Deconstructing Deming VII – Adopt and institute leadership

7. Adopt and institute leadership.

W Edwards Deming Point 7 of Deming’s 14 Points. This point leaves me with some of the same uncertainty as Point 6 Institute training on the job. But everybody thinks they know what training is. Leadership is a much more elusive concept.

In a recent review of Archie Brown’s book The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age (Times (London) 12 April 2014), Philip Collins observed as follows.

The problem with Brown’s book is his idea that there is a single entity called “leadership” that covers all these categories. It does not follow from the existence of leaders that there is such a thing as “leadership”. It may be no more possible to distil wisdom on leadership than it is on love. Every lover is different, I would imagine. There doesn’t seem to be much profit in the attempt to set out a theory of “lovership” as if there were common traits in every act of seduction.

Collins identifies a common discomfort. Yet there remain good and bad leaders, as there are good and bad lovers. All who aspire to improve must start by distinguishing the characteristics of the good and the bad.

Deming elaborates his own Point 7 further in Out of the Crisis and, predictably, several distinct positions emerge. I identify four but they don’t all help me understanding what leadership is.

1. Abolish focus on outcomes

Deming’s point is well taken that, for the statistically naïve, day to day management based on historical outcomes typically leads to over adjustment, what Deming called tampering. The consequences are increased operating costs that have been themselves induced by the over active management.

However, outcomes must be the overriding benchmark by which all management is measured. The problem with the over adjustment that flows from a lack of rigorous criticism of data is that it frustrates the very outcomes it aspired to serve. There has ultimately to be some measure of success and failure, an outcome. That is the inevitable focus of every leader.

2. Remove barriers to pride in workmanship

This is picked up at greater depth in Deming’s Point 12. I shall come back to it then.

3. Leaders must know the work they supervise

Alan Clark was a British politician, a very minor, and comically gaff prone, minister in the Thatcher government of the 1980s. He is now mostly remembered as a notorious self styled bon viveur and womaniser. His diaries are as scandalous as they are apocryphal. A good read for those who like that sort of thing.

In 1961, Clark published an historical work about the First World War, The Donkeys. The book adopted a common popular sentiment of mid-twentieth-century Britain, that the enlisted men of the war were lions led by donkeys. The donkeys were the officer class, their leaders. Clark helped to reinforce the idea that the private soldier was brave and capable, but betrayed by a self styled elite who failed to equip and direct them with commensurate valour. Historian Basil Liddell Hart endorsed Clark’s proofs.

To be fair there is legitimate controversy about the matter. But I think that now academic, and certainly popular, sentiment has swung the other way, no longer regarding the leaders as incompetent and indifferent, but rather as diligent and compassionate though overwhelmed. Historian Robin Neillands put it thus:

… the idea that they were indifferent to the sufferings of their men is constantly refuted by the facts, and only endures because some commentators wish to perpetuate the myth that these generals, representing the upper classes, did not give a damn what happened to the lower orders.

I find Deming content to perpetuate a similar trope about industrial managers in his writings. In Out of the Crisis:

There was a time, years ago, when a foreman selected his people, trained them, helped them, worked with them. He knew the job. … Supervision on the factory floor is, I fear, in many companies, an entry position for college boys and girls [sic] to learn about the company, six months here, six months there. … He does not understand the problem. and could get nothing done about it if he did.

I frankly don’t know where to start with that. It goes on. I constantly see Deming’s followers approving and sharing this sort of article. They all simply have the whiff of lamp oil about them. They fail to ring true and betray the same sort of lazy, chippy, defensive emotions as the donkeys attribution.

Other than in the simplest of endeavours, perhaps a window cleaning business, perhaps, the value of an enterprise flows from the confluence and integration of diverse materials, skills, technologies, knowledge and people. A manager or leader is the person who makes that confluence occur. But for the manager it would not have happened. Inevitably that means that the leader’s domain knowledge of any particular element is limited. It is the manager’s ability to absorb and assimilate information from a variety of sources that enables the enterprise. Leadership demands capacity to trust that other people know what they are doing, and to use the borrowing strength of diverse sources of information to signal when assumptions are betrayed. The hope that the leader can be a craft master of all he or she seeks to integrate is forlorn.

4. Leaders understand variation

I dealt with this under Point 6. It is a strong point. Without understanding of statistics, rigorous criticism of historical data is impossible. Signal and noise cannot be efficiently separated. That leads to over adjustment, tampering, increased costs and frustrated outcome. Only managers who are not held to outcomes will ultimately be indulged in an innumerate pursuit of over adjustment. But it takes a long time for things to shake out.

The role of a manager of people

Deming wrote under this head in his last book The New Economics. There are another 14 points with overlaps and extensions of his original 14. A lot of it expands Principal Point 12. I will need to come back to them at another time. However, Deming certainly saw a leader as somebody with a plan and an ability to explain the plan to the workforce.

Attempts to define leadership abound yet no single one is, to me, compelling. However, part of it must be engagement with strategy. Strategy is the way of dealing with the painful experience that plans do not survive for very long. I liked the way Lawrence Freedman put it in his recent Strategy: A History.

The strategist has to accept that even when there is an obvious climax (a battle or an election), the story line will still be open-ended … leaving a number of issues to be resolved later. Even when the desired endpoint is reached, it is not really the end, The enemy may have surrendered, the election won, the target company taken over, the revolutionary opportunity seized, but that just means there is now an occupied country to run, a new government to be formed, a whole new revolutionary order to be established, or distinctive sets of corporate activities to be merged. … The transition is immediate and may well be conditional on how the original endpoint was reached. This takes us back to the observation that much strategy is about getting to the next stage rather than some ultimate destination. Rather than think of strategy as a three-act play, it is better to think of it as a soap opera with a continuing cast of characters and plot lines that unfold over a series of episodes. Each of these episodes will be self-contained and set up the subsequent episode. Unlike a play with a definite ending, there is no need for a soap opera to ever reach a conclusion, even though the central characters and their circumstances change.

That leads us to my first response to Deming’s Point 7.

  • Leaders take responsibility for aligning outcomes to targets.
  • Targets are in constant motion.
  • Continual rigorous statistical criticism of historical data is the way to align outcomes and targets, by avoiding over adjustment and by navigating the sort of strategic soap opera Freedman describes.
  • Leaders need to trust that their team know what they are doing.
  • Leaders use the borrowing strength of diverse data to monitor performance.

There is much else to leadership. I have not addressed people or engagement. That takes me back to Deming’s Principal Point 12 (yet to come). I want to look closely at those topics at a later time within the framework of Max Weber’s ethics of responsibility.

I also want to come back to Freedman’s narrative approach to strategy and the work of G L S Shackle on statisics, economics and imagination. It will have to wait.

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