Lessons Learned From the Red Bead Experiment

Deming's Red Bead Experiment #136: Challenge | Recap

94% of all problems in the workplace are not with the workers, not with performance, but with the system

  • The management designed the system. Since quality is the outcome of the system, quality must start with management.
  • Many managers hold their workers to standards beyond their control
  • Rigid procedures are not sufficient to produce the desired quality

  • Extrinsic motivation is not effective

  • Rewards and punishment had no effect

  • Posters and slogans are useless, often insulting, and create resentment

  • Numerical goals and production standards can be meaningless

  • The performance of a worker on any one day cannot be used to predict his performance in the longer term


Have you ever felt frustrated because you weren’t able to improve upon a process at work? Maybe you’ve worked for a manager who didn’t understand your job or frequently made silly demands of you or your team? This never happens to e-learning designers, right?

The reality for most workers is that they don’t have any control over their work experiences. They work for companies they didn’t build, using systems they didn’t invent. Even “willing workers” (as defined in Deming’s Red Bead Experiment) can only control 6 out of every 100 problems. To improve performance, management must improve the systems that create the outcomes.

What is The Red Bead Experiment?

The Red Bead Experiment is an interactive teaching tool designed in 1982 by W. Edwards Deming. Using statistical theory, the experiment demonstrates how “willing workers” have less control over their performance than the actual systems they’re working within.

What is The Red Bead Experiment?

The game is played by asking volunteers to assume specific roles: A foreman, quality control inspector, data recorder, and “willing worker.” The willing workers represent typical workers who sincerely want to do a great job for their company.

The willing workers take turns dipping a metal paddle into a basket of red and white beads. The white beads symbolize quality products while the red beads symbolize product defects. The goal is to select only white beads.

Red Bead Experiment

Using various management techniques such as rewards, punishment, feedback, and motivational posters, the inspectors try to extract better performance (fewer red beads) from their willing workers.

The activity takes about an hour to complete. Even though it’s an oversimplified model of real-world working conditions, it demonstrates how managers hold employees to standards beyond their control.

Demonstration: Red Bead Experiment with Dr. W. Edwards Deming

The following excerpt should give you a solid overview of how the experiment works. There are many different versions available on YouTube. For a more in-depth look at the Red Bead Experiment, there’s a six-part video series available.

The Red Bead Experiment with Dr. W. Edwards Deming | View the video on YouTube


Interactive Simulation of the Red Bead Experiment

Here's a soft simulation of Deming’s Red Bead Experiment, showing that errors caused by workers operating a process are more on account of the System than the fault of the workers.

Interactive Simulation of the Red Bead Experiment

Click the image to view the Red Bead Experiment simulation

Challenge of the Week

This week, your challenge is to design an interaction, simulation, lesson, or quiz to demonstrate the Red Bead Experiment.


Red Bead Experiment with Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Good overview of the Red Bead Experiment including a video demonstration of the activity hosted by Deming.

Last Week’s Challenge:

Before you improve upon your e-learning processes, check out the fantastic collection of PowerPoint graphics elements your fellow challenges shared in last week’s challenge:

PowerPoint Design Assets

Free PowerPoint Design Assets RECAP #135: Challenge | Recap

Wishing you a quality week, E-Learning Heroes!

New to the E-Learning Challenges?

The weekly e-learning challenges are ongoing opportunities to learn, share, and build your e-learning portfolios. You can jump into any or all of the previous challenges anytime you want. I’ll update the recap posts to include your demos.

Maija Perfiljeva
Tony Burns