Gary Nesteby  |  03/31/2009

Finding Quality Leaders and Advocates

The Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence and W. Edwards Deming’s Theory of Profound Knowledge can provide guidance for those who have a passion for learning and leading.

Tough economic times are upon us. The leaders of the Big Three automakers have to stoop to driving their own cars, our nation’s leaders have to separate themselves into two parties, and the people affected by the layoffs have to go home and lead their families through troubled times. Which do you think is the toughest job and requires more leadership?

We all accept the role as leaders of our families, churches, the neighborhood association, or perhaps the local school board. Those roles are more important to us as individuals than the roles played by Congress or the car manufacturers’ officers. It is a choice that we make personally, and this decision requires us to question not only our time commitment, but also the alignment of our personal belief system with that of the organization.

Characteristics of leaders

What are the characteristics of a leader? A variety of books on the market will take you through hundreds of pages and theories about leadership. The list will vary greatly depending on your personal preferences and past experiences. For many, leadership boils down to each of us, as individuals, identifying and searching for the characteristics that are most appealing to us.

Some high-priority characteristics may include:

Passion. This is visible in the actions of a leader through the decisions he or she makes and the ways in which the leader encourages his or her followers.

Constancy of purpose. W. Edward Deming’s first point of his 14 Points for Management can be related to individuals and the alignment of their beliefs with the modeling of their behavior.

Trustworthy. Trustworthiness is always an issue because of the following question: Does one trust and wait to see untrustworthiness, or make the individual prove that he or she is trustworthy?

Accountable and ethical. Do what you say you are going to do and model ethical behavior at all times.

Role model. Show that you are trustworthy, accountable, responsible, and passionate, then communicate the purpose so that others can follow. When it comes time, they can lead.


Leadership begins in the heart and searches for those common elements of success that make the individual reach out to others to learn and teach.

Is an organizational leader any different than the individual leader? The characteristics may be the same but the family is probably larger.

As you will see, we can learn a lot about leadership through the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence and from W. Edwards Deming.

Baldrige-type leadership

The Criteria for Performance Excellence of the Baldrige National Quality Program was developed in 1988 to address competitiveness in the United States. The seven criteria are leadership; strategic planning; customer focus; measurement, analysis, and knowledge management; workforce focus; process management; and results. Today the criteria serve as a framework for high-performing, competitive organizations. The first category of the criteria is leadership. As winning organizations accept the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award from the President of the United States, they are expected to travel the country as role models and spokespersons, sharing their best practices as they presented their methods and processes for high performance. The criteria have changed each year, with leadership remaining the first category. Although the criteria are not prescriptive, there is an air of suggestion when the questions are interpreted by the applicant.

Leadership is integrated throughout the other six criteria and represents more than 12 percent of the total points available in the scoring. The criteria questions are built around a core value of “visionary leadership” and focus on how organizational leaders develop and communicate the mission, vision, and values of the organization. Most high-performing organizations will have a leadership system deployed throughout the organization. The leadership system refers to how leadership is provided formally and informally across the organization and is the basis for how decisions are made and how communication is conducted. Although the leadership system varies from organization to organization, the main advantages are:

Leadership and manager development

Succession planning

Reinforcement and communication of values, ethical behavior, direction, and performance expectations

Structure for decision making and two-way communication


Through the deployment of an effective leadership system, a high-performing organization would expect:

Workforce loyalty and teamwork-based efforts to achieve shared goals

Evidence of initiatives that may require a higher level of risk taking

Subordination to organizational structure to purpose and function, which avoids chains of command that require long decision paths

Results-focused mechanisms for leaders to conduct self-examination, receive feedback, and improve their leadership capabilities


A leadership system can take the collective capabilities and beliefs of all senior leaders and ask them how they are going to lead the organization systematically through good times and tough times. The difficulty here is that not all leaders think, act, or communicate the same way. Most often senior leaders lack the direction and the instruments to measure the effectiveness of their leadership as well as that of the board of directors.

The Baldrige Criteria also asks senior leaders how they create a sustainable organization. Leaders of sustainable organizations typically value focusing on the future and building agility into the systems of which they lead. Leadership at this level requires that leaders be willing to listen to the customer and be receptive to market changes, as well as to motivate and manage the work force in ways that promote innovation, creativity, and ongoing improvements in productivity.

Focus on customer needs

Leaders of quality realize that they are the customer advocates within the organization and provide that focus through the methods and actions that they model across the organization. Customer needs are the most important aspect of any business. Without a focus on customer needs it is difficult to sustain the organization for future success.

Customer needs are dynamic and ever changing, which requires that systems are in place to communicate and continuously measure the level of satisfaction. This seems like an easy process to resolve: All we have to do is set up a customer complaint system and then answer all the questions that customers ask. If every complaint is resolved, then we have met their needs and business is good, right? Wrong. Customer complaints are lagging indicators of customer dissatisfaction in most cases. A leader of quality will drive improvement through proactive systems including:

Measuring customer loyalty and retention

Developing methods of communicating with key customers

Aligning the needs of the customer with the capabilities of the organization

Training customer-support personnel to be customer-centric and providing resources for continuous improvement

Benchmarking within your market and using comparative data for improvement

Listening and encouraging the voice of the customer to provide data for improvement throughout the organization


Deming-type leadership

Leaders of quality will do well to understand the basic tenants of W. Edwards Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge:

Appreciation for a system

Knowledge about variation

Theory of knowledge



Deming tells us that all things are part of a system. The parts of the system are interrelated and all systems have an aim. Without an aim there is no system. Because of the interrelationship of the parts, we must understand the need for communication and cooperation within the system. Quality leaders are the conductors of the orchestra. They are the individuals that communicate the need for each interdependent part to work with the other parts of the system. When the parts of the system are brought together in a systematic way, they are supported by data and they are repeatable over time.

More often than not we don’t take the time to understand the system and the interrelationship of the parts. When this happens we may pay the price within the system because we begin to build bureaucracy and silos to protect our part of the system. Suboptimization of the system can be detrimental to the success and sustainability of an organization.

Deming recognized the need to collect data and understand variation to understand the capabilities of the system. All systems will exhibit variation, and it is the role of the quality leader to make sure that decisions are made based on facts and data. When the system is better understood we begin to look at the processes as interrelated parts of the system that exhibit the variation. We begin to understand that all work is a process and the outputs are improved through attention to the process and the understanding of special and common causes. When a process is interpreted as stable, it fits the normal distribution, and continuous improvement can reduce the variation.

The quality leader understands the need to have stable processes in place to optimize the system and maximize customer satisfaction. Unfortunately, the nature of our work often leads us to forget the systems perspective, and we begin to make changes without regard for the interrelated parts. We have a tendency to work at the systems level rather than gaining knowledge of the processes involved and the support of data. The outcomes of this type of action may serve as an underlying cause of many business downfalls.

Too often we direct our attention to the system rather than the process because we are looking for the quick solution, as well as someone to blame. We also have a tendency to collect data to support our solution rather than find the solution reflected by our data. This is the conflict that many quality leaders recognize. As a result, a quality leader may get tired of fighting the battles that are required to regain control of the processes and ultimately produce a stable system.

The “theory of knowledge” comes from a constant focus on improvement and the use of Deming’s plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle:

Plan. Planning requires us to address the system as a stable system before we can begin improvement. This is a step that is often misleading due to a focus on making a process more efficient, effective, or lean, rather than stable. A stable process requires data that support predictability and knowledge of the system.

Do. This is the step that we often jump into because frequently we come up with the solution first and feel that we can support the solution with data following the delivery to the customer. Information is not knowledge; knowledge comes from theory. The data available to us at the click of a mouse does not provide knowledge but rather information. It isn’t until an individual applies the information to the theory of improvement that knowledge is gained.

Check. At this part of the cycle you observe and interpret the results, then identify what you’ve learned. The learning is limited to the system on which the theory is tested.

Act. Take action on standardizing the improvement process, abandoning the theory, or beginning to test a new theory under different conditions.


Quality leaders understand the need to follow the PDCA cycle and integrate the philosophy into the organization as a systematic approach to continuous improvement.

Psychology is the final element of the System of Profound Knowledge and is possibly the most difficult to assess. The quality leader understands that people are the drivers of quality and change. To make change happen and improvement systematic, the quality leader must believe in the value of individuals and the ability to trust and model the behaviors required to build a culture of collaboration. The theory of variation is a major player in this element because, as individuals, we all have different values and behaviors. It is the responsibility of all senior leaders to build the culture that will sustain the organization and ensure success for all. We believe that a culture of learning makes the individuals in the organization better. As a result of that knowledge, the organization improves and the community in which the organization resides becomes more secure. We are all a part of a larger system.


Finding quality leaders may be as easy as looking under your own roof. If your organization has a systematic leadership system in place, then it should include a succession planning process as a delivery system to leadership. On the other hand, if the leadership system is not kept current with business needs, it may be wise to look for a course correction before searching the classifieds.

Too many times we set out to find the perfect person to fill the role of quality leader. We sort through resumes for a highly educated individual with a Six Sigma Black Belt and a Ph.D., and we bypass the one with a common-sense approach and a passion for learning. We build our system around the things that we want rather than the talents and competencies we need.

A quality leader’s role is not to make sure that the parts are checked or the quality department is inspecting the product. A quality leader works within the leadership system to build a customer-focused culture that is continuously improving the systems that deliver success to the organization. In this way, the organization attains sustainability for the benefit of the workforce and the shareholders.


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Gary Nesteby