The United States Department of Agriculture celebrating its 150 th anniversary on May 15th unfortunately overlooked it most powerful international achievement: demonstrating to the world the power of the principle of continual improvement.
Continual improvement was introduced and practiced from the late 1800s by a US agricultural agent in every county in America teaching the farmers how to practice better and better farming. It allowed America to become the leading producer of food and fiber in the world early in the 20th Century. Our farms' ability to produce with continual improvement became the basis of our strong economy.
But more importantly in the past 60 years the world has witnessed an unanticipated application of this farming method of continual improvement. Applied to manufacturing, this same method has helped the Japanese, Chinese, the Eastern world--and some American and Western organizations, including Ford Motor Company--to produce better and better, continually improving automobiles, electronics and other manufactured goods. It has also been applied successfully in governments, health care, service industries and schools.
The story of how the practice of continual improvement of farming was joined with Eastern ideas and helped the Japanese, us and others to continually improve their manufacturing is not well known.
A young boy
It began with a young boy on the Wyoming frontier in the early 1900s watching the Park County agricultural agent using the principle of continual improvement to teach farmers each year how to plant better and better sugar beets and tend and harvest their crops. He never forgot how well it worked.
In 1950, this same boy, W. Edwards Deming, now 50 years old and a government statistician living in northwest Washington, D.C., went to Japan to help General MacArthur with the census.
He had other manufacturing experience and the Japanese asked him to talk to their manufacturers. He returned to Japan numerous times and explained to them "how to work smarter not harder" suggesting ever new ways to practice continual improvement of their people, processes, products and services.
This American teacher, Dr. Deming, after Gen. MacArthur, was the most well-known American in Japan in the 1970s and 80s. He went onto to develop and teach a revolutionary and unique way to manage complex organizations, companies, schools and government agencies so they functioned more effectively in a rapidly changing world. He learned from the Japanese the Eastern holistic or systemic way of thinking as he taught them Western scientific, analytic thinking.
Some believe this combination of Eastern systems thinking and Western scientific thought and continual improvement characterizes the next leap forward in human consciousness and the ability to manage complexity and rapid change.
But, alas, as America moved from farm to factory over the decades we forgot this idea that made America great in the past. In modern factories, offices, government and schools, continual improvement unfortunately gave way to "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Moreover, Western habits of individualistic thinking and our obsession with competition make cooperation and systems principles of continual improvement difficult to practice. Deming's theories, however, are being practiced more and more around the world, especially in East Asia, India and China.
American companies such as Ford, Alcoa and Harley Davison have practiced the Deming theories, continual improvement and systems thinking with great success. Ford CEO Alan Mulally, who has just lead Ford out of disaster, says: "My entire business approach is based upon Deming's Continual Quality Improvement forever foundation". It is really gaining momentum here at Ford again."
However, adoption of these ideas is complicated and has been increasingly resisted in America. We are too fond of quick fixes. Ironically, some American schools, hospitals, service businesses and manufacturers--like Ford--have prospered from it, but most remain unable to see how their organizations can improve using these principles. In Pittsburgh for example, hospitals have made huge leaps in safety and cost reduction. However they refer to the practices and theories developed by Deming as the Toyota management system, unaware of the Department of Agriculture connection.
The Department of Agriculture apparently also is unaware of its historical relationship to this transformative thinking needed to manage complex organizations in a rapidly changing world. According to The Washington Post, the Department of Agriculture at its birthday celebration touted its efforts in agricultural research, science, improving food suppliers and battling food pathogens as work that "fulfills Lincoln's vision.'