The Red Bead Experiment

What can we learn about life and work from a bunch of little white and red beads mixed together? Quite a bit, actually.

If you’ve never heard of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, you’re hardly alone. He’s been dead for over 20 years, and had already passed away before I’d first heard of him. What he will likely be most remembered for is being instrumental in Japan’s economic revitalization following World War II. By applying Deming’s quality-focused industrial methods, the Japanese built a manufacturing infrastructure whose quality and productivity soon became legendary around the world.

Within the US, Deming is less well-known, his ideas having been largely ignored during his lifetime. For a variety of reasons, American companies have been less amenable to his quality-oriented philosophy. But his attention to quality and the circumstances that impact it offer lessons with applications well beyond industrial production.

That’s where we come to an exercise he developed called the Red Bead Experiment, or the Red Bead Game. A 1998 article from Express India offers a good description of the game’s mechanics, but I will describe them, as well. From a group of volunteers, typical production jobs are assigned: a number of operators (line workers), a few quality inspectors, a chief quality inspector to supervise the others, and a defects record-keeper. The operators are presented with a bowl of small beads. 90% of the beads are white, while the other 10% are red. The white beads represent good products, while the red ones represent defective products. Each operator is given a paddle which can scoop up 50 beads at a time. The operator then presents his or her paddle to each quality inspector, who records the number of defects. The chief inspector then gathers these numbers from the subordinate inspectors, comparing them for accuracy, and announces the defects per worker, which are written down by the record-keeper. While the goal is zero defects, operators are permitted a maximum of one defect, and will face threats and irritation from the chief inspector should they violate this threshold.

The game is repeated for five rounds. Given the constraints and the tools involved–there are exactly enough beads for five rounds, and the paddles are not precision instruments–it’s inevitable that workers will produce well above the allowed number of defects, no matter how hard they try. Determined operators may be able to get the number way down for one or two rounds, but they cannot eliminate the red beads altogether. They are in an impossible situation.

This exercise is meant to teach several lessons, some of which are applicable outside the workplace:

  • People feel bad for doing a bad job, even when they have no control over it.
  • Quality is a function of much more than an individual worker’s efforts. It requires good raw materials, tools, and processes.
  • Having an established process does not guarantee low or zero defects. A bad process may simply produce a consistent number of defects, as happens in the game.
  • Setting an arbitrary goal without building a system to satisfy it is foolish and doesn’t work.

I must credit Deming’s ideas with representing some of my earliest exposure to the nature of complex systems and how they impact outcomes. Whether it’s making cars, software, or even responsible citizens, individuals have little control over the results. The bigger and more complex the system, the less impact any one person can have on its functioning. Of course, one’s position within the system can make a huge difference: a CEO has much more power to change a company than a quality inspector; a President has much more power to change the country than your average voter. But wherever one stands in a particular system, changing it can be very difficult. This is why exercises like the Red Bead Game exist. They are useful tools for illustrating the ways systems, in their functioning, can impact results regardless of how hard individuals within the system may work to do otherwise.

It occurred to me recently that social justice issues work similarly. Imagine each of us is born, represented by a bowl of mixed beads. We all get some red and white ones. Some people get more of the red ones, while others get more of the white ones. A lucky few have very small numbers of red ones. Imagine that every day is represented by scooping out a fixed number of beads. The red beads can represent all kinds of disadvantages and absences of privilege: a physical disability, a mental illness, a non-white skin color, a non-native immigrant status, being born into poverty, being female, and so on. The white beads, on the other hand, represent things going your way: having a day where you don’t feel ill, doing well in school, getting a job, having a connection that helps your career, having a valuable skill, being educated, etc. For both categories, you could likely think of many, many more possibilities. The point is that white beads represent things that help you in life, and red beads represent things that hinder you.

Some people will have more red beads than white ones. Every day, they will scoop out a bunch of beads, but no matter how hard they try, they’ll never have a lot of white ones. A large number of red ones will be holding them back at every turn. Others, however, will be blessed with very few red beads. It’s unlikely anyone would have zero such beads, but some lucky folks would be able to go long periods without drawing any red beads, or maybe only draw one every few days, making them a minor inconvenience at best. Encountering one would still be unpleasant for that person–it’s no fun to lose a job, to get sick, to be in a car accident, or otherwise have a bad experience that distracts from pursuing one’s goals in life–but some would be fortunate enough for these to be rare setbacks.

This is obviously unfair, isn’t it? Why do some people get saddled with tons of red beads while others have very few? Shouldn’t they be spread evenly? What if we could get rid of them altogether, or at least dramatically reduce their numbers? Imagine that no one in America had a bad experience on account of being a person of color–imagine all the red beads that could be turned white if we did that. (The irony of white beads being the good ones is not lost on me, either!) Plenty of other things can cut down those red beads, as well: strong social safety nets, access to health care, respecting the rights and autonomy of women and minorities, treating migrants and refugees with compassion rather than disdain, accommodating people with disabilities rather than demanding they be “fixed” or merely taking pity on them. Some of these are policy goals and other are cultural issues, and the two interlock at a number of levels.

What about those of us who have a larger share of white beads than others? What can we do? To carry the metaphor: share them. Spend those white beads helping others, especially people who have too many red ones. Volunteer your time, money, and/or effort to causes that help others. Be active–take to the streets if you are comfortable with that, just be a good ally in the process. Since we’re talking about systems here, vote to change them, too! Vote for people who recognize these problems and will work to fix them.

On a more personal level, consider how “red beads” might be affecting people in your life, and use it to short-circuit your impulse to judge others for where they are in life, what they’ve accomplished (or not), and how content they are (or aren’t). Other people’s struggles may be very private or invisible–it’s not like you can see everything that might be dragging someone down, or might have stood in their way in life.

Society is a system as much as any factory. It is bigger and much more complex, but it is a system nonetheless. Like any system, it will have defects–negative outcomes, many of which could be avoided if the system worked differently. We don’t have to be stuck with the system we have, but it’s incumbent on those of us who have already gotten the best deal to help others get a much better one than they have. You can’t do that just by lifting up specific individuals, though it does help. It is only by changing the overall system that we can produce dramatic shifts in the results. And it is absolutely not impossible.

Photo by HarmonicMama

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About the Author

James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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The Red Bead Experiment

by James time to read: 6 min
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