Are You Living in a Red Bead Experiment?

The red bead experiment was created as a gift for W. E. Deming as a demonstration of the Illusion of Management. The Red Bead Experiment consists of a paddle with 50 slots and a group of “willing workers”. The workers are instructed to dip the paddle into the pan of beads (white & red) which contains 20% red beads & 80% white beads. The goal of is to produce white beads, as the customer will not accept red beads. The workers are required to read the detailed work instructions and extract the beads from the pan using the paddle. A trained quality inspector counts the beads and records the results. “Management” provides encouragement and administers discipline to “poor performers”. An example of the kit is provided below (source).


To illustrate the experiment I’ve typed names in an excel spreadsheet selected 6 “willing workers” who have graciously applied. Each worker randomly generates carefully scoops 50 beads each week and the total number of red beads is diligently recorded by the inspector. After 4 weeks the average number of defects (red beads) is calculated for each “willing worker”. The quality manager presents the results to the staff at the monthly management review with the following chart.


The conversation likely goes as follows:

Quality Manager: “Here is the average weekly scrap performance for each operator. As you can see they all missed the target of 4 red beads per week; however, Brad was quite close.

Human Resources Manager:”Tom was the worst performer. We need to consider putting him on a performance improvement plan“.

Production Manager: “We need to create a quality mindset and start doing things right the first time

Engineering Manager: “I’ll have the process engineers watch Brad and try to glean any Best Practices

Next Management Review:


Quality Manager: ” The results from the previous month have not improved. We need to make quality a priority

Human Resources: “Tom’s performance has clearly not improved. I recommend we move to terminate him. Brad’s performance has also been impacted by everyone else’s. And Tessa is only getting worse!

Production Manager: “We must drive accountability down to the operators

Engineering Manager: “Clearly they [operators] are not following the standard work”

Final Management Review:


Quality Manager: “The results are not improving…. We need to hold the supervisors accountable”

Human Resources: “The New Girl is an improvement over Tessa and Brad is heading in the right direction now. I don’t know what else you want me to do!

Production Manager: “I keep emphasizing quality in the kick off meetings… these people are just not getting it!

If the fictitious scenario created using a random number generator in excel hits close to home, you have my condolences. This example and Deming’s Red Bead experiment are intended to help managers think about the system and processes which generate the results. They also illustrate how “data driven” thinking with a touch of confirmation bias can get out of hand quickly as managers perpetuate the Illusion of Management.


For more info on the Red Bead Experiment check out this Youtube video here . Also for an additional resource on Dr. Deming, please check out the book linked below.

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