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Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s 14 Points for Management — Applied to Accessibility

January 19, 2022

By Mike Gifford, Associate, Think Digital

Mike is a Senior Strategist at CivicActions and a facilitator with the IOG’s Digital Executive Leadership Program. Mike works on issues of open source software and digital accessibility in both of these roles.

I recently came across the work of Dr. W Edwards Demings and his work on quality management. I was introduced to it in an episode of the IAAP United in Accessibility podcast. I had heard of Total quality management (TQM) but not much more. These management frameworks are very applicable to our current challenges with digital accessibility. 

What can digital teams learn about eliminating bugs from our process from one of the fathers of modern industrialization? This is an article for digital leaders who are looking for ways to make their teams more inclusive. 

Dr. Deming’s work started in Japan in the 1950’s is credited by some for the rapid post-war economic growth of that country. His systemic work on total quality management has been credited for influencing our concepts of the agile workforce. This is now a key part of modern software development. 

“Improve quality, you automatically improve productivity.” 

— Dr. Deming

Dr. W. Edwards Deming – Source: Wikipedia

Accessibility issues are bugs. Most of the time accessibility errors are simply a failure to follow recognized W3C guidelines. It is also clear that our inability to effectively address these bugs is affecting our productivity. 

In this article I’m looking at his influential 14 points of management applied to digital accessibility. His 14 points are the best known legacy of his book, Out of the Crisis. Many of the processes that he advocated for decades ago can help build and maintain high quality digital products and services. He appealed to leadership that improving quality would reduce expenses, and increase productivity. This applies directly to digital accessibility.

1) Create constancy of purpose for improving products and services.

A team can focus better if they unite around a common goal. For many products this could be as simple as “find ways to continually improve what your customers are paying for.”

  • With digital accessibility you need to plan long term to maintain quality.
  • There is so much diversity in the field of disability. Technology is moving so quickly. It is always possible to find ways to do what we are doing now, but better. Innovations in quality can often be found in looking for better things to do.
  • On the internet, the future isn’t that far away. Invest in preparing for future challenges. Good semantics will always make your digital platform more future-compatible. Find solutions that support investment in tomorrow, with the goal of constantly getting better.

2) Adopt the new philosophy.

Organizations can’t haphazardly adopt this approach. Management must take the  responsibility to shape a process of continual improvement and guide the change management process.

  • Make customer experience a priority. Design products and services that will meet the needs of outliers rather than the 80%. If we design for accessibility stress tests then we know that everyone will be able to use it. 
  • Involve people with disabilities in defining that vision of quality, then implement it.
  • A truly inclusive organization that consistently builds accessible products and services requires leaders, not just managers. We need diversity throughout our teams, especially people with disabilities, to ensure we are able to create robust design solutions. 

3) Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality.

Statistical sampling of the product to evaluate the process was important to Demings, but he argued to  “eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.”

  • Accessibility audits are costly and unreliable. Rather than meaningfully improving the quality and accessibility of digital platforms, they simply highlight the errors, leading to the temptation for “band-aids” or quick fixes.
  • It is not sufficient to fix barriers that are found in digital products/services – rather, we must find what allowed that error to happen in the first place. Fix the problem up-stream and find ways to eliminate the “wrongs” altogether.
  • Use organization-wide accessibility monitoring to gather statistical information on the real progress of accessibility. Manual inspections will still be needed to catch all of the elements that cannot be identified with automated tools.  Organizations need to be ever vigilant and consistently seek to prove that the process is working.
  • To build quality accessibility, it must be baked into the process from start to finish. Everyone involved in production must be empowered to pull the lever that stops the entire production line. Flaws need to be corrected early and not allowed to impact the work of others. This means everyone needs to know what they should be receiving from those before them in the process, and how to verify that quality exists.

4) End the practice of awarding business on price alone; instead, minimize total cost by working with a single supplier [Edit: or a limited pool of suppliers].

Deming’s management system views suppliers as partners. They should be critical to each other ‘s mutual success. Building a long-term partnership can avoid the long-term challenges of price driven incentives.

Note: In the public sector this may be more of a challenge as there are legislative limitations to any procurement innovations. This said, often culture and legacy policies have a greater impact than legal mandates. 

  • Open standards and open source solutions ensure that the projects remain vendor neutral. Vendor lock-in limits innovation but also tends to reduce quality because quality relies on consistency. The less variation you have in the input, the less variation you’ll have in the output.
  • Standards and software need to evolve to be compatible with present and future needs. Suppliers should be encouraged to contribute back. Suppliers need to know that they are a partner in delivering quality. Contracts should encourage  them to spend time improving their own processes to improve quality over time. If suppliers have to compete on price and presentation then quality will suffer. 
  • Don’t assume quality accessibility. Project-wide monitoring needs to be included to ensure that suppliers meet your quality standards. Trust but verify. 
  • Analyze the total cost of delivering an accessible product, not just the initial cost of purchasing it. It is always more expensive and less flexible when attempts are made to add in accessibility afterwards. 
  • It is important to have trust between the client and vendor. A limited pool of qualified suppliers can ensure that vendors understand client needs and are investing the long-term. 

5) Improve constantly and forever every process for planning, production and service.

Continuous Improvement (CI) and Continuous Deployment (CD) are common concepts in agile software development. Rapid development need not reduce the quality of the software. Improvement is always possible, and should always be pursued in the never ending search for higher quality.

  • With most organizations, their staff are their greatest asset. Investing in improving onboarding, documentation and ongoing education can help everyone embrace common understandings. At CivicActions we built an  accessibility site with lots of resources for our staff and clients. We are also sharing our experiences building accessibility onboarding. 
  • Identify what artifacts, policies and practices which you have which affect accessibility. Look for how those align with the current best practices of other organizations with mature accessibility programs. 
  • Continuously improve your systems and processes through an agile, iterative approach.  As we walk through discovery, ideation, validation and implementation we instill a habit of process analysis and continual improvement.

6) Institute training on the job.

Deming was very clear that “people are part of the system; they need help”.  He was talking about large industrial factories, which are no-doubt complicated, but modern software development is even more so.  He believed that beyond just implementing training, investing in all staff needed to be a core part of the institution. 

  • Look for people with experience in accessibility when hiring, and start accessibility training with the onboarding. It can’t be assumed that people already know how to produce accessible digital content or code. Role-specific training will help reduce variation.
  • Work in the open to build and maintain an accessibility practice area to serve as a single source of truth for the organization. This should include links to other resources that are maintained outside of the organization. 
  • Encourage individuals to  understand their roles in the “big picture” of the organization. At CivicActions, we all work toward a common goal of using technology to build a better future for everyone, including those with disabilities. 

7) Adopt and institute leadership.

Deming’s view of leadership was that of a transformation agent. He said that, “the aim of leadership should be to improve the performance of man and machine, to improve quality, to increase output, and simultaneously to bring pride of workmanship to people.”

  • Organization executives and project managers need to understand their staff and the processes they use to build accessible content.
  • Individuals must be supported by policies, processes and artifacts that help them do their best work. An accessibility subject matter expert should see their role as a coach instead of a police officer.
  • Go beyond meeting numerical targets and remember that the purpose is about making products and services more accessible to everyone. 
  • Leadership needs to listen to teams doing the work to ensure there is alignment.

8) Drive out fear.

Organizations need to be able to make evidence-based decisions. Independent of an understanding of the broader system, data on its own can reduce performance. Fear can drive a range of bad behaviors, and organizations embracing this approach need to have a team that feels empowered to seek actual improvements. 

  • Accessibility is complicated enough that even experts need to be constantly learning. Make sure that nobody is afraid to express their ideas or voice their concerns.
  • Everyone has to know that accessibility isn’t about finding blame, but ensuring that every day we’re making more accessible choices than we did the day before. Mistakes will happen and what is important is we learn from them. 
  • Many people are uncomfortable with engaging on topics related to  disability. Use open and honest communication to remove fear from the organization. 
  • Everyone should  feel valued and should be encouraged to find better ways to do things.

9) Break down barriers between staff areas.

“Individual parts of the system may have to suffer in order to achieve the best overall result.” It may seem counter-intuitive, but an organization must be focused on the larger goals if overall improvements are to be realized. Especially in larger organizations, it is common for departments to work at cross purposes. Multifunctional teams can bring all the required talent to bear on the core activities of the company and thereby overcome the limitations of silos. 

  • Focus on collaboration and building consensus instead of compromise. Experience with working in the open can help develop this. 
  • People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, to foresee accessibility problems in the product or service.
  • Invest in building accessibility champions throughout the organization. See that staff have the time to learn from one another. A champion’s network can help build a culture and environment to sustain accessibility innovation over time.

10) Eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets for the workforce.

People will often work toward a quantitative target at the expense of the broader aim.  As Deming said, “They will likely meet the targets – even if they have to destroy the enterprise to do it.” People are more motivated by simple targets than by informative qualitative measures. Thus, we must take steps to help them embrace a more holistic approach to meaningful results.

  • When people make mistakes, let them know in private. Regularly praise people publicly for doing good work.
  • Don’t let words and nice-sounding phrases replace effective leadership. Outline your expectations for accessibility clearly. 
  • Ensure that accessibility is clearly included in the organization’s objectives and key results.  It needs to be measurable if we are going to be able to evaluate progress over time. 

11) Eliminate numerical quotas for the workforce and numerical goals for management.

Leadership is more important than mere numbers. Deming envisioned a System of Profound Knowledge® (SoPK) in which leaders took a stronger role in both listening to and guiding others in the organization. 

  • Provide support and resources so that production levels and accessibility targets are high and achievable.
  • Look at how the process for developing digital tools is carried out. 
  • Measure the process rather than the people behind the process.
  • Ensure you have a feedback loop for your users and actively seek ways to remove barriers for your users.
  • Do testing with real people in real-world scenarios as you design/build your product. Eliminating barriers for people is more important than mere compliance. 

12) Remove barriers that rob people of [pride in their work], and eliminate the annual rating or merit system.

People need to be proud of their work. Pride and self-confidence is a real motivator for any member of a team. Daniel Pink in his work on motivation boiled it down to autonomy, mastery, and purpose, but this is very much the same concept. 

  • It is the responsibility of supervisors to see that everyone takes pride in their work without being rated or compared. This means having a shared definition of good work which includes accessibility. 
  • People with disabilities have a lived experience coping in a world built in ways that exclude them. This experience is very valuable for organizations looking to build inclusive products, but too often they aren’t part of the development team. People with disabilities are often excluded from being hired in organizations, which in the end hurts everyone. 

13) Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement for everyone.

A company’s employees must be encouraged to learn. Learning new technology will help prepare for future challenges, as will having a better understanding of user needs. 

  • Staff should be constantly learning about digital best practices to see that their skills continue to improve. This will increase the quality of the work they are capable of doing. It will also help to prepare the organization for future challenges. 
  • Digital technologies change at a fast pace, and it is important to keep up with best practices as they apply to one’s job responsibilities. The organization has a role to facilitate this, ensuring that staff have access to the resources they need. 
  • We all have biases, and this can be a barrier for our teams achieving their best. Supporting Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility training for everyone is a great way to help teams learn to work better together.  

14) Put everybody in the company to work accomplishing the transformation.

The transformation is everybody’s job.

Leadership has responsibilities for fixing issues with management, but there are many leverage points in complex systems and everyone can have a positive influence. Everyone can contribute in one way or another to the organization’s transformation.  

  • Each small step contributes to  the larger picture. Knowing the process helps teams learn how to build digital products better. 
  • Organizations can improve overall inclusion when each person joins the task to learn how they can improve accessibility.
  • Quality accessibility happens when it is embraced throughout the organization. Every position can have a role in supporting inclusion. 

Part of the reason Deming succeeded in Japan was that companies there fully embraced all 14 Points, and overhauled their entire systems to meet them. Early attempts at using Deming’s 14 Points in North America failed or ended up sub-optimal, because they only adopted some of them, or didn’t fully make the systemic changes required. The lack of full adoption may have resulted in Deming’s methods being seen as not relevant in North America

Partial commitment will not produce the desired results. Here too, there are similarities with digital accessibility.

If accessibility is embraced as a value of an organization and is factored in at every stage of a process, and at all levels in the organization, you will have great results. If there are only a few self-appointed accessibility champions who are trying to squeeze work in with other tasks or as part of the final QA, results will suffer. It is always more expensive and fragile to do accessibility work at the end of the process.

It will be very difficult to make any lasting changes in digital accessibility until we embrace the idea that a quality digital  product is one that adheres to global accessibility standards. Bugs are clearly introduced in many places with digital tools, and there are often many layers of technology involved. Embracing Deming’s 14-Point Philosophy will help with the commitment to a holistic accessibility journey — ensuring every day is more inclusive than the previous one. 

This article is inspired by Deming’s 14-Point Philosophy – A Recipe for Total Quality and Daniel Frank’s interview with the IAAP United in Accessibility podcast. Thanks also to feedback from Kate Kalcevich and Greg Hanek for their feedback.

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