Quality Transformation: Myron Tribus

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn remembers quality leader Myron Tribus, who translated Deming and his principles of management.

We lost an American hero on August 21. Myron Tribus was a somewhat unsung leader of the American quality movement from the 1980s through the turn of the century, but there is more to his story. After a rich career in the military, industry, and academia, Myron became Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Science and Technology in the Nixon administration. From there, he became Senior Vice-President for Research & Engineering at Xerox, and from 1974, he directed the Center for Advanced Engineering Study at MIT, where he published W. Edwards Deming’s Out of the Crisis (1982) and The New Economics (1994). It was in that last position that my wife, Carole, and I first met him.

In the middle 1980s, Carole, who was then assistant to the president at Jackson Community College and Director of the Transformation of American Industry National Community Colleges Training Project, received a call from someone saying, “If you weren’t doing what you are doing, I’d be doing it.” When she asked the caller who he was, the caller replied Myron Tribus. Carole nearly fell over, because of his already key role in the quality improvement movement in the country. One of his roles that was particularly important to me was as key interpreter for Deming for me and for Ford Motor Company. In those early days, Deming’s thoughts, philosophies, observations, and directives were so revolutionary that we probably would have given up if Myron’s papers had not been available to help put Deming’s thoughts into a form that we could understand (Quality first: Selected papers on Quality and Productivity Improvement; National Society of Professional Engineers; 1992; 4th edition).

What Myron explained with his call was that while we were helping community colleges develop their capacity to provide quality management training to their local business and industry through the Transformation of American Industry project, he was trying to create community-based quality councils all over the country. This sounded like a marriage made in heaven, and that’s exactly what it turned out to be. But let me tell you about our first major adventure with Myron.

We found out about a study trip sponsored by the Philadelphia Area Council for Excellence going to Japan to attend the 35th anniversary celebration of the Deming Prize and to visit Deming Prize winning companies under the tutelage of Myron. When we asked Deming if the trip would be worthwhile, he said any study experience under Myron’s direction would be more than worthwhile. So off we went. Myron helped us see new sides of Deming, who interacted directly with the study group from time to time while we were in Japan. The visits to Deming Prize winning companies he led were spectacular, showing what could be accomplished using continual improvement and, in particular, the power of hoshin planning as compared to the management by objective strategic planning methodology we were all familiar with in the states. The trip to Japan with Myron also yielded some other, more personal learning and fun.

For some reason, Myron took it upon himself to lead Carole and me around Japan whenever we had some free time. It was just plain fun to get lost with Myron when none of us could speak Japanese as we tried to find the Kyoto Conference Center. Once there, we took turns standing on stage pretending that we were addressing thousands in the auditorium. We’ll also never forget all of the unusual little out-of-the-way restaurants Myron could find. Although not yet married in those days, Carole and I were head over heels in love and Myron and Peter Scholtes, also on the trip, made fun of our “necking in the back of the bus” both during the trip and for years and years afterword.

On the way home, he may also have saved our lives. On our flight back from Japan, sitting on the tarmac at SEATAC in the middle of a snow/freezing rain storm, Myron was letting the flight attendants know in no uncertain terms that if they didn’t immediately tell the pilot to turn around and de-ice the plane, he (Myron) wasn’t going anywhere. When he added, loudly enough for most of the plane to hear, that he was part of the team that INVENTED the de-icing process and gave them his MIT business card, he did manage to get the captain’s attention! It’s a long story, but after de-icing three times and at the exact moment that we were next in line to take off, SEATAC was closed. Thus, we spent three days with Myron at Carole’s niece’s home snow-bound in Seattle of all places.

Next, Myron encouraged Carole’s and my marriage in 1986, ever since our “back of the bus” reputation, because he thought we should make honest people of one another. In preparation for attending the ceremony, Myron sent Carole an email message saying that he wanted her to know that he “always made it a practice of kissing the bride one year after the wedding at which time she appreciated it more!” Carole was glad to collect on that promise in 1987 and Carole’s mom always remembered dancing with Myron at the reception.

Myron’s other message to Carole was “You know, my dear, that you can do anything, but not everything. Given that another friend and colleague, Barb Hummel always said we had “big eyes,” that may be the most solid advice he ever gave us.

Back to our more professional relationship; we joined hands, in 1985 with Myron, Bud Lunsford of Tennessee Eastman, Jim Zumwalt who was the Mayor of Kingsport, TN, the Tri-State Technical College, and other leaders in upper east Tennessee to create a community organizing and learning model called “Quality First.” By 1987, the National Society of Professional Engineers publication, Engineering Times, reported that “no other city in the nation has demonstrated such a city-wide commitment to quality.” We were blessed in subsequent years to work with Myron to replicate the Kingsport model in dozens upon dozens of communities around the country and the world.

Myron kept writing. One of the papers that I found particularly powerful involved the introduction of a new kind of flow chart. Deployment Flow charts not only documented the steps in the process, but the people responsible (Deployment Flow Charting; Quality & Productivity Inc. ASIN; 1989.)

If you are interested in looking at continual improvement in perhaps a new and powerful way, check out any of Myron’s many publications and presentations. His are a very important pair of shoulders upon which we in the quality improvement movement stand.

As always, I treasure your thoughts and questions.

Top photo courtesy of Dartmouth College Library

3 thoughts on “Quality Transformation: Myron Tribus

  1. I remember the 80’s at Ford Motor Co. I was a young engineer studying “Statistical Process Control” and was charged with reviewing all of the paper control charts. Our Quality Manager at the time had tutored under Dr. Deming and we were honored with his visit at our facility.

  2. Thank you so much for this, David. My sister and I are very touched that so many people remember our father so fondly and were influenced by him in many ways.

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