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Barbara A. Cleary


The Buck—and Training Responsibility—Stops at the Top

Managers must be held accountable for the improvement in workers’ skills and knowledge

Published: Monday, November 27, 2017 - 12:03

When W. Edwards Deming urged managers to “institute training on the job” in his Fourteen Points for Managers, he undoubtedly meant far more than simply teaching workers how to use specific equipment or procedures involved in their work. Indeed, developing an organization’s culture demands a commitment to bringing all employees along in their learning—and this includes teaching managers how to help employees pursue continuous improvement in their work lives.

This approach runs counter to the traditional performance review, where workers may be rated on a scale, or measured in a simple binomial way (yes or no on a particular skill). These reviews have lost favor in recent years, replaced by attention to goals and objectives. But as Nik Kinley and Shlomo Ben-Hur point out in a recent issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, many managers acknowledge that they do not know how to change employee behavior to bring about improvement.1 Agreement on goals alone does not assure that either the employee or the manager knows how to achieve these goals.

So Deming’s insistence on training must include training those managers whose job it is to identify behaviors or skills that may need improvement as well as provide feedback to help employees’ performance.

In a survey of some 500 managers, the researchers found that only about a third said they knew what to do to help people change, and fewer than ten percent felt confident that behavioral change could stick over time. If managers are not held accountable for the improvement in workers’ skills and knowledge, and have no confidence in the impact of feedback, these figures will undoubtedly remain the same.

As Kelly Graves points out in a recent Quality Digest column, people “hate confrontation and will do just about anything to distance themselves from it, but a manager owes it to her employees to overcome this fear and address problems directly and honestly. The key is knowing how to handle problems with employees, and knowing what will happen before it happens.”

This knowledge is gained from experience, but it can also be supported with appropriate training for those who supervise others in an organization.

Terminating an employee may be the most difficult test for a manager, perhaps primarily because of a lack of communication over time prior to the decision to terminate. Avoiding conversations that may criticize a worker’s performance is a natural inclination. But what if there has been regular communication about how someone’s talents can best be utilized in an organization, or where the employee feels he or she needs advice or help or additional training? Frequent communication that focuses on moving ahead will mean that if termination is necessary, it will not be a surprise. Learning how to have these conversations is essential for a manager’s success with employees, but training in conducting them is rare indeed. Listening more deeply to Deming’s admonition to institute training means providing learning opportunities to managers as well as to those they supervise.


1. Kinley, Nik and Ben-Hur, Shlomo, “The Missing Piece in Employment Depoloyment,” MIT Sloan Management Report, 58:4 (Summer 2017), p. 89.


About The Author

Barbara A. Cleary’s picture

Barbara A. Cleary

Barbara A. Cleary, Ph.D., is a teacher at The Miami Valley School, an independent school in Dayton, Ohio, and has served on the board of education in Centerville, Ohio, for eight years—three years as president. She is corporate vice president of PQ Systems Inc., an international firm specializing in theory, process, and quality management. She holds a masters degree and a doctorate in English from the University of Nebraska. Cleary is author and co-author of five books on inspiring classroom learning in elementary schools using quality tools and techniques (i.e., cause and effect, continuous improvement, fishbone diagram, histogram, Pareto chart, root cause analysis, variation, etc.), and how to think through problems and use data effectively. She is a published poet and a writer of many articles in professional journals and magazines including CalLab, English Journal, Quality Progress, and Quality Digest.


Deming encouraged continuous learning

Excellent points on training, Barbara. On a few occasions where I heard Deming speak about his 14 points, I heard him say, "Train the workforce up to their ability to learn, not down to their need to know." This has always been common sense to me, has been exhibited by numerous companies (e.g. Johnsonville Sausage made famous by Tom Peters), and has been shown to create a sense of confidence in an employee's ability to cope with change caused by technology, product mix, new competitors, innovation, etc. I miss the Great Man. Next year will mark a quarter century since he passed away. Good grief.