True to our consumer culture, we believe that the customer is always right.

Everything starts and ends with the customer, we believe. Follow the cash, from consumer to investor. If we are cash operations, then the customer is always right.

But if we are value-creation operations, follow the creation of value, from inputs, through production, to finished goods. Quickly, the customer and investors are validators, and the worker is always right.

Where I First Heard This
In business school in 1987, minding my own business, celebrating my undiagnosed introversion, I sought an empty classroom to enjoy my lunch.

Slowly, the faculty assembled around me. I tucked into my sandwich.

The room filled. A tall, dark suit entered. He scanned the room, saw all the eager faces. I don’t recall any introduction. It was informal. He muttered about the audience, the faculty, that they were teaching the management of failure. “One of our most prestigious business schools. You are the celebrated faculty. What do you teach? The management of failure.”

“Management of failure. Management of failure,” he was chanting, at the low end of the human voice spectrum. His mutterings taunted the faculty, “You teach the management of failure. Management of failure.” Deeply disgusted.

Someone produced a bag of beads and sorting equipment. He started the Red Bead Experiment.

“Holy Creator of Kaizen!” I thought. “That’s Deming. I thought he was dead.” He was Deming: W. Edwards Deming. He was alive. I finished my sandwich and stayed for the matinee: the only hope against the management of failure.

(Dr. Deming died in 1993, even though his calendar held 15 more years of pre-booked consulting gigs with the blue chippiest of companies around the world. His teaching and the Red Bead Experiment live on at the W. Edwards Deming Institute.)
For some links, visit:

Where I First Learned This
When playing with Available Light Theatre, the artistic founder Matt Slaybaugh told me:

We are founded on the premise that the actors must be well treated. They must have an excellent experience. That is our priority, because that is our business. If they do, the audience will be well served. When we care for the actors, the audience takes care of itself.

Rehearsals were so important that the world was reversed. Rather than rehearsing in order to perform for an audience, it seemed like our (eventual) performance for an audience gave us the opportunity to rehearse. We performed so that we could rehearse.

What Happens In Your Workplace?
Which is your business?

  • Management Of Failure. Our workers are destroyed in the process of satisfying the insatiable, at times unhealthy hunger of the customer. Our workers are punished by their work. At the end of their short time with us, most of them are consumed, damaged shells of sorrow and injury. We justify the enterprise by assuring ourselves that “the customer is first” and “we gave our workers an opportunity.” We stifle our workers. We mute them. We fear them. (They want rights? Let them find rights somewhere else!) The culture: empty slogans. 
  • Enlightened Enterprise. Our workers health and voices are our priority. They show up every day with a desire to produce great work. We view our business as a value-creating system: from inputs, through production, to outputs. We ask: “Is this system healthy for our workers? Are they learning? Are they constantly improving the system?” We listen. We act on the insights of our workers. The culture: our clients are very well served.

Some Personal Observations
Through my career, especially as a Vistage Chair, I’ve seen a variety of companies.

  • I’ve seen this politicized, but it knows no party. I’ve seen business leaders at both ends of the contemporary political spectrum with each type of business.
  • On this issue (and many others), I have the privilege of caring for my own health and voice. As an independent contractor, I honor my mission (taught to me by Vistage Chair Joe Faessler): “strengthen self through service to others.” Consider: Self comes first. Service is the method of strengthening self. Is the customer always right? No. But attending to myself makes me more valuable to my customers.
  • These dynamics play out in love and home, too.

Worthy Reading
I didn’t set out to write about Deming. But this topic (like so many others) often lead to his teaching.

Want to learn more? Try this: “Dr. Deming’s 14 Points for Management” at