Operational Definitions

How? By What Method? For What Purpose?

Words have no meaning unless they are translated into action, agreed upon by everyone. An operational definition puts communicable meaning into a concept.

- Dr. W.E. Deming as quoted by Dr. Henry Neave in The Deming Dimension. (p. 110)

An operational definition is one that people can do business with. An operational definition of safe, round, reliable, or any other quality must be communicable, with the same meaning to vendor as to purchaser, same meaning yesterday and today to the production worker.


  1. A specific test of a piece of material or an assembly.

  2. A criterion (or criteria) for judgment.

  3. Decision: yes or no, the object or material did or did not meet the criterion.

- Dr. W.E. Deming. Out of the Crisis (MIT Press) (p. 277).

No true value. There is no true value of any characteristic, state, or condition that is defined in terms of measurement or observation. Change of procedure for a measurement (change in operational definition) or observation produces a new number…

There is no such thing as a fact concerning an empirical observation. Any two people may have different ideas about what is important to know about any event. Get the facts! Is there any meaning to this exhortation?

- Dr. W.E. Deming. The New Economics, 3rd ed., (p. 71).

Everyone supposes that he knows what pollution means until he begins to try to explain it to somebody. One requires an operational definition of pollution of rivers, pollution of land, pollution of streets. These words have no meaning until defined statistically.

- Dr. W.E. Deming, Out of the Crisis (MIT Press) (p. 285).

Dr. Deming believed many of the problems we see in the day-to-day operations of a business, school, or any organization were attributable to common-causes of variation in the ways we communicate with each other. He was concerned that we had baked-in to the prevailing style of Western management a high tolerance for ambiguity and assumptions and an overconfidence in our precision about what constitutes “facts” or “figures” with almost no attention to methods for deriving them. He asserted that without a common language on how and by what method an observed fact was defined, any two people could arrive at different meanings of the same observation, leading to confusion. The method used is integral to the result - change the method, and we change the result.

In his four day seminars, Dr. Deming would drive this point home by asking a deceptively simple question of attendees on resuming after a break: “How many people are in the room?”

“Why are we asking? Is it for registering those who are attending, is it for ordering lunch, is it for arranging chairs, or is it for the fire marshal’s inspection?

“For each purpose we would have unique criteria. For each criterion we would have a unique procedure for counting. And for each method of counting we would have a different number.

“The answer depends upon the purpose of the question. We need an operational definition…

Question: How many in the room
Purpose: For income generated
Method: Number paid in advance, plus the number paid at the door, plus the number to be billed.

Question: How many in the room
Purpose: For number of chairs
Method: Number registered, and the number of free registrations, plus 10 percent for walk-ins.

- William J. Latzko, David M. Saunders. Four Days with Dr. Deming. (p. 159)

So understood, we can see operational definitions are necessary not just for clarity, but for helping everyone understand their roles and task and how they will work together. How will we define this or that measurement for our work? By what method? For what purpose? Do we have a shared agreement?

Example: Operational Definition for Action

A good example of an operational definition for management action can be found in the fundamental rule of a process behaviour chart: Any point outside of the upper or lower control limits:

Finding Ambiguity

Think about the concepts and terms we hear in our businesses and organizations every day and how overloaded their definitions have become. List them out and see how many you can define as Dr. Deming would advise in the Question/Purpose/Method format. How would you introduce an experiment to prove the viability of operational definitions in your department? Who would need to be involved?

Don’t be surprised when it proves devilishly difficult! Here are some examples to get the juices flowing:

  • On-time, on-budget.

  • Project start date.

  • Positive COVID19 test; Negative COVID19 test; Daily New COVID19 Cases.

  • Defect.

  • Countermeasure.

  • Return on Investment.

  • Minimum Viable Product.

  • OKR (Objectives and Key Results).

  • Performance Appraisals: Exceeds / Meets / Does Not Meet.

  • Grades: A / B / C / D / F.