On a reporting assignment to Japan some 20 years ago, I learned from a Japanese engineer one of the secrets of that country's amazing success in penetrating Western markets. Japanese achieve quality, he said, not by an inspection system that spots the defects on an assembly line but by a concerted effort to "get it right the first time."

That lesson was taught the receptive Japanese in 1950 by a then little-known American business management expert, W. Edwards Deming, who died this week in Washington at age 93. Until 10 days before his death, Deming was still conducting seminars for American companies, belatedly eager for his advice.

Corporate America, after World War II, told Deming to get lost -- and he did, in Japan.

Deming advised the Japanese, who sought him out, not to copy the American-style inspection system but to incorporate quality control principles into the manufacturing process. He was in the vanguard of American production experts whose advice had been rejected by American managers because they bluntly told businessmen that poor quality products resulted mostly from their own failures, not from worker ineptness.

"Anything made in America {in the 1920s} was top quality," Deming told members of Congress two years ago, when he had reached his 91st birthday, as active and sharp-minded as ever.

"Anywhere in the world, if you knew the shopkeeper, he might reach under the counter and get an American product for you," he said. In that era, America mass-produced and sold 50 percent or more of the manufactured goods entering global markets.

But then American industry got lazy and rested on its laurels. It rejected the notion that industry should pay attention to what consumers wanted to buy, or that consumers would foot the bill for high-quality products. Especially, American executives scoffed at the foolish idea that any other country, especially Japan, which had a post-World War II record of producing shoddy goods, could compete.

Japanese companies, however, were all ears. When Deming first arrived in Tokyo, the top men in the companies didn't send just their engineers for an eight-day seminar -- they came themselves.

The Japanese were also greatly influenced by another American management expert, Joseph M. Juran, who went to Japan in 1954. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Juran says that Japan would have achieved world quality leadership without his and Deming's advice, but "we did provide them a jump start, without which ... the job might have taken longer, but they would still be ahead of the United States in the quality revolution."

In June 1951, less than a year after Deming's first lecture on quality control, Japan instituted the Deming Prize for industrial achievement. It then took 30 years, until 1981, before an equivalent American incentive, named for the late Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige, was established to encourage higher American quality.

The same year, the Ford Motor Co. hired Deming in a desperate attempt to stem the flow of huge losses. Ford soon adopted its well-known slogan, "Quality Is Job One," and not only moved back into profitability but has also taken the industry lead away from General Motors.

Yet, the full meaning of Deming's wisdom hasn't been absorbed in America: It is delusionary to blame America's trade deficits with Japan or any other country mostly on their "unfair" trade practices. To be sure, the Japanese have at times been protectionist and have blocked entry of foreign goods while protecting their own industries. But their success has been linked to product quality.

American manufacturers have been their own worst enemies. President Clinton made this point in his basic trade policy speech at American University early this year. Deming believed, and he was right, that American managers must take the responsibility for control of quality and for boosting productivity.

Lots of progress has been made in recent years, but not enough. Protectionist sentiment is far from dead, as we learned during the bitter battles over NAFTA and GATT. In the case of NAFTA, it was organized labor that looked for protection against competition; in the GATT round, some sectors of the business community feared to test the quality of their products against all comers.

Deming was not an optimist: He believed that most American managers are too stubborn to make the necessary changes. "Who do you think will be ahead five years from now?" he asked at that 1991 meeting on the Hill. "Knowledge crosses borders without visas, and there is no substitute for knowledge."