The Importance of Leadership by Those Working to Improve Management

This month Bill Troy, ASQ CEO, asked ASQ Influential Voices bloggers to explore the importance of leadership for every quality management professional.

Leadership is important but also something that often is difficult to understand what exactly is meant by the person using the term. In Bill’s case he provides some guidance with: “Leadership encompasses… business savvy, people skills, and decisive action all are required to get results in the world.”

The ability to find solutions and move forward efforts in organizations does benefit from people skills. Working with people effectively is an important part of having success in improving organizations. What that means to different people is very different. Some people see charisma as key, others believe decisiveness is very important, others see winning over the hearts of people as what it takes to make a difference.

For me the key is managing with an understanding of respect for people and how that concept fits with the rest of Deming’s management system.

There are different paths to success but you need to have others respect for your knowledge on the topic, your ability to make solutions work and your trustworthiness. Different leaders lean on different areas. Some people win over the hearts others may offer a low charisma aura but others are confident they have the ability to deliver based on their knowledge. As Dr. Deming said you have 3 ways to influence others, your authority stems from: your position, your knowledge and your personality.

I do think business savvy is something that doesn’t get enough attention of lean/Deming/six-sigma/quality professionals. There is a need to communicate with executives in a language they understand in order to make big changes. That requires an understanding of business and an appreciation for the importance of actually delivering value over talking about good plans.

I think six sigma efforts are less useful that Deming and lean efforts. But I do think six sigma has 2 things that are given more weight (by organizations using it well, far too few of them using it, sadly) that help six sigma efforts. First is a focus on training about design of experiments. To some extent this is then acted on by organizations pursuing six sigma – but too often it isn’t. However others neglect even talking much about design of experiments. My father did a great deal of work in this area and I am biased, but for me it is an extremely powerful tool that is used far too little.

waterfall in the forest

Waterfall, Glacier National Park (Saint Mary’s Area), USA by John Hunter

The second area six sigma pays more attention to is the tie to business results. In one example of this, six sigma programs normally select those who are on the fast path to leadership in the organization for those to become most involved in six sigma efforts. This is a good plan. But six sigma has other issues that lead the understanding the importance of business savvy to be wasted in most cases. A huge part of this is somewhat related to the very process of selecting future leaders: six sigma efforts normally fail to engage the minds of everyone which is such a huge failure that it overwhelms the good aspects of the efforts, in most instances.

But I do think those who want to improve management should put more focus on understanding business and things like: cash flow, fixed costs, marginal costs, leverage (risks of large and excessive leverage), how costly health care is (likely one of the highest cost for many organizations outside of salary), a minimal level of understanding of accounting (read and explain a balance sheet and income statement for example), inventory turnover, profit margin of different products and services your company sells, and the risks to the business looking out 5 or 10 years.

When people don’t understand business context and that makes it much more difficult to convince the organization to promote improvement efforts. It also can lead to wasting efforts in areas that are not worthy of that level of effort.

This knowledge is important but what really makes someone a strong leader is the ability to tie that knowledge, management system knowledge (including seeing the organization as a system and how to manage people) with the ability to achieve results.

Those who seem to deliver results just seem to be able to manage the system by providing what is needed. They succeed in seeing where risks are and dealing with them before they become failures. They put the right people in the place to succeed. they provide people the support they need to succeed. They are able to defuse tensions if they arise. They are able to make (or provide others the cover to make) the right decisions about tradeoffs when necessary. They figure out early on when project is just not a good idea (because we learn that success won’t be what we hoped based on our efforts thus far, or success is much less certain, etc.).

Many of these things are aspects that we attempt to install in a good management system. But almost no organizations have achieved the level of management system excellence I would hope for. Therefore even while we keep making improvements the truth is we need people that can deal with these weaknesses and deliver successful results.

Related: Executive LeadershipLeadership While Viewing the Organization as a SystemA manager that is not concerned about doing the right things is a lousy manager. And a leader that doesn’t care about doing things right is a lousy leader.

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  1. Pingback: Making Your Case to Senior Executives » Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog

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