Deming on leadership

Quality gurus come and go, and we all have our favourites.

Some shine brightly for a while, but are very much “of their time” (remember Tom Peters anyone?), others have managed to maintain a longer shelf-life (we’re thinking of Philip Crosby and Joseph Juran). Maybe the key to it is the substance of the work. There is one guru, however, who occupies a position of incomparable status in the quality field, a visionary whose work speaks to people at all levels, from statisticians, to technicians, to academics, to human resource professionals, through to hard-nosed commercial bods. Over the course of almost 4 decades W Edwards Deming produced a body of work that has truly stood the test of time, losing little of its relevance along the way, notwithstanding the incredible changes that we have seen in society and world markets in that time

Over the course of the next couple of weeks I’ll be trying to use the insight and work of Deming to try to develop a deeper understanding of ISO 9001 and, particularly, the 8 principles of quality management. We have a view that these principles, as published in the official text (ISO 9000 series), are introduced and described in quite a trite and unhelpful way, leading to poor management systems application. So we’re trying to do something about it by attempting to put some substantial flesh on those bare bones

Starting with …Leadership
“The aim of leadership should be to improve the performance of man and machine, to improve quality, to increase output and simultaneously to bring pride of workmanship to people. Put in a negative way, the aim of leadership is not to find failures of men, but to remove the causes of failure, to help people do a better job and with less effort”

W E Deming, Out of Crisis

Defining and making sense of “leadership” can be a bit like trying to nail a jelly to a wall. Can we establish any parameters that are helpful in any practical way? Well, in the above quote, Deming is advocating that the various tiers of leader use their authority, and the resources at their disposal, to make life easier and better for the poor souls doing the work. Now hang on a minute, that can’t be right can it? How many of us have thought our boss considerably more likely to do just the opposite?

Deming did. In his publication “Quality, productivity and competitive position” he describes the incredible but universal paradox of leadership, that is:

“Most acts of supervision in management … instead of providing help to people, accomplish just the opposite”

It was Deming’s view that the most constructive application
of leadership would be “ … to help people do a better job and with less effort”. This is highly significant, as it has implications beyond the attitude and commitment of “leaders” because for that to happen leaders not only need to support the system, but the system needs to be designed to support its leaders. It is much more than a question of having your heart in the right place. For “quality” to be truly embedded into both process and system, barriers often need to be removed

While leaders themselves can often sanction the removal of significant barriers, the poor old workers can only build in “work-arounds”. This is obviously unsatisfactory, but nonetheless commonplace, as a fall back position in the absence of the preferred option. We could therefore conclude that a system that is pock marked with such “work-arounds” is likely to be suffering from poor leadership. A tell tale symptom, maybe

For things to work properly top-to-bottom, with leaders living up to Deming’s ideal, a number of things need to be true and effectively implemented, such as:

There needs to be a common understanding of the nature of work, what is important, the nature of the system and the role of leadership in it

There needs to be transparency across and within the system to enable problems and barriers to be readily identifiable, and therefore removable

There needs to be open and effective communication in all directions, top-down, bottom-up and laterally

There needs to be a decent level of mutual trust.

Transparency can be a double edged sword. The workforce needs to be comfortable that transparency will not be used against it, whilst leaders need to be comfortable that upward communication channels will not be abused and manipulated for matters of self-interest

Critically Deming notes:

“One important characteristic of a leader is that he will forgive a mistake – there will be mistakes”

If we look hard enough, we can see that there has been an attempt to integrate these principles into section 5 of ISO 9001 – but it is clumsy. Perhaps it is the way standards have to be written or maybe it is a consequence of letting a load of engineers loose on the text, but the over-use of the “shall” word does little to encourage a clear and practical understanding of the key principles and the subtleties of the function. Remember, not all management information is either known or knowable, so the lack of elasticity implicit with the heavy use of the “shall” word may well be at odds with the realities of leadership

In ISO 9001 we see that “management commitment” is important (clause 5.1) and that part of it includes the provision of resources. We see an attempt to put a framework around the use of performance information by leaders via “management review”, (clause 5.6). In principle this is consistent with Deming’s view, but again we have to ask ourselves how often the auditor is happy to see a tatty set of minutes with little productive output, without really examining the integrity and, dare we say it, the value, of the process?

Could it be that few auditors really understand the nature of that beast? If we’re honest we have to acknowledge that few 3rd party auditors have “risen” to the role of auditor following a successful career in management, so we
have to question their first hand knowledge and consequently their competence in assessing the discipline. It is a little ironic that such care is taken, especially with the advent of ISO 17021, to ensure that only auditors with the appropriate sector and technical competence are allocated to particular clients, whilst there is no apparent problem with the same people auditing management processes of which they have little experience or practical understanding (with heavy emphasis on the word practical … and understanding for that matter)

Moving on, we might note that Deming did not see the promotion of quality through slogans to be in any way a good thing – in fact he was dead against it. So this presents somewhat of an anomaly when we consider the requirement in ISO 9001 for a visible and communicated quality policy (clause 5.3). In an earlier post we’ve asked the question “does it (the Policy) really matter?”, but we could even interpret Deming as going a step farther so as to declare things of that nature counter productive. What is perhaps clear is that we should not see the Quality Policy document as the be all and end all of top management commitment. The very practical and value adding leadership activities examined in the earlier part of this article should be seen as infinitely more important, if a little more difficult to jab with a finger, declaring  “NON-CONFORMANCE!”

So what is the solution? What can we do to encourage a more balanced approach to quality and intelligent solutions? Maybe it’s time for a bit of WED in the lead auditor training programs. The application of the technical standard would be so much better if the fundamental points of understanding were established first

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