07/02/2012 05:11 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2012

Building on Out of the Crisis

One of the nice perks about my job is that I have been able to collect a number of books whose authors have personalized them for me. As an avid reader, these books add a special touch to my home library. There is one that is especially meaningful to me; one that I often peruse just to re-charge my batteries and refine my understanding of how to manage this business we call Cleary University. The book is Out of the Crisis by W. Edwards Deming, and although it is 30 years old and based on theories Dr. Deming developed and introduced 30 years earlier, in post-WWII Japan, it is still valuable. In fact, I have an autographed copy at home and another reference copy at my office and was just looking through it as I pondered this blog.

I remember back about 20 years ago when Cleary University and I first became exposed to Dr. Deming and his work. He was, at the time, offering a series of four-day seminars (sponsored by Ford Motor Company) in which he was introducing what he described as the "New Economy" -- effectively a new way to approach doing business.

A friend and colleague from the business community introduced Deming's theory to me and as I started to read more, I became intrigued. At the same time, by bride was involved in an effort to improve the quality and consistency within a health care business in which she was involved. As it turns out, she and our provost, Dr. Vince Linder attended the same four-day seminar. I had not yet been to one, although I had sent several faculty and staff. I debriefed Vince and Barb daily and was amazed that each of them was singing his praises. Vince claimed Deming's statistical focus was exhilarating and Barb said his humanism and concern for customers was eye-opening. My conclusion was, of course, that anyone that could produce that kind of result from people with two very different perspectives had to be pretty good!

I eventually attended a four-day seminar of my own and found both Vince and Barb were correct, and knew I had met a modern-day hero. After a few more university employees had attended seminars, I asked Dr. Deming if he would consider joining us to deliver a keynote commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate from the university. To my delight, he agreed, but fate would not allow him to join us as he passed away a few weeks prior to our commencement. His daughter attended in his stead and told us that he had told her he "had noticed Cleary University at his four-day seminars and that unlike many business schools, Cleary University was trying to be part of the solution rather than part of problem." Quite the compliment, I thought.

That experience, and Dr. Deming's theories have influenced us at Cleary University ever since. It is why we track data and try to understand and improve our processes. It is why we listen to customers, even when they are not sure what they are asking. It is why we require our managers to maintain a Lean Six-Sigma Green Belt as a condition of employment. And, I suspect, it is why we have been able to not only be successful but to be distinctive in this "teaching-learning business."

Beyond those influences -- even though they are profound -- it also has shaped our view on the world. When Barb and I encounter service issues we often see process flaws that prevent people from doing their job, regardless of how hard they try, and we can hear Dr. Deming's echo: "how do you know" and "by what method" will you improve? I confess it's easier to see when it is someone else's business, but the questions are the right ones and the answers more obvious when you look as if you are the customer.