What are the characteristics of a quality leader? For many, leadership comes down to each of us identifying and searching for the characteristics that are most appealing to us. For instance, I spent a career with a company that was mostly Juran-centered but also had a significant Deming slant. At the core, the two approaches aren’t entirely opposite. Here we’ll focus on the Deming approach. 

The basic tenets of Deming’s system of profound knowledge involve appreciation for a system, knowledge of process variation, theory of knowledge, and psychology. 

All things are part of a system. The parts are interrelated, and all systems have an aim. Without an aim, there can be no meaningful system. Because of the interrelationship of the parts, communication and cooperation among the parts are paramount. 

Quality leaders serve as the connectors of the parts of the system. They are the individuals that communicate the need for each part to work with all the others. When the parts are brought together in a systematic way, they are supported by data and repeatable over time.

If there is no understanding of the relationship of the parts, the organization will build bureaucracy and silos to protect the individual parts and ignore the system aim. 

It is important, as Deming clearly recognized, to collect data and understand variation to assess the capabilities of the system. Certainly, all systems have variation, but it’s the role of the quality leader to ensure that the organization makes decisions based on facts and data.

When the system is better understood, the organization looks at the processes as interrelated parts that exhibit variation. There becomes an appreciation that all work is a process and the outputs are improved through attention to the process and an understanding of special and common causes of variation.

The quality leader appreciates the need to have stable processes in order to maximize customer satisfaction and ultimately to ‘win’ in the marketplace. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to work at the systems level, rather than gain knowledge of the processes involved. This action can cause business failures.

Often, the attention is directed to the system rather than the process because we are seeking quick solutions or someone to blame. Also, there is a tendency to collect data to support the solution, rather than find the solution directed by the data. 

Effective quality leaders recognize this conflict and work to enlighten the organizational leaders. As a result, however, many quality leaders get tired of fighting the battles required to regain control of the processes and produce a stable system.

Deming’s “theory of knowledge” comes from a constant focus on improvement and the use of the Plan Do Check/Study Act cycle. Quality leaders understand the need to follow the PDC/SA cycle and integrate the philosophy into the organization as a systematic approach to continuous improvement.

In Deming’s last element of his system of profound knowledge, psychology is possibly the most difficult to contemplate. The quality leader understands that people are the drivers of quality and change.

To make change happen, the quality leader must believe in the value of individual contribution as a member of the system and model the behaviors necessary to build a collaborative culture. 

The theory of variation is significant because individuals have different values and behaviors. It is the responsibility of all senior leaders to build the culture that will sustain the organization and ensure long-term success. 

Further, all leaders must understand, as Deming stressed, that a culture of learning makes the individuals in the organization much better as individuals, but also as integral parts of the system. As a result, the organization improves and the community in which the organization resides becomes more secure. Ultimately, we are all part of a larger system.

Some organizations look externally for leaders but finding quality leaders may be as easy as looking internally. Of course, organizations want the best qualified person, but too many times they set out to find the best educated person to fill the role of quality leader. Sadly, an internal qualified person with a common-sense approach and a passion for learning is passed over. Organizations tend to build a system around the things they want, rather than the talents and competencies they really need.

Although it may be part of the minutia, the quality leader’s primary role is not to make sure that parts are checked. A quality leader works within the leadership system to build a customer-focused culture that is continuously improving the systems that deliver success.