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At least once every few weeks or so someone trots out a certain old saw that helps keep me Always Grumpy. “You can’t measure what you can’t manage,” they’ll say. I ran into it most recently just this past week, in a presentation on computer systems measurement. To be fair to the presenter, in that context it was exactly appropriate: he was talking about computer systems management, for which the measure of success depends largely on computer performance measurement.

But I hate this adage with all my heart! Many bosses and bureaucrats in all walks of government, industry and academia use it in all sorts of inappropriate ways. They use it to proliferate processes and drive busywork to collect useless numbers; they hide wrong-headed and often preconceived decisions behind statistics that are often only tangentially relevant at best; and worst, they sacrifice good management practices on the altars of mediocrity and/or self-interest.

Up until a few months ago, I used to curse W. Edwards Deming whenever I heard this phrase misused because it’s often attributed to him. Then one day I got the idea to look it up. Like a manager discovering a sycophantic new employee’s nose in an inconvenient place, I was Very Surprised! (Looks like there’s an eighth dwarf. Who knew?)

What Deming said was, “If you can measure it, you can manage it.” That’s a world away from its near opposite above, as measured by any number of wasted hours devising twisted measurements and collecting and analysing the resulting garbage. W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993) was an American engineer and statistician who was in no small part responsible for Japan’s surging success as a manufacturing economy in the 1950s and 1960s. He advocated the use of measurement wherever possible in order to manage industrial processes, and his ideas flowed back to the United States in the 1980s and 1990s as the Total Quality Movement… but he never said that measurement was necessary or sufficient, only that it was desirable where possible and reasonable. He also said, “The most important things cannot be measured.”

In other words, W. Edwards Deming was never an advocate of the gratuitous, purposeless, wasteful and often frankly deceptive measuring that is so widespread among our institutions today. Instead, he believed that there are many things you cannot measure, but need to manage anyway: “The most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable, but successful management must nevertheless take account of them.”

In my current day job, I’m a capacity planning specialist; I make my living from analysing measurements of computer systems performance. So like W. Edwards Deming, I’m a great advocate of measuring what you can and of using suitable measurements in managing systems and processes and even people. But there are so many situations, especially where people and leadership are involved, in which measurement is impossible or unsuitable! I was very glad to find out about this mis-quote: I had long understood Deming’s contribution to effective process management, and I had never understood why he’d make such a wrong-headed extension of an effective idea. It turns out he did no such thing.

I was so wrong about Mr. Deming! I hope his shade can graciously accept my apology.

Jonathan Gladstone is alwaysgrumpy at or follow me on Twitter @jbglad59.



  1. Glad you checked that out and found the actual quote!

    By the way, it’s very difficult to see my black typing on your black email, etc. requirements!!


  2. Yes, my friend John Hunter has also worked to debunk the myth that Dr. Deming said “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” You’re right to point out he taught the opposite. Nice job.


  3. Jon – I’m glad the real Deming makes you happy, or at least, less grumpy. Furthermore I am glad you publicly apologized for years of private malignment. These things may aid me in achieving my goal of suppressing my cynicism until Thursday (I kinda like the way it gets all frothy when I do that), but your post overlooks one essential facet of the human condition and that is the sense of comfort that comes from having the numbers one understands one should have. This is not the same as knowing one should understand the numbers one has. Even less like knowing one should understand the numbers one seeks rather than seeking the numbers one understands. Heck, you’re no help after all.


  4. The dangers of Instrumentalism ( I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan, and Deming is a big hero, and they love apologies too. #WritersBs


    • That’s a very interesting comment, 601! It makes me think in several directions.
      1) We Canadians love our apologies too, though I think in a rather different way than the Japanese.
      2) I’m a student of Japanese martial arts (karate, iaido) and games (go), so maybe I share some of their enthusiasm for the disciplined approach Deming brought to life.
      3) I’m an instrumentalist myself, but not in a limiting sense. I think that ‘science’ as such can only speak to the evidence, which by definition describes phenomena that are measurable, repeatable and predictive. Other ideas and theories may be interesting, important and worth study, but they are not science. Without putting words into anyone’s mouth I suspect Deming would agree: on the one hand he clearly believed in the need for and value of measurement and analysis but on the other hand he strongly expressed the need to manage the unmeasurable. The ‘dangers of instrumentalism’ probably come from people taking the idea too far.

      Thanks for your input. I may have to blog about that!


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