How Could They Know?

I am a big fan of Dr. Deming’s ideas on management. The way I see one of the quotes of Dr. Deming used I don’t agree with. Dr. Deming said “How could they know?” to explain why people continued to follow less successful practices (for example, page 55 of Out of the Crisis). How could they know of better practices, he would say.

I must say I have always thought the answer to that question was pretty easy. They could learn about the job they were paid to do. It is a shame that many organizations do a very poor job of preparing or coaching those they promote into management for their new position. However, I don’t see that as an excuse to fail to learn yourself.

There are plenty of books with great information. How could they know? They could read.

Yes, there are also plenty of management books filled with nonsense. That does make it a bit more difficult. But I still don’t have much sympathy for hearing, “how could they know” as a reason for continuing performance appraisals or failing to understand variation or falling to know that “motivating” through monetary rewards backfires or… If you wish to manage human systems I don’t think it is too much to expect you to know about how to do so, and have the knowledge to distinguish nonsense from well reasoned thoughts.

If you want to take on a management job you should take your responsibility seriously. Choosing not to take advantage of the wealth of great material in the past 70 years on how to manage more effectively is not a decent excuse. How could they know? They could take responsibility to learn. If they chose not to do so that is their choice. They chose not to know. I guess some can see that as an acceptable excuse. I don’t.

If they are trying to apply ideas and having trouble: I have sympathy for that. Applying ideas on management is not easy. Human systems are complex and there are no simple guides that tell what is needed in your specific situation and organization. but ignorance of basic management principles, with no evidence of concerted efforts to learn I don’t have sympathy for.

I seem to expect more from managers than most people I talk with. Most seem to find it a perfectly acceptable excuse that a manager never bothered to learn about management. I don’t really understand that. Dr. Deming did seem to hold senior executives accountable for failing their organizations, but he was more accepting of manager’s ignorance than I am.

Read and use The Leader’s Handbook and The Improvement Guide and you will be well ahead of most of the management practice I see.

Related: Curious Cat Essential Management BooksBad Management Results in LayoffsThe Importance of Management Improvement

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6 Responses to How Could They Know?

  1. Scott Rutherford says:

    John, would love to discuss this over an adult beverage. I do agree with your sentiment but true learning and enlightemment comes from internalization. New managers often are not taught how to internalize nor the traditional knowledge paths really don’t cover how to lead. I would contend organizations do teach how to manage. They just do a poor job on selecting the right leaders.

  2. John I agree with what you are saying, though there is a reason for why managers are rarely held accountable for their failure to learn. It is because with rare exception most executives above them are no better than they are. Unfortunately in today’s society where the vast majority of larger organizations are owned by uninvolved ownership, executives are chosen for a wealth of reason other than their actual ability to lead and manage.

    Today the vast majority of our businesses are run by people whose only real skill was kissing up to shareholders. They often have zero understanding about how their product or services is actually made or performed. Add to that the fact that most decision makers in the company have zero understanding about what consumers really want. Doubt the statement is true; just look at how many older organizations have been left on the wayside in the last few decades. Most of the automotive industries problems stem from a total lack of any ability to actually manage an enterprise in such a way as to serve a market large enough to sustain it.

    A friend I know once told me that unless you are careful you will raise in any organization to your maximum level of incompetence. Unfortunately the statement is true far too often. To hold people accountable you have to be accountable, if you as an executive or higher manager really do not know your job, how are you going to hold others accountable for theirs?

    This is one of the major differences between a successful organization and the majority that go up and down constantly with each economic cycle.

  3. Victor Ronin says:

    I partly agree with Robert that a lot of managers are not held accountably and they don’t want to learn because of that.

    Other thing which is important, that a lot of managers are used to talk (vs read) through problems. I saw several MBA guys who read last book years ago.

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