Deming’s Point 7 of 14 – Institute Leadership

Deming’s complete statement of Point 7 is as follows:

“Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers”

There are the following three parts to this statement:

  1. Institute leadership.
  2. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job.
  3. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers.

Part 1: Institute leadership

What does Deming mean by leadership, and how to you institute it? From Plato and Sun Tsu to Peter Drucker, many have written about leadership as a quality a person may possess, without ever precisely defining what it is. You see its effect in others’ willingness to follow, but no one has ever written a credible spec of what makes a leader. There is in particular no agreement on whether this quality is innate to a few individuals or can be nurtured in many. In The Practice of Management (pp. 158-160), for example, Drucker argues that leadership is innate, and that the best management can do in an organization is create conditions for the natural leaders in its ranks to emerge.

When Deming argues that the job of management is not supervision but leadership, he appears to be using leadership in the sense of this rare quality that escapes a precise definition. At the opening of Chapter 8, however, he writes:

“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.”

In this context, he is referring to a role rather than a quality, and “management” could be substituted for “leadership” without changing the meaning. When you say “Xi is the new leader of China,” it describes Mr. Xi’s formal role, not his qualities.

Part 2: Supervision should help people, machines and gadgets do a better job.

In this light, Parts 2 of Deming’s Point 7 can be interpreted primarily as a recommendation on the role of first-line management in a factory. The name for this position has changed multiple times, from the 19th century Gang Boss, through the less brutal sounding 20th century Foreman, to the gender-neutral Supervisor, and now to the vague and fuzzy Group Coordinator or Area Coordinator. These repeated name changes for the same position suggest that it is an uncomfortable one, between the management hammer and the shop floor anvil. Top management and engineering titles have a longer shelf life.

Deming’s explanations  focused on what is wrong with supervising people whose work you don’t know, treating every problem as a special case, and managing by numbers. If being able to do the work of the people you manage is a requirement, then production supervisors will be exclusively drawn from the ranks of operators,  and this position will not be given to college grads on their first jobs. My experience, however, is that first-line supervision in production works best when the supervisory team includes members of both types, combining the book smarts of the college-educated rookies with the shop smarts of veteran operators. There may be tensions between the two but, if well managed, they can achieve together results that neither group could without the other.

Treating every problem as a special case is an easy trap to fall into, and it is what most managers do. Each problem they see is a line-item on their to-do list, they find a countermeasure, check it off and move on. The special cause is that we received a defective part last week, or the operator was new, or the cutting tool broke. But leaders should not be satisfied with such answers and dig deeper to consider whether the problem is a symptom of a problem with the process itself. In the Soviet Union, all problems had to be blamed on human error. Someone had to be made a scapegoat and punished. The idea that there might have been something wrong with the system was not allowed to be contemplated. Deming’s point here is that leaders must do exactly that.

In Deming’s view, it is because they don’t understand the work that supervisors fall back on managing by numbers. Even if you have no clue about the work of an operator, you can still count parts and, if your management only cares about the numbers, you end up doing nothing else. Deming’s perspective on managing by numbers in explained in Deming versus Drucker.

Underlying this discussion, but not said by Deming in son many words, is an underestimation of first-line management. In my experience, when backed by their superiors, production supervisors are the most powerful agents of change on the factory floor. Because they are part of management, support groups like Maintenance or Quality listen to them. They can work directly with operators as no one else in management can, and they are processes owners.

This combination of factors makes them uniquely effective as improvement project leaders. Deming  puts in their job description, which is necessary but not sufficient. Their area of responsibility must be small enough for them to have time to work on improvement. In the late Toyota-run NUMMI plant, a group leader in assembly had an average of 17 operators. Many other companies boast about having a “lean” management structure with one supervisor for 100 employees, who is too busy to do anything but minding daily numbers. Meanwhile, improvement is the purview of a specialized engineering department that has neither the resources needed to undertake all the necessary projects nor the rapport with the shop floor that is needed to make changes take root.

What does Deming mean by gadgets? We can assume that, when Deming says machines, he implicitly includes fixtures, jigs, and tooling under that term. Gadget is not a technical term, and Deming does not define it, but, except in Point 7, every use of it in his book is clearly derogatory:

“Lag in American productivity has been attributed in editorials and in letters in the newspapers to failure to install new machinery, gadgets, and the latest types of automation such as robots. Such suggestions make interesting reading and still more interesting writing for people that do not understand problems of
production.” p. 13

Among Obstacles, on p. 127: “The supposition that solving problems, automation, gadgets, and new machinery will transform industry. No one should sneer at savings of $800,000 per year, or even $1000 per year. A group of workers took pride in changes that saved $500 a year. Every net contribution to efficiency is important, however small.”

Gadgets and servomechanisms that by mechanical or electronic circuits guarantee zero defects will destroy the advantage of a beautiful narrow distribution of dimensions.” p. 141

In other words, whatever gadgets are, they are up to no good, so why would supervision worry about making them do a better job? Why not just get rid of them? One reason is that first-line managers usually do not choose the resources they have to work with, whether human or technical. They don’t choose to buy a particular gadget; their task is to use it as best they can.

Part 3: Supervision of management is in need of overhaul

This is clearly about the higher levels of management, but Deming’s elaboration on Point 7 says nothing on this matter. In higher-level positions, it is often impossible to find candidates with personal experience of the work of all their subordinates.  To take an extreme example, former presidents of the US are unanimous in saying that nothing could prepare you for that job.

We know that someone is a good leader by the readiness, willingness and enthusiasm of others to follow. Anyone can observe the behaviors of leaders and try to emulate them, but rarely to the same effect. Deming does not offer a theory or even a definition of what he means by leadership, but we know that he didn’t see much of it in American managers.