Is This the Most Famous Misquote of All Time?


By Phil Harwood

Dr. W. Edwards Deming has been quoted as saying, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Similar quotes by others include, “Whatever you measure improves” and, “If you can measure it, you can manage it.” Collectively, these famous quotes instruct managers to utilize metrics in order to be more effective. The problem is that Deming’s quote was taken out of context. He actually said just the opposite.

Deming’s actual quote is this:

“It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it  - a costly myth.”

How could such a famous quote actually be a misquote, and not only a misquote, but the exact opposite in its meaning? 

It doesn’t fit the narrative. It’s like the CNN reporter standing in front of a city on fire and being overrun by rioters while telling the listeners that what they are seeing is a peaceful protest. A riot doesn’t fit the narrative, which is more important to the network than the truth. When the truth stands in the way of the narrative, just alter it. If Deming’s quote isn’t what we want it to be, no problem, we can fix it.  

Google “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” and the search results will be filled with articles from all sorts of sources, including from esteemed business news agencies, all misquoting Deming to promote the benefits of using metrics to drive performance. It’s a logical concept and a good narrative, for sure, and it sells. 

However, anyone reading the entire Deming quote would clearly understand that he is NOT advocating for what he is often “credited” as being an advocate for. In fact, if it couldn't be any more clear, his opening words are, “It is wrong…” I actually don’t know of a more blatant misrepresentation in the world of famous quotes. Is it the most famous misquote of all time? It just might be. 

Deming was a leading voice in using data to improve performance so the misquote seems to make sense. However, he understood that not everything needing to be managed could be quantified. That was exactly what his quote tells us. Management encompasses much more than controlling measurable inputs and outputs. That which may be quantified is merely a subset of the universe of what needs to be managed in organizations. 

In my experience, many organizations struggle with the use of metrics for a variety of reasons. Creating and maintaining tracking & reporting systems, dashboards, or scorecards requires effort and expense. Thankfully, business management software programs have greatly improved the use of metrics by making them more available to the right people, more accurate, less time-consuming, and less expensive.  

In addition, I see many organizations struggle with managerial soft skills, which are far less quantifiable in a spreadsheet. A good example of a soft skill is coaching. To be an effective manager (or supervisor or crew leader) in today’s world, you need to be a good coach. But how do you measure the effectiveness of a coach? It’s a tough question to answer. 

If you would like to improve the performance of measurable items, begin to track and report them. However, it is equally important to improve the performance of what you cannot measure. provides a wealth of educational opportunities focused on improving soft skills. Have you checked it out yet? If not, I would like to personally invite you to begin a free, 30-day, all-access trial. Just go to and follow the instructions. 

Now go forth. 

Tags: Metrics , Measure , Manage , Misquote ,