Myron Tribus, friend of PQ Systems, died August 31 in Pensacola, FL at the age of 94. Tribus, known as an organizational theorist, was director of the Center for Advanced Engineering Study at MIT, and taught thermodynamics for much of his career. He is best known among quality professionals as a friend, supporter, and interpreter of W. Edwards Deming. For more than 20 years, he shared his expertise at quality conferences and through his prolific writing. For his work with Pensacola in applying Deming’s principles, he was awarded the keys to the city, and received innumerable awards from quality professional organizations.
Tribus attended many of PQ Systems’ annual conferences, and in 1992 addressed participants as a keynote speaker, where he shared reminiscences about interactions with Deming. I recall a colorful story he shared in his presentation about his first meeting with Deming. This account had a lasting impression on me, as well as on other participants.
Read his story:
“My first encounter with W. Edwards Deming was a traumatic experience. It was in a television studio. My assignment was to interview him for the final tape of the MIT series in which Dr. Deming had presented a discussion of his 14 points. The director had given me a list of questions which Dr. Deming wanted to be asked so he could expand on points he had not made in the previous tapes.
“On the way to the studio I had studied these questions. My prior experience with television had been with CBS where I had been taught that you always open a show with a ‘hook,’ that is, something so interesting that the audience lingers until it is too late to switch to another channel. So, true to the training, when our cameras came on, I turned to him, and ignoring his questions, posed one of my own.
“’Dr. Deming, let us pretend, for the sake of this interview that I am the CEO of a large corporation. I have factories around the world, several thousands of employees and I want to improve. I have read your book, heard you lecture and seen the other tapes. I know you can help me. Tell me, what do you suggest I do, starting tomorrow?’
“Pleased with my question, I waited. Dr. Deming leaned into his camera and said, in that unmistakable deep voice of his: ‘Oh, you need someone to explain your job to you, is that it?’
“They tell me that in the control room my expression was a sight to behold. I tried to regain my composure by saying, ‘No, that’s not it. For example, you have experience with the unions and I think I could learn from that.’
“Again, in his inimitable gruff voice he said, ‘So, you think they are the problem, do you?’
“No matter what I said, he countered with one of his unanswerable questions. It was apparent he was making an ass out of me. I have had experience exchanging angry words with members of the House and the Senate. Never before had anyone done such a complete job on me. Finally, the director shouted from the control room ‘Cut!’ We agreed to stop for the day and try again in six weeks. I was furious.
“During the next six weeks I buried myself in his manuscript, which our Center at MIT was publishing, and I also went to the library of the Sloan School at MIT, where I took many textbooks from the shelves and studied them, contrasting their teachings with those of Dr. Deming. I was shocked to see the difference. I finally understood why things had been so bad at Xerox, where I had been a senior vice president. I began to understand why the US was falling behind in international commerce, a matter which had occupied my attention when I was an Assistant Secretary of Commerce in Washington. From that day on, my life changed. I have told Dr. Deming, ‘Thanks. I needed that.’
“Now I travel around the world, counseling executives who want to adopt quality management. Dr. Deming had it right. These executives, as I once did, need someone to explain their job to them. They do not understand what to do in the new economic era.
“The shortest explanation I can give to capture Dr. Deming’s advice is to refine what it means to be a manager:
“’The people work IN a system.
The job of the manager is to work ON the system,
to improve it,
with their help.’”