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When Leadership is Not the Answer: The Wisdom of Deming

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
May 8, 2020

In recent decades, the focus on leadership has created an almost mystical aura surrounding the concept, as if leadership by itself was a panacea for all organizational challenges. While emotionally attractive, there are limitations to the potential benefits leadership might bring. Those limitations might be overcome by expanding our focus to include thoughts on management.

W. Edwards Deming, champion of quality management and statistical process control, argued 94% of issues within a system are within the system itself. In most settings, the leader-managers of the organization have crafted, quite unintentionally, a system with imperfections, and regardless of how diligently employees perform, they will be incapable of overcoming them. He argued leader-managers needed to be aware of this, accept it, and take direct efforts to refine the system, using employee input to make a system where quality performance is possible.

Let’s consider a real-world example. Within many public sector agencies, concerns with consistency and compliance are frequently noted. In one setting, a concern was noted with inconsistency in documentation of routine equipment maintenance. Even a casual review of maintenance records showed employees were documenting maintenance in a widely inconsistent fashion. Initially, recommendations were made by mid- and executive-level leadership to oversee the maintenance efforts more closely, as if the cause of the problem was a combination of employee negligence in documentation and frontline leader-manager neglect in overseeing the work of subordinates. This was an inaccurate assumption, as the problems noted were the symptoms, not the cause.

Years earlier in this setting, the policies on maintenance documentation had been developed based on the standard equipment, procedures and practices of the time. Much of this was immediately subsequent to the bulk purchase of capital equipment. Over the intervening years, this equipment had been replaced, often upgraded, and the current equipment in use was far different than it had been years before. With the newer, upgraded equipment, came updated, refined guidelines concerning what maintenance was necessary, as well as what were considered appropriate maintenance cycles. The root of the problem was that the required forms for documenting equipment maintenance no longer matched the required maintenance practices. Employees were doing the best they could to document the work, but there was no agency-wide consistency on how to address the workaround. The root problem was not the employees or the front line leader-managers who were doing their best to adapt to the challenge. The root problem lay within the system.

Much of the professional literature on leadership-management in any setting, including public administration, stresses the importance of leadership. It stresses the importance of building relationships, providing supportive approaches, creating shared values and having open communications. None of this can or should be discounted, but we must recognize the potential limitations to such an approach. In the example above, no matter how frequently employees would be encouraged, no matter how closely they were overseen in the workplace, no matter if the specter of discipline was raised, continued inconsistency in performance was the rule.

There are many models for approaching continuous process improvement. One which is readily approachable focuses on four steps arranged in a cyclic pattern: Plan, Do, Check, Act.

  • Plan: Identify challenges and opportunities, reflect upon contributing influences and alternative approaches and craft a plan to bring together goals, staffing and resources.
  • Do: Train personnel on what is expected, then unleash them to carry out the plan.
  • Check: Track performance to determine what is accomplished well, what is accomplished, but could be better, and what is not accomplished, but should be.
  • Act: Reward outstanding performance. Make a decision to modify or create plans to strengthen weak areas in existing plans.

Most public sector organizations perform exceptionally in the Plan and Do phases, but perform less well in the Check and Act phases. This is not because they lack skills or awareness, but more often through either benign neglect (the presumption all is going well) or limited resources, which require a focus on the immediate challenges of the moment. In other instances, we frequently hear, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” which misses the point that continuous process improvement is not necessarily about fixing something broken, but about making something strong even stronger.

Public sector organizations face a myriad of challenges. Some will be common to the public sector, some to their setting and some to their discipline. Each organization seeks to overcome these challenges in their pursuit of providing high quality public service to their community. This does require strong leadership throughout the organization, but it also requires making optimal use of the resources provided to us. This means leaders must recognize the potential limitations of leadership, integrating the spirit of continuous process improvement into their organizations and constantly assessing their approaches, refining them as necessary to provide the highest service quality and quantity possible.


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych.), EFO, is a member of Capella University’s public administration core faculty. Prior to this, he served in local government for over 30 years. He is the President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA, and may be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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