Executive Leadership

Senior executives must lead management improvement efforts. When senior executives only give lip service to management efforts the result is normally the same: little happens.

When Dr. Deming was working with companies after the 1980’s NBC white paper, If Japan Can Why Can’t We, he wouldn’t work with companies if the CEO wasn’t attending the meetings and learning how to manage the organization better. Dr. Deming had seen far too many CEOs want improvement but wanted to delegate the effort of getting there. Dr. Deming saw when senior executives delegated improving the management system it didn’t work.

There are a number of problems with senior executives not taking improvement seriously. First, and most common, they don’t really believe it and have no interest in improving practices – they just want to magically get better results without improving how things are done.

Second many senior executives don’t understand what management improvement is about. They think it is something those other people do on the factor floor or in the call center or somewhere. The most important changes will be in the c-suite for organizations that make substantial improvements. But when executives are out of touch (as so many are) in both management practice and how their organization actually works (at the gemba) then improvement efforts are extremely difficult.

If those senior executives are taking part in the improving the management system they will learn and then will be able to help improve the management system. If they are not engaged in actively working PDSA (on their workload) learning about variation, looking at their organization as a system, making changes to the organization given an understanding of respect for people the potential gains are severely limited.


When you have senior leadership that understands their responsibility to improve the management decision you get the actions like those of Akio Toyoda. They don’t panic and are not driven by the short term focus and disrespect for evidence based management as so many other CEOs are (who instead favor HiPPO thinking).

Sadly most efforts are not very serious and at all those points where senior leaders could provide support, assistance, guidance and constancy of purpose they instead undermine efforts for creating a management system emphasizing continual improvement and customer focus. Predictably most of these efforts fail to provide much benefit.

Those organization often are able to adopt a few decent tools (checklists, flowcharts, control charts, standardized work instructions…) and maybe a bit of focus on some helpful ideas (such as: mistake proofing, voice of the customer, value streams, going to the gemba, addressing the root cause). The problem is the extent to which those new tools and ideas are used is very limited as the understanding is fairly superficial and the commitment to systemic improvement doesn’t exist. When the senior executives are not leading improvement of the management system they inevitably undermine the efforts of others because they don’t understand the impact of their actions.

This month the ASQ’s Influential Voices were asked to explore one of several topics including the one I chose: The Quality/C-Suite Connection. I have talked about how to get the c-level involved previously: Selling Quality Improvement, Building the Adoption of Management Improvement Ideas in Your Organization, Growing Your Circle of Influence and have discussed it in several of my podcast interviews.

Largely getting the c-level to understand their role in improving the management system boils down to getting people to think critically and for people to demand evidence based decision making (which requires an understanding of variation). Once that happens there is a natural path to adopting Deming’s ideas and lean management and continual improvement practices. The form it will take in each organization will vary but the principles are consistent. Of course the details of getting the c-level to think critically and use evidence based practices can be quite difficult.

Related: The aim of leadership is not merely to find and record failures of menThe Market Discounts Proven Leadership Far Too QuicklyHow Could They Know?Taking What You Don’t Deserve, CEO Style

6 thoughts on “Executive Leadership

  1. Hi John

    It is the simple fact that if a management sytem is to change all of it has to change. You cannot change the lower level systems when they are in fact controlled and a result of the c-suite system. The only cahnge that can truly last is the one that starts at the top and works its way down form there.

    Reply
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