Management system leadership

PDCA leadership

Leadership in the quality management context is about driving the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle across the system. The organisation’s objectives are met when its leaders maintain conditions that secure the right amounts of momentum, cohesion, creativity and decisions. Think of the PDCA as a wheel that needs turning, in the right direction and without stoppages. The best leaders do not need to push the PDCA wheel, but instead establishes commitment and excites energy in the organisation’s people who will largely ‘turn’ the PDCA wheel for themselves. The leader does this by establishing personal meaning to colleagueship and to the organisation’s objectives, so that competent thriving people will naturally collaborate on achieving them. The leader of course has a role in adding their own professional competencies to the collective efforts, but any need to push would indicate a fundamental system or motivational problem.

In my post introducing ISO 9001, I explained how the PDCA cycle operates at different levels within the organisation, in the strategic, tactical and procedural activities. The PDCA cycle needs leadership at all levels, from senior managers to operatives. Quality management system leadership is therefore not a single role – except maybe in very small organisations of just a few people. Everyone is in fact a leader, in their own area and field.

The manager and the leader are often the same person, who adapts his or her behaviour to differing situations. Defining a system is often the easiest part of managing. The difficult lays in its effective implementation and ongoing operation. Leadership is about inspiring energy, commitment and cohesion amongst the people who influences the product of the system. This is in part achieved by establishing a connection between customer needs and peoples’ personal needs, and by promoting good practices. When difficulties or exceptions arise, the leader provides a support role in stepping in to help unblock the obstacles and direct people through the situation.

Leaders as managers are engaged in activities at all levels within the organisation – i.e. they are engaged in all activities within the management system. On busy days, you will find the nominated manager showing leadership by helping to stack shelves and take customer telephone calls, thereby inspiring the team to also give a little extra. At other times the manager is developing resources, such as selecting new machinery, recruiting and training people. Managers have yet another function, as members of the organisations top leadership team, performing the management system reviews for purpose of consistently responding to all the various needs and ensuring that risks and opportunities are addressed.

Leadership qualities

People are naturally drawn to a leader’s self-confidence (provided that it is well-placed). Confidence is perceived as a position of strength, which people want to join in with and feel part of. Self-confidence gives leaders the ability to be assertive when needed, because people naturally accept and subscribe to the strength. Self-confidence and ability to be assertive (when needed) are thereby the signs of a succeeding competent leader. The flip side to this is when these important attributes – self-confidence and assertiveness – are conveyed by an incompetent leader, or if they are used to subordinate people. In such case they translate into arrogance and bullying. The latter two attributes are a sure sign of incompetence, which is something people will never follow. The leader should be careful not to assert his or her opinion or will, in situations where they are unsure about being right. It is better to own up to not knowing something and ask the team’s opinion instead – giving them the opportunity to shine in the process.

Leader competency

The true leader cannot be seen to be self-serving, such as taking the easier jobs and perks for themselves, as opposed to be seen as team-serving. The leader who puts own interests or ambitions before the team’s is automatically in conflict with the ability to lead. The leader position is one that is gained by merit. If a false leader attempts to elevate their own position by diminishing the people around, then it risks a loss of cohesion and momentum in the PDCA cycle.

If the leader feels it is necessary to ‘crack the whip’ to get things done, then it tells that he or she is probably not the natural leader. Remember, competent informed people can easily lead themselves and do not need pushing to perform their roles.  If it is the organisation self that promotes such a leaderships style, then its top leaders are the problem. Having come into many organisations as a management consultant and regularly performed quality system audits over the years, I can tell there tends to be a correlation between an overly controlling system and a lacking competency in an organisation’s top management. People do not follow incompetent, arrogant bullies. Such organisations tend to end up with weak and under-performing people, who wish they were elsewhere – but for various reasons are unable to make the move. Luckily, they are in a minority and most organisations that I have come across in fact have excellent leadership.

The best leaders do not associate their actions with leadership. They simply work on behalf of the team, displaying competencies and commitment that are contagious, in a way that others feel compelled to copy the example. Quality and performance naturally happen.

Transformational change is associated with the organisation having to focus on a single bigger leap, as opposed to applying the incremental PDCA cycle approach. It also starts with assessing the problem and opportunities that motivates a change. From thereon, transformational change calls for a more focused style of leadership than the one described above. See my post on influencing transformational change.