John Hunter helps people create organizations that engage the entire organization in continually improving how it delights customers. He currently authors the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog and the blog for The W. Edwards Deming Institute. John recently sat down with us to elaborate on his principles and practices for better management, and outlined what he feels are the keys to successful organizational leadership in the future.
Tell us a bit About Your Background
Why did you decide to start a management improvement blog?
I have been interested in improving management practices since I was in school. My father, William Hunter, was a statistician, engineer, and management consultant. I learned from him as I was growing up, and I saw how the existing practices could be improved.
While in high school (over the summer), I attended a training session for employees of the City of Madison on management improvement practices. That training was part of the program that followed from his work with the First Street Garage in Madison, Wisconsin. That project was the first application of W. Edwards Deming’s ideas in the public sector. My father wrote a few pages on that effort for Deming’s seminal work: Out of the Crisis. And Joseph Sensenbrenner (the mayor) wrote a popular Harvard Business Review article on the effort: Quality Comes to City Hall.
During my career, I have worked for the Office of Secretary of Defense, Quality Management Office, and the White House Military Office. I have been using my website to help people successfully apply management improvement practices since 1995. Given the popularity of the blogging format, I decided to add a blog to my online offerings.
Since you are strongly influenced by Deming’s ideas, could you briefly outline what those concepts for us?
The core principles boil down to creating a management system in your organization that:
- promotes respect for everyone in the organization by creating systems that allow people to take pride in their work
- views the organization as a system
- uses data effectively (including understanding what conclusions can and cannot be drawn from the data)
- continually experiments to continually improve
To get an appreciation for what that actually means, I suggest reading The Leader’s Handbook by Peter Scholtes and the blog of the Deming Institute. I discuss details on each of those topics repeatedly on the blog. It is hard to get an understanding of how powerful this is because often we hear about similar ideas fairly often (though usually we don’t actually practice them).
In Today’s Corporate World, What are the Biggest Deficits in Leadership?
There are many areas that need to improve. If I had to pick a few, I would say:
- a disconnect from how the organization is really working
- a focus on meeting short-term targets at the cost of greater long-term success
- a failure to focus on coaching and developing people (both personally and making that a priority for other executives and managers)
- a failure to focus on continually improving the management system
A common occurrence now is that when there is a scandal at an organization, the leadership claims they were not aware of what was going on. Of course, they are happy to pocket huge sums when things go well; but when things go badly, they say they didn’t know what was going on. The claim of not knowing what was going on in their organization is usually an accurate assessment of the situation. They don’t know what is going on. That is the problem, not an excuse.
Leaders often put in place incentives that anyone with an understanding of psychology and organizational behavior knows will result in people distorting the system and the data to get the numbers that are targeted. But when the natural result of the system they put in place transpires and it creates a public relations disaster, they wish to avoid responsibility. How being clueless about the impact of the policies they promoted (and accepted big bonuses for while the short-term goals were being met) is an acceptable way to avoid responsibility is something I don’t understand. But we need to improve leadership so that leaders understand their organization and engage with the organization before scandals erupt.
How well are today’s companies grooming and nurturing their employees and managers to become the organization’s leaders of tomorrow?
Poorly. Largely, people must take responsibility for their own careers. Thankfully, there are many opportunities for people to learn about leadership and management if they take the initiative. But it is hard for people to choose from among the many books, blogs, podcasts etc. that are available. Some large companies (including the military) do a good job of nurturing leadership knowledge and skill within the organization. But this is rare. Organizations just don’t appreciate the importance of management, and they don’t provide the education people need to become great managers. This starts with the initial promotion into supervision and continues throughout all ranks in most organizations.
Even for a fairly large percentage of those that do invest in education for their supervisors, managers, and executives on management practices (versus learning about budgeting or marketing or whatever), there are significant problems. Those employees are often faced with a huge disconnect between what they learn and what is allowable in the organization. The education often will discuss the importance of various practices (long-term customer focus, coaching employees, etc.), but what they are taught doesn’t fit with what happens in the organization. And the employees quickly learn that pleasing whoever evaluates them is mainly what matters, even though that is very rarely what the training for executives or managers teaches.
How essential is it for middle managers to see themselves not just as supervisors of employees, but also like leaders?
I believe leadership traits are needed by everyone, and that thinking of “leaders” and “non-leaders” is a poor practice. People need to play a role within the organization, and in doing so that will include using leadership traits – no matter if they are a senior executive, middle manager, or someone without employees reporting to them. Yes, senior executives will spend more time using leadership skills given their roles, but that doesn’t mean they are leaders and others are not. In the most effective organizations, everyone is a coach, everyone takes responsibility to improve the organization, and everyone is leading by example.
If a manager or business leader were to say to you, “As long as I am holding my subordinates accountable, then I know I’m doing my job as a leader,” how would you respond?
Leaders make the organization successful by coaching and creating the right environment for people to succeed. Leaving employees to succeed or fail on their own is not leadership; it is the abdication of leadership. W. Edwards Deming captured this well: