Management responsibility – A Deming’s eye view

There are echoes of Deming throughout ISO 9001, but we really need to invest the time and effort to understand the underpinning management philosophy before we dive in and run the risk of making a fool of ourselves through clumsy interpretation. Let’s start with “management commitment”. What exactly does the standard require, and why? The “signed policy statement” for example is frequently heralded as “a visible sign of management commitment” and there are many who can get themselves all hot and bothered on the subject. But what would Deming say?

Well let’s consider what he had to say about the role of management in general. It was his firm view that, if nothing else, management should seek to find ways of making life easier for the workforce, to provide resources and to remove the barriers to good work in a very practical and active way. Now let’s be grown up just for a moment.

Does a policy statement, signed or unsigned, really have much of a bearing on the quality of day to day work? Is it a reliable sign of commitment under any circumstances? Is it feasible that an uncommitted MD could muster a signature on a bit of paper? Is the signature even required by ISO 9001? I can’t help but think that this would be something Deming would find hard to get excited about. If anything he may even have viewed the whole idea of a visible policy statement as a counter-productive instrument, a smokescreen – he was after all dead against work place slogans. He did, of course, have very strong views on management commitment in general, but never a man to beat around the bush, he is more likely to have brushed these cosmetic distractions to one side and gone straight for the jugular. This is how he summarised the role of leaders in “Out of Crisis”:

“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”

If Deming was an ISO 9001 assessor he would have asked the tough questions. “So tell me, what have you done lately to help your workers? Have you put your money where your mouth is? Do you have a clue what it’s like out there or even how you could help your workers?” Signed policy statement or not, that’s the line of enquiry that is really going to get the uncommitted management team squirming. Problem is, it’s a tough path to go down. So do we focus on the trivia of a signature because it’s such a soft target?

Moving on, Deming had quite interesting and perhaps surprising views on Management Information Systems. It is a commonly-held but incorrect view that he was a firm exponent of the philosophy “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”. It is worth noting that number five on his list of “Seven Deadly Diseases of Western Management” was:

“Running a company with visible figures alone”

It was his assertion that a lot of important management information is either unknown or even unknowable, and we can waste a
lot of time chasing the unattainable goal of a 100% “Factual Approach to Decision Making”.

However, to put this in proper context, Deming did support the practice of data collection & analysis in general, especially where it had the practical outcome of reducing the risk in the decision making process. But to reduce the risk of a wrong decision, he would argue, is as much as we can ever do.

If we could somehow systematically reduce the risk in decision making down to zero, there would be no failures. But we can’t, so therefore there are. Bringing all this back to ISO 9001, it means assessors need to have a practical approach to data analysis and management review. Not all data collection has a worthwhile outcome, so sometimes, in some areas, it’s OK to stop.

And also, as not all managementinformation is knowable, ultimately there will always be a judgement call, but a wrong decision does not necessarily mean there is a systematic weakness in the management review process (although clearly if the same mistake is made repeatedly we may have justifiable doubts). Ultimately we need to understand the complexity, subtleties and dynamics of these high level management processes, before we can really understand how to interpret section 5 in a value-adding way – and that includes recognising its limits

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