's something wrong with how it's plugged in. Well, now, we know that. And so I've seen PDSA efforts result in great improvements, I've also seen the result and great learning. What do I mean by learning? From Russ Ackoff. Russ would say, learning is what happens when things don't go as planned. And what does that mean? It means there's financial pain, 'cause we spent a whole lot of time not expecting...


0:23:01.9 BB: Yeah, It just we fall flat. I've fallen off my bike. And as a result, changed how I ride my bike, which is a learning process. Ended up in physical therapy for months. So I say to people, learning could be financially painful, emotionally painful, physically painful, but improvement requires learning. Ackoff would say, "If we're not learning," which means making mistakes, "then how can we improve without that?" So you have to have a mindset. I think where we're coming from is, we wanna go through that doorway, we wanna continuously look for opportunities to improve, but we have to also be mindful. Let me throw another Deming quote based on what you were saying earlier. Dr. Deming would say, "The bigger the system, the more complicated to manage." So we can keep it really, really small. Deming says, "The bigger the system, the more complicated to manage, but the more opportunities... " Well, the reason I wanna throw that out to our viewers is, you may have... I've seen people focus on little things, little things, little things, and unknowingly create big trouble over here that they couldn't see. But what I don't want them to do is use that to become gun-shy that we shouldn't change anything.


0:24:25.6 BB: It's just the idea that don't underestimate how connected these aspects of the system are. Now, we go back to learning. And so it takes... It's so easy, Andrew, to just stop at the doorway, to stop at all white beads, to not go downstream and see how people use our work. What differentiates the Deming philosophy from all the others is going through the doorway, realizing that the white beads... The Red beads are not caused by the workers, they are caused by the system. But also realizing there are opportunities to improve the system, and you can't talk about system without asking how are the beads used?


0:25:08.9 AS: Yup. When I think about what you've described, to get to the door, that, I guess what I'm thinking about is, what do we call that? I wrote down some notes when you were talking, I said System of Profound Knowledge, implementation, improvement.


0:25:25.7 BB: Yeah.


0:25:27.5 AS: Getting in control, fixing the system. It's just the simple awareness of System of Profound Knowledge and that systems will get you to the door.


0:25:37.7 BB: Yes.


0:25:41.3 AS: And that's step one, and you're way beyond where you were in the beginning, so congratulations. Now, I'll use a little analogy, in that I'm in a 12-step program, and in this 12-step program, they had a thing called the 12 promises, and they said, you're gonna know a new freedom and a new happiness. You won't regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. You're gonna know freedom and all these different things. And I thought, I want every single one of those. But what I found when I went to that 12-step program, which I've been in now for more than 40 years, is that there's many people that go to a meeting to stop drinking or stop using drugs or stop, let's say over-eating or whatever that thing is, and then they stop there. And they don't take it to the next level of really pushing themselves to dig deep and follow the 12 steps to get to the 12 promises. And that's kind of what I'm thinking about because there's a great word in the 12 promises called... It says, "If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we're halfway through," and I thought about that word, painstaking. And if you reverse it around, it's called taking pain.


0:26:50.3 BB: Yes.


0:26:52.8 AS: And that made the difference of whether someone went through the door. Getting to the door is good enough for most people, but getting through the door and to the other side is the real Holy Grail.


0:27:03.8 BB: Well, let me come back to that point you just made. There's a point of time, and I thought that I had co-workers, I thought, whose wish was for a job that I could take where I can kinda do the same thing every day for like a career, and then retire. That's the kind of job I'm looking for, where I don't have to learn new things. I could just come in, hang out, get into the routine and then go home. Do you have jobs like that at your company that I could apply for? And I think there are people that... I think there are people that have that attitude.


0:28:00.5 BB: Now, I would also say, given our mutual understanding of System of Profound Knowledge, I think people have developed that attitude by working in organizations where they're blamed, and that becomes, just get me out of here. I don't wanna raise my hand, I don't wanna be blamed, so I'm gonna keep my head down. So I'm not saying these people grew up that way, I think they become conditioned that way. But what I would also point out is that, [chuckle] for those people that want that job, I would say, how many of you would like a cell phone which has far more capacity in terms of storage and speed than your current one? And it's also cheaper. Andrew, can I sign you up for that? Or maybe a television system.


0:28:48.5 BB: Can I sign you up for that? Oh yeah, so you wanna be... What you're saying, Andrew, is that you wanna be the beneficiary of people out there doing things above and beyond, but you just want a job where you can just kind of do it... Is that what I'm hearing? You wanna receive blood, but you don't wanna donate? Because that, I think, becomes the societal compact, is we come into this world receiving... Well, we have an obligation to contribute. And I think... But again, I'm not saying people... I'm not trying to imply that people are bad, I think we have conditioned people to want that. But I don't think that's their real nature, I think organizations that follow the Deming philosophy, I've seen people have incredible turnarounds in attitudes and to become people that are willing to take on challenges. Of course, there's variation. I'm not saying everyone's gonna be watching how the beads are used, so maybe that's not you, maybe that's somebody else. But I'm gonna need you in the implementation, Andrew.


0:30:03.1 AS: Yeah.


0:30:04.2 BB: And that goes back to variation. It's hard to say that. I think we all want the same thing. And I think for many people, it gets beaten out of us in terms of our obligation to society.


0:30:19.9 AS: Okay, so let's try to pull this together, the end of perfection, what we've talked about is the idea of... We've used the red bead experiment to get through this, but I think that tool is now served it's purpose. What we're really talking about is that in the initial stages of maybe implementing Deming's teaching or getting a particular system into control, there's a lot of fantastic gains that happen, and they get you to a point that is very satisfactory.


0:30:54.4 BB: Yes.


0:30:54.4 AS: And some people may confuse that point to perfection. But the reality is, is stepping through that point brings us to a whole another phase where there's so much more that we can consider so that we can improve the outcome for the end result that we're trying to do. But we'll never get there if we don't go through that doorway that goes beyond perfection.


0:31:23.1 BB: Yeah, and it's... The bigger thing I'd like people to appreciate, continuous improvement is a real deal, that... I mean we are constantly surrounded by technologies that are advancing. We have opportunities to get to continuously learn, and that's "continuum thinking" as opposed to black and white thinking. And what Dr. Deming is talking about is... With an appreciation of the System of Profound Knowledge, we have organizations with people with joy in learning. Learning is about making mistakes, trying to figure it out as we're talking about. So again, so let's not underestimate that to really love learning, is to really love the pain of learning [laughter]


0:32:12.9 AS: Painstaking.


0:32:13.1 BB: And in willing to... If you're leading a team, you need to know this, maybe the others don't, and you need to help them get back on the horse, you need them to understand that what we've learned is not what we expected, but that's all part of this journey that we're on. And so I think it's important for those that wanna lead these efforts to be vigilant and not... Just realizing that learning is about... As again Ackoff would say, "Learning is when things don't go as planned." Russ would also say, "When things go as planned, we have an illusion of understanding."




0:32:54.1 AS: Shall we...


0:32:54.7 BB: We just don't know when that learning is gonna happen.


0:32:58.7 AS: Shall we wrap it up?


0:33:00.1 BB: And the other thing I was going to say is, relative to achieving perfection, I would say Thomas More, I think an Englishman, I don't know, in the 14th century, whatever, wrote a book about a place called Utopia.




0:33:19.7 BB: And so what I wonder is, Andrew, do you think people in the Utopia were having conversations about continuous improvement?


0:33:29.4 AS: Okay, so I think we'll leave it on that? What do you think, Bill?


0:33:34.1 BB: Okay. [laughter]


0:33:35.5 AS: Alright. Bill, on behalf of everyone at The Deming Institute, I wanna thank you again for this discussion. Fascinating. For listeners remember, go to to continue your journey. 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."