In his famous four-day seminars, Dr Deming would conduct what he called the red beads experiment. He would ask for volunteers (‘willing workers’), show them their task and then allow them to perform a series of trials.

The task was to take a paddle, which had fifty holes in it, and place it in box containing mostly white beads and a few red ones. The object was to ‘get white beads’ which of course was impossible because a few red ones would always creep in.

Deming would amuse his audience by behaving as a manager would. He would give a demonstration and make it the ‘work standard’ – “If I can do it, so can you”. He would repeatedly proclaim that the customer wanted white beads (and would tolerate just a few red ones, as achieved in the work standard). He would praise those workers who achieved the work standard or better – “Good work, you’ll go far”. He would punish those who fell below the standard – “Sloppy, try harder” and so on. After a training trial and a couple of work trials, Deming (as the boss) would sack those who had consistently under-performed (“We’ll keep just the good workers – that way we’ll get more of what we want”). Of course in subsequent trials, some people ‘failed’.

It was a simple exercise with a profound point. People’s performance is governed by their system. Nothing would change the fact that there were red beads in the system. It is the nature of ‘red beads’ that they affect performance differently on different occasions.

To get an idea of the impact of ‘red beads’ in your system, do as Deming did in his experiment – plot the performance of workers over time. In other words, make a control chart. If, as is so often the case, performance shows variation but is ‘in control’ (ie predictable), then you can start working with your team on the causes of variation. To ignore the causes of variation (red beads) and to rate worker against worker (with no evidence to show that the differences are real) is a great way to demoralise people.