American Leaders “Still Don’t Get It”

59486011 - governance word cloud on blue backgroundThe person closest to a task is in the best position to identify its imperfections. This idea, one of the most important ones of the past century, seems harmless enough today. Yet when Edwards Deming first proposed it, business leaders considered it heretical, for it challenged the reigning view of management, Scientific Management, that executives alone possess the intelligence to solve problems and make decisions.

Edwards Deming (1900-1993) was an engineer, statistician, management consultant, and the creator of Total Quality Management or TQM. Although American business leaders scoffed at his views, their Japanese counterparts endorsed them and, as a result, vaulted to global leadership in a number of industries, notably electronics and automobile manufacture. A decade or two later many American business leaders realized their error, praised Deming, and set about following his advice.

Yet most of them were so busy praising Deming’s idea that they never go around to implementing the changes in management practices it called for. Years later Deming, near death, remarked with sadness, “They still don’t get it.” (For more on this, see my 2012 essay on what is missing in management.)

I was reminded of Deming’s ideas yesterday while shopping for eggs. That’s right: eggs. I have long used Davidson’s pasteurized eggs because I can use them without fear of salmonella, even in recipes that call for raw eggs such as the recipe for Caesar salad dressing. I persuaded my grocery store to carry them a number of years ago, they stocked the product, and found that it sold very well despite its comparatively high price.

Yesterday, however, Davidson’s eggs were nowhere to be seen—moreover, the shelf tag for them had vanished, never a good sign. I asked the checkout clerk whether she could call a manager for me, and she explained that most of them were in a meeting. “The whole management team has turned over,” she added, “and confusion reigns.” I said, “Let me guess: the new managers are eager to change things to fit their vision and they aren’t about to listen to the ‘help’ about anything.” She whispered, “You’ve got that right.”

I can’t say for sure that my beloved eggs were purged from the inventory on a new manager’s whim, but I have my suspicions. The problem, of course, extends far beyond the egg department of my grocery store. It continues to affect small companies and large corporations. The people closest to the tasks are in the best position to identify imperfections, but the people in management are too arrogant to listen. Only when things go wrong do they speak with the people beneath them . . . and then it is to blame rather than consult. The nationwide cost of that error is incalculable.

The recent presidential election demonstrated that for decades American politics has suffered from the same problem. Elected officials of both parties have adopted the paternalistic attitude, “The masses are too stupid to make sound judgments for themselves, so we will do their thinking for them. We will enact legislation and create regulations that we, in our greater wisdom, know are right for the people. And we will ignore any complaints they may have.”

The voters’ resentment of this arrogant paternalism explains, more than any other single factor, why Donald Trump won the election. Yet judging from politicians’ reactions, many of them “still don’t get” the voters’ message. (Who are the stupid ones, after all?) Nor do they seem to “get” that Trump’s early cabinet choices and his plans for action after inauguration demonstrate that he has gotten the people’s message and has already begun to act on it.

It is too early to say for sure, but it seems that Trump’s philosophy of governance may reflect Deming’s philosophy of management. If that proves to be the case, America will indeed be blessed.

Copyright © 2016 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved