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Steve Moore

Quality Insider

It’s Time to Dump ‘Management Commitment’

And finally embrace leadership

Published: Wednesday, February 18, 2015 - 16:18

A rough draft of this column had been sitting in the “drafts” folder on my computer for several weeks. Rip Stauffer’s recent commentary, “Is Six Sigma Dead?” prompted me to dust it off and finish it.

In my not-so-humble opinion, Six Sigma is not dead but “management commitment” sure is—or maybe it never had much life at all.

As I get closer to retirement after a 35-year struggle to break the chains of college statistics courses, properly educate myself by studying W. Edwards Deming, Walter Shewhart, and others, and then to properly use the tools and philosophies of continuous improvement in industry, I’m sure I’ve gotten a bit cynical. So, if a bit cynicism offends you, then read no further....

I recently prepared training materials about ISO 9001:2008 for our frontline supervisors and salaried workforce in general, and looked at subclause 5.1 of the standard. The title of this clause is “Management Commitment.” I smiled to myself and thought, “They ought to be committed, all right.” Then it struck me that I’m sick and tired of the old hackneyed phrase “management commitment.” Why? Because I’ve never seen “management commitment” actually work.

Oh, I've heard about management commitment many times during my career. You usually hear about it at the beginning of every major corporate initiative, be it safety, quality, productivity, cost reduction—you name it. Top management (or more likely, a delegate) gives presentations to large groups of employees and tells them how committed management is to the “new” initiative, and how everybody must be involved. Many in the audience translate this to mean, “This time we really mean it.” Of course, they mean it at the time. They even want it before the next quarterly report. The company’s very survival depends on it—until the next crisis du jour. They’re committed, after all.

Another facet is always included, too: There’s going to be accountability! Everyone will be on a team, and every team will have goals! Translation: Not being on board with the “new” initiative is a career-limiting move. So, tighten up, grin and bear it, and keep your head down, for this, too, shall pass. And it does. It always does.

After several months or maybe even a year or two of monthly “(Fill in the blank) Enhancement Meetings” filled with charts and figures (mostly CYA-type story-telling), the whole initiative fades away like General McArthur’s “old soldiers.” All we have to do now is to wait for the next “new” initiative and another round of story-telling.

Point seven of Deming’s Fourteen Points for Management begins with a simple yet profound sentence: “Institute leadership.” Deming had a way of making concise observations that other people would write whole volumes about, and this one is no exception. The problem is, those volumes are too often filled with dissertations on the need for “management commitment” instead of the institution of leadership.

Synonyms for “institute” include “begin” and “put into operation,” and I have no doubt that Deming purposely used the word “institute” to imply that, in his view, there was little actual leadership already in the ranks of management leaders. The word “leadership” brings to mind synonyms like “influence,” “pilotage,” and “sway.” So, perhaps Deming was telling management to put its influence into operation for the betterment of the organization. Words have meanings.

In the ISO 9001:2015 draft, the term “management commitment” has been replaced with “leadership commitment.” This is a step forward but doesn’t go far enough. I would have been delighted if the phrase had been changed to “leadership engagement.”

Years ago, I read Art Williams’ book, Pushing Up People (Primerica Financial Services, Silver Anniversary Edition, 1985). The one lesson from the book that I’ll never forget is: “Managers manage things. Leaders lead people.” This is the essence of the message I hope to convey in this column. Management is relatively easy; leadership is difficult. The difference is that leadership requires interpersonal skills, which are foreign to too many managers. When I first read Pushing Up People, I realized that I was fortunate to have a department manager who was the epitome of a good leader. He was truly engaged in the processes he expected the rest of us to work within. His philosophy was one of teaching, mentoring, and continuous improvement of the whole system, including the people.

Bottom line?  I could tell you I’m committed to success, then walk away and expect you to achieve the results I want. That’s not much help. Or I can help you understand the system and lead continuous improvement of that system in which you’re expected to work. The difference in results can be astounding.

Let me leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Peter Drucker: “Only three things happen naturally in an organization—friction, confusion, and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership.”

So true!


About The Author

Steve Moore’s picture

Steve Moore

After 47 years, Steve Moore is retired from the pulp and paper industry. He is a graduate of North Carolina State University with a pulp and paper degree, and holds a master's degree from the Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, Wisconsin. He has held various research and development, technical, engineering, and manufacturing positions in the paper industry. He has been a student, teacher, and practitioner of statistical methods applied to real-world processes for the past 35 years.


Dumping 'management commitment' is irrelevant

Years back, in analyzing why roughly two-thirds of Software Quality Assurance (SQA) groups failed, ‘lack of management commitment’ was high on the list of blamed causes.  However, I found that more often lack of management commitment was an effect, rather than a cause, of SQA group failure.  I don’t disagree that poor leadership is the norm, but simply declaring that better leadership is needed does nothing to make it happen.  Referring to those in powerful position as the organization’s ‘leadership’ rather than ‘management’ further obscures the facts that leadership is earned by leading, whereas positions are managerial; and those in said positions often lack needed leadership skills.


I'm afraid I fully agree with you and not the comment. I'm not sure that changing terminology will matter.  I have seen very few true leaders in the corporate environment, especially when it comes to quality.  And even corporate examples from the past have seriously stumbled.  Only two CEOs personally come to mind in over 40 years in industry (and government and military). I've (and others) have used the term "flavor of the month" to describe the changing short term goals of sr. mgmt. to satisfy quarterlies / stockmarket / bonusus.  And it's only getting worse.  Most employees are already cynical.  And much "training" only reinforces the lack of management commitment, since those selected or hired to train, often have no  clue as to their subject matter, company culture being dealt with, and the reasons behind the requirements.     


Sometimes it just seems too easy to blame everything on management.  Sometimes it seems to me like a cop out excuse for employees failing to embrace the new program.  Organizational inertia is a powerful thing and is one of management's main obstacles to effectively implementing new programs.


A cynic... yes... but then he warned of that early on in the article. 


Statisticians created the means to ferret information from data, Shewhart applied their methods to production consistency, Deming introduced that tool and others to corporate management, Juran made clear the benefit of quality products and services to the bottom line, Crosby used cost of quality to make the linkage of profit to quality simple enough for even corporate management to understand, and Harry packaged it all in the bottom line focused plug and play Six Sigma package.  Even with all this horsepower at work corporate heads still stay buried in the sand.

It isn’t about “commitment” or “leadership”, and it certainly isn’t explained by the inertia of people... that’s just another element that those in charge need to recognize and consider in their plans.  The problem is near-sighted, short-term, bottom line management, but the root cause is the system that selects those making the decisions.  

I’ve been in the working world now for over 45 years; my experience includes everything from global corporations to small local shops, from high tech to no tech, and from doer to director.  When I started Crosby had just published “Quality is Free”, Juran was predicting (accurately) when the Japanese car makers would outperform the Americans, and Quality Circles was just entering the English language. From then to now the problems have stayed the same… just the faces and places have changed.  

Unless and until a way is found to bias our economic system to select those who lead and manage for long term value we will be, as we have been, stuck with the inevitable results.  Good luck with that one.

near-sighted, a 'deadly disease'

Deming's 2nd deadly disease of management:  "Emphasis on short-term profits: short-term thinking ".  It's (all the problems) all about the system - the set of inter-related processes that produces anything.    Two quotes come to mind: “The right process produces the right results” – Dr J Liker.  “The surest foundation of an enterprise is Quality.  After, far after, comes Cost.” – Andrew Carnegie