Random meeting, profound changes by
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Prompted By Chance Encounters

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At first I had trouble identifying an encounter for this story. Most of the romantic encounters I have had were not exactly random, although timing played a part. As I thought back, chance events surrounding these meetings likely didn’t affect the outcome of the relationship. However, one professional encounter started so small I could never anticipate how profoundly it would change how I thought about business and maybe even life.

One professional encounter started so small I could never anticipate how profoundly it would change how I thought about business and maybe even life.

In the middle of 1986, I met Marcia at a small professional networking group that had grown out of our Peninsula Women in Advertising organization (see my story From Fashion to Feminism). There was nothing to indicate this meeting would change my life. Marcia and I discovered we were almost the same age and both of us were having a dramatic year. I had become engaged, was about to move, and she had been divorced and was raising her three-year-old son. She recently had found a part-time job working as a marketing person for a consultant, and to promote the business, wanted someone to ghost-write articles for him.

I’d been freelancing for about three years at this time and was eager to take on more work. Shortly after the networking event I met with Marcia and her boss, Perry Gluckman, a PhD statistician. I had no idea he was in the inner circle of Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s consultants or what that meant. I doubt I had a clue about who Dr. Deming was–the person who taught the Japanese how to make quality products and restore their economy after World War II. I was about to find out. Although I had no statistical or quality background at the time, for some reason what Perry was talking about resonated. One of the best ways to learn something is to have to write about it, and I’d talk with Perry for hours and would read the books he recommended while I was writing articles and op-eds. I began learning a new way of thinking.

The following year, Dr. Deming came to San Jose to put on his famous five-day seminar. I desperately wanted to attend, but there was no way I could afford the fees. No worries, Marcia told me, there was a worker-learner program. All I needed to do was put in a few hours helping set up, register people, and go-fer as needed, and I could attend the seminar.

In his late 80s at the time, Dr. Deming was tall, imperious, and totally intimidating, until he started to teach. His methods were 19th century–writing on a white board, no visual aids. (The prose style in his books is 19th century as well and challenging for our 21st century attention spans.) But once he started talking, in his deep, booming voice, you couldn’t help paying attention. Then the hands-on work began, with experiments and demos. The first was the famous Red Bead Experiment. For an explanation, you can Google it, and YouTube has some fun demos.

Here is what the actual components of the Red Bead Experiment look like:

Over the next five days, after going through the Red Bead Experiment, the Funnel Experiment, the PDSA card game, and other exercises, my thinking about systems, variation, individual effort, and other issues began to change. Many things that had happened to me in business began to make sense and help me understand why I had left corporate America, extremely dissatisfied. After the second seminar a few months later, I reached a crossroads of sorts.

I wanted to keep learning, but I understood enough to realize that if I continued, it would be impossible for me to go back to the old ways of thinking. This might mean I could never go back to corporate America. It took me several weeks to decide to commit to continue with Dr. Deming’s business philosophy. Once I did, I started writing Perry’s teaching curriculum, helped in his classes, became a founding member of a local Deming User Group, and helped edit one of his books.

During this time, Marcia was learning from Perry and Dr. Deming and then went out on her own to become a management consultant. My learning continued and I wondered about following in her path, although I loved writing. Unfortunately, in 1992 Perry became seriously ill and died, and the next year Dr. Deming died. I felt I was a couple of years short in my expertise to go into consulting, but continued to use Dr. Deming’s principles, often even in secret, after I rejoined corporate America in 2006. Dr. Deming’s practices sometimes can threaten traditional managers, so I tread carefully, although I was open in my disdain and disregard of annual performance reviews (statistically indefensible, destructive ranking and rating, an incredible waste of time and resources) and said they should be abolished.

Today Marcia lives across town, and that three-year-old son is the father of two cute kids. She still does management consulting, trying to help companies transform–really transform. Without that meeting, my professional life would have been a lot less fulfilling and interesting. My chance meeting opened up worlds that would have remained undiscovered.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. Marian, Since the fields of business and management are foreign to me I found your story intriguing and informative, and needless to say I had to look up the Red Bean experiment as I’d never heard of it!

    And I wonder if you know the Blueberry Story which explores the dis- similarities between business and education!

    • Marian says:

      Dana, thanks for turning me on to the Blueberry Story. It’s great. You would appreciate Dr. Deming’s approach to education, which is more in line with the story. He believed that not everything should be run like a business, including education and healthcare, and that there are learning differences between people (obvious now but not so much 40 years ago). There were some educational experiments with his philosophy, which emphasized critical and statistical thinking at a young age (the kids got it). For healthcare, I remember a discussion with some of Dr. Deming’s associates that the probability of neonatal nurses dropping babies is much higher than the actual incidence of that happening. The reasoning behind this observation was that babies are especially precious to us and the nurses behaved with extra care accordingly.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Marian, this has really piqued my interest. I’m going to do some googling to learn more. I’m guessing you are not a big fan of the management techniques in The Office. We had never seen it, but on the recommendation of our kids, have been binging it. Can’t watch anything too challenging these days. Now I will have to learn a bit about Dr. Deming and the red beans.

    • Marian says:

      I love The Office, Laurie, for the characters and situations, but not the management techniques. In fact, the program really lampoons all the bad stuff those of us in the corporate world have encountered. I think you’ll like the red beads because of your educational background and how we try to put all the responsibility and blame on individuals when it’s the system that’s out of whack.

  3. I also looked up the Red Bead experiment, with an analysis. As a long-time free-lancer, I know little about the world of business and management, but this chance encounter with your fascinating story has opened up a whole new world for me. Thanks!

    • Marian says:

      I’m glad this was enlightening to you, Joan. As a free-lancer myself, understanding these issues has helped me in doing high-quality work for clients and understanding the systems that exist in the corporate world.

  4. Suzy says:

    This is an interesting story, Marian. I have to admit when I started reading about the red bead experiment, my eyes glazed over, but that could be the result of the margarita I drank with dinner. πŸ™‚ So I will just say how great it is that your chance encounter with Marcia had such a profound effect on your career and your life.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Suzy, I’m jealous of the margarita … probably it’s easier to look at a video of the experiment, and it makes a lot more sense if you’ve worked in business and manufacturing. The process can be really amusing when people try to cheat (spoiler alert, that’s not possible).

  5. Your story really piqued my curiosity, Mare, so I watched the experiment on YouTube. My husband, now retired, worked for many years in the Japanese automotive industry. I’ve heard a lot of his stories, and something about Dr. Deming’s experiment sounded like something he would relate to so I showed him the video. Sure enough, he had engaged extensively in Kaizen, the continuous improvement process that evolved out of Deming’s influence. It was fun to be able to talk to him about it with a new understanding of his experience, so thanks for such a unique take on this prompt!

    • Marian says:

      How neat that you watched the experiment, Barb, and that your husband was involved with a Japanese company and kaizen. Over the years I met Japanese people who knew Deming and had many fascinating stories about him. In Japan they have a medal with his image on it.

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    I will have to do my research now too, but I totally agree that annual reviews are a waste of time. Of course, I haven’t worked in an office environment in over 30 years, but remember they weren’t at all helpful to me! Glad you found the methodology that changed your life through this chance encounter, Marian.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Betsy, there are so many things business do (now and back then) that are a waste of time. Think of all the hours people could spend doing something productive for the business if annual reviews were abolished.

  7. Whew! A happy ending! I enjoyed how you described the conceptual history of your learning process with Dr. Deming et al. Not an easy thing to do. I will definitely google up the red bead game! Thanks, Marian.

    • Marian says:

      The learning is definitely more fun to experience than to read, Charles, but I’m glad you are interested. Dr. Deming apparently had a good musical sense, as I’m told he sang very well, but mostly church hymns. I like music but my talent and ear are limited, as you’ll see in my comment to your story.

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