Transformation Requires Theory

This may be a new experience. You have come to learn. You may have come for a formula. There is no formula. There is no Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, … We are going to learn a lot more. We're going to learn theory. We're going to learn why we have to do what we need to do.

- Dr. W.E. Deming as quoted by Neave, Dr. Henry. The Deming Dimension. (p. 245)

The new philosophy requires leadership. Leadership will nurture teamwork. We shall try to understand the theory behind these statements.

- Ibid. (p. 246)

Transformation in any organization will take place under a leader. It will not be spontaneous…

[T]he job of a leader is to accomplish transformation of his organization. He possesses knowledge, personality, and persuasive power.

How may he accomplish transformation? First, he has theory. He understands why the transformation would bring gains to his organization and to all the people that his organization deals with. Second, he feels compelled to accomplish the transformation as an obligation to himself and to the organization. Third, he is a practical man. He has a plan, step by step, and can explain it in simple terms.

But what is in his own head is not enough. He must convince and change enough people in power to make it happen. He possesses persuasive power. He understands people.

- Dr. W.E. Deming. The New Economics, 3rd ed. (p. 79)

WITHIN the Deming philosophy for transformation of management, the notion of leadership has different connotations than might be apparent at first glance. While Dr. Deming acknowledges that leaders must have the capability to initiate change using their authority, this isn’t the primary way.

For Deming, leadership was an essential ingredient for igniting change, and anyone could be equal to the task provided they learned what they needed to do by learning new theory in the form of profound knowledge. The principal challenge, among many, for the aspiring leader was to explain their reasoning to others and enjoin them in learning the new ways so as to adopt the new philosophy to carry out the needed transformation together.

Leadership Qualities

WHAT constitutes leadership as viewed through a Deming lens, as opposed to the prevailing style of management practiced in many organizations? Dr. Deming provides us with many qualities and attributes that emanate from his System of Profound Knowledge (Appreciation for a System, Knowledge of Variation, Theory of Knowledge, Psychology). Some can be found in any leader, of course, but unguided by theory they are happy coincidences rather than intentional acts. Primarily, leadership in a Deming-led organization is wholly preoccupied with management of a system, which requires a thought process entirely different from one that is content to sub-optimally manage parts.

Deming observes:

A leader must understand that the system is composed of people, not more machinery, nor activities, nor organization charts… A leader’s job is to help people, not judge them. It is to know when people need special help, and provide it. He is not a leader unless he does know.

- Dr. W.E. Deming, quoted by Neave, Dr. Henry, The Deming Dimension. (pp. 335-336)

In Dr. Henry Neave’s book, The Deming Dimension, we see some of the nascent attributes Dr. Deming was thinking about, which would later evolve into the list Role of a Manager of People in The New Economics:

Deming would expand on the nine, adding items about being a committed, unceasing learner, using results only for improving their own capabilities as a manager, committing to holding unhurried, spontaneous meetings with their people to listen to them and learn what they are most concerned about, and understanding the benefits of cooperation and the losses from competition.

Leading with a Deming View

Dr. Deming often referenced an analogy in his seminars, lectures, and books he learned from friend and colleague, Dr. Edward M. Baker, to describe just how different his vision for leadership was and why it required new theory and knowledge:

It will not suffice to learn all about the present style of management. One could learn all there is to know about ice, yet know very little about water.

- The New Economics, 3rd ed. (p. 85)

His point was that in order to understand changes in state, it’s insufficient to be knowledgable in only one of the states. To cause change, we need to understand what needs to change and why. In this respect, the entirety of Dr. Deming’s management theory is about transforming individual leaders in order to transform organizations. These leaders, he believed, could emerge from anywhere in the organization, but it was those at the top who had the greatest obligation to learn and transform themselves.

During a seminar, Dr. Deming was asked “How can lower level employees help management learn the philosophy? What can we do? What can lower level employees do?” His response:

I don't have any magic. Be better if I just resign from that one. But, let me tell you the first step is learn it yourself. Understand it yourself. For your own behaviour, for the people you work with. Learn it yourself, learn how to do it your own self. Your own group, your own club, your church. You can learn it right at home, your own selves. Learn it, look to understand it, then you can begin to talk to other people about it. Practice it yourself, learn it by practice. And then think about it. And then, maybe, try to rub it off.

I don't have any magic, but the first step is understand it yourself. Don't risk trying to teach what you don't understand.

Reflection Questions

Consider Dr. Deming’s proposition for the transformation of leadership as you understand it so far. What small change could you enact that would move toward improving your organization in accordance with his philosophy? It can begin as simply as having a conversation about what you have learned and progress to making a change in a process. In his Virtual Academy classes based on Dr. Deming’s teachings, Eric Budd has his students initiate “moves” so that they can begin to learn about their own systems and what is needed to change them. The feedback they gain, even if its pushback, is invaluable.

What “moves” could you try in your system to learn what would need to occur to move toward a Deming-aligned view of management and leadership? What gaps would you need to consider in your own knowledge? What would be your first target? Why? What predictions would you make about what would occur?