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Articles & Press Releases > Article 105

W. Edwards Deming, 'Quality Guru',

Point #7: "Institute Leadership"

Years ago, I recall a man named John who worked at the same company I did. He was a light-hearted, funny sort of guy - the type who would speak the truth in jest. One day I saw John in the hallway.

"Hi, John. How are you doing today?" I asked.

"I'm average," he replied.  "That's what my manager says, anyway."

I'm "average"?

Who among us has never heard those words or picked up on that thought from the very people who are(or were) paid to help us excel?

Leading by Using Numbers

Whether someone is a good leader or not, he or she has the ability to count. They can count:

  • actual sales, and compare that to quotas
  • billable hours-to-budget
  • parts produced-to-quota
  • quarterly financial results-to-forecast
  • "anything", and compare it to an average

Ed Deming, quality guru in the mid- and late-1900's, believed that rating people into "above average", "average", and "below average" categories was a waste of time and not a good use of leadership.

One of Ed Deming's favorite examples of an error in reasoning about ratings was made by the American Historical Society. Several years ago, the organization asked their members to rate 37 U.S. presidents. Greatly satisfied with the outcome of their survey, the Society announced that half were above average. Newspaper articles proclaimedthe news. Deming said (with a twinkle in his eye, no doubt), "What if they'd all been below average?"

Supervisors who are not ready to be leaders often fall into the trap of rating people in these ways. Other times, companies force managers to rate people by averages.

If everyone in a manager's group excels, but the manager must rate their entire group (and can only choose up to20% as "high", up to 20% as "low", and at least 60% as "middle" or "average"), then isn't the manager being forced to name some of the excellent employees as average?  


And that's what Ed Deming said is part of poor leadership.

When people are placed in a leadership position without preparation or training, they are set up for either a lot of catch-up or failure. If new supervisors have only numbers as a basis for judging their employees' work, they can get themselves into a comfortable rut that does nothing to build employees who can, and will, excel.

Ed Deming said, "People come into a company from college, learn about the company by going in and being supervisors somewhere. Pity the poor people that have such supervision. No help at all!  Aren't they entitled to some help? Where is the supervisor who knows how to find who is in need of individual attention? Show me one. There is no such thing as supervision, and should not be, unless people know how to supervise."

"There is no excuse to offer for putting people on a job that they know not how to do. Most so-called 'goofing off' (somebody seems to be lazy, doesn't seem to care), that person is almost always in the wrong job, or has very poor management."

Deming got his client companies to stop rating peopleand start leading people more effectively.


Leading by Helping Others Excel

Ed Deming believed that if you're leading well, nearly everyone will excel. He suggested starting a new phase of leadership by dropping the practice of rating peopleby averages.

Management's job is to lead. Leading entails:


  1. Determining the barriers that keep employees from doing great work;
  2. Implementing a plan that works to eliminates those barriers; and
  3. Constantly being a catalyst to provide employees with what they need to excel.


I just had a memory blip:

Several years ago, an HR director told me she spoke to my boss. She told him that part of his job as a manager was to give his employees the tools they needed to do their jobs well. He replied to her, "No it isn't."

As you can imagine, he and I did not get along!

Determine the barriers that keep employees from doinggreat work by:


  • working to build relationships with your employees that establish rapport and trust;
  • being open to hear them tell you details regarding the issues and situations that get in their way;
  • scheduling regular times to meet with your employees (individually and collectively) to gather data and document the barriers they've identified.


Implement a plan that works to eliminate those barriers by:


  • teaching your employees how to build a problem-solving plan by showing them how to brainstorm ideas (without judgment), evaluate ideas (with judgment), and arrive at ideas that will work;
  • developing an implementation plan using the conclusive ideas;
  • leading your employees as they execute the plan.


Constantly be a catalyst to provide employees with the tools they need by:


  • reevaluating the plan periodically to determine if new or old barriers exist;
  • using the same methods for relationship-building, listening, evaluating, and problem-solving to address additional barriers;
  • identifying whatever your employees need from you in order to be employees who excel.


The dictionary definition of "excel" is "being superior in achievement."  It suggests a comparison. 

What if your entire employee group excelled, as compared to some other group? 

Is it possible to lead all of your employees to excellence? 

Would your company's policy allow it?


©2012 Borgeson Consulting, Inc.

Glory Borgeson, President
2012 Borgeson Consulting, Inc.

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