Deming, Scholtes and the "Inspirational Petunia" Strategy of Leadership

Emma Langman

Nearly all sustainable performance is due to the system and not the individual, writes Emma Langman in this week’s Deming Files. So what role does leadership play?

Experts talk about many different kinds of leadership - Situational Leadership, Adaptive Leadership, Level Five Leadership, Emotional Leadership, Evidence-Based Leadership, Servant Leadership, and many others. In a world that is increasingly complex and fast-changing—with all sorts of differing advice on Leadership —how can we stay true to ourselves (our ethics and values) while being able to adapt sufficiently to ensure that we and the people we lead (or influence if we are not in a leadership role) can thrive and survive?

In the work of Dr. W. Edwards Deming we discover that about 95% of sustainable performance is due to ‘the system’ not the individual. Nevertheless, Deming was very much aware of the influence of certain individuals, namely leaders. Deming’s 14 Points for Management and his New Philosophy of Leadership as described in his System of Profound Knowledge relate directly to Leadership beliefs, actions, and behaviours in one form or another.

This causes one to stop and wonder at the relationship of Leadership and the System. How many times have we noticed that an organisation that we are involved in appears to change when a new CEO is appointed? And, on our way up the organisation, how often has it been the case that our own attempts at ‘Leadership’ have been apparently futile because they were ‘killed’ by the wider system? How many innovative, creative, intelligent people have you met in your life who have given up attempting to lead change, because it is just too darn difficult? Perhaps the most important question is What is it that a few really influential leaders have done that has made the difference – even if they were leader by action, rather than by hierarchical position?

Three of Deming’s 14 Points leap to mind as helping to ensure that organizations thrive and survive via enlightened Leadership

Point 7 Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers.

Point 8 Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.

Point 12 (a) Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality. (b) Remove barriers that rob people in management and engineering of their right to pride of workmanship.

For this author, Point 8 is the key point for leaders and managers now, as we attempt to escape the jaws of economic recession. Indeed, perhaps the job of leaders now is to drive out fear so that everyone may work effectively for their fellow human beings and the planet as a whole?

This begs the question what can everyone and anyone do to foster more effective organizations –no matter whether they are ‘leader’ by title or by influence?


The Onion Patch Strategy

Navigating the interplay of the ‘system’ and the ‘leader’ is no trivial challenge. The power of a system to change people’s behaviour is extremely strong. It is surely no coincidence that many people who are Systems Thinkers find that the transition from traditional silo-linear thinker to global-systemic thinker reveals to them inconsistencies and issues with prevailing (non-Deming) management methods. This often leads to such inner tensions and frustrations that the individual in question may change jobs and/or make some other significant changes in their lives.

This feeling of being ‘a round peg in a square hole’ --of being a petunia in an onion patch-- can create stress and/or a call to action. To stay in an organisation and see that the system is ‘wrong’ – and avoid being pulled into that ‘wrongness’, is a great challenge. Of course, it is also a challenge to leave a system that was once comfortable for you– for a new system (because it is too difficult or uncomfortable to remain in the existing system).

Peter R. Scholtes was a colleague of Dr. Deming, and the author of THE TEAM HANDBOOK and THE LEADER’s HANDBOOK. Scholtes appreciates petunias and their plight as "lonely little low-ranking, cubicle-inhabiting, systems-thinking [people] trying to introduce the New Philosophy of Leadership to those rooted in an onion patch of an obsolete managerial philosophy". Scholtes provides suggestions to inspire petunias –and for what to do when you find yourself in the onion patch.

Inspirational Petunias

Inspirational petunias – people who made a difference - appear throughout history, in all nations and contexts. Some of this author’s favourites are Florence Nightingale, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks.

If Scholtes’ appreciation of petunias strikes a chord and inspires you to take action, perhaps think of the small but fearless action of Rosa Parks in refusing to move from her seat on the bus. What seems to have made the difference was not just Rosa’s determined act of ‘civil disobedience’ – but also her collaboration with others to create a movement.

If we dare, we can all be leaders and change the systems within which we find ourselves. If we dare, we are all more powerful than we know. If we dare, and if we collaborate with others (which also takes not insignificant bravery), we can lead more change for good than we might ever have dreamed possible.


While most of the performance of individuals is due to the system, not the individual, leaders can influence the system. Indeed, this is their role. If we wish to be great leaders, then we need to create an environment where people are free of the fear that prevents them for striving for change that is improvement. Even if we are not very senior, we can be great leaders by looking through the lenses that Deming and Scholtes provide, and by being fearless in our efforts to make the place where we work better, and to work to make the world a better place.

Copyright 2011 by Emma Langman

For more on this topic, including a section on Peter Senge and Peter Scholtes – and a reading list – please contact the author by e-mail.

Editor’s Note The columns published in THE DEMING FILES have been written under the Editorial Guidelines set by The W. Edwards Deming Institute. The Institute views these columns as opportunities to enhance, extend, and illustrate Dr. Deming’s theories. The authors have knowledge of Dr. Deming’s body of work, and the content of each column is the expression of each author’s interpretation of the subject matter.