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Aug 29, 2023

When things go wrong, who gets blamed? When things go right, who gets the credit? Dr. Deming wrote that good managers don't play the blame/credit game. Instead, they "study results [of feedback] with the aim to improve  performance." In this episode, David Langford and host Andrew Stotz discuss getting honest feedback, how to react, and why it's important.


0:00:02.7 Andrew Stotz: My name is Andrew Stotz and I'll be your host as we continue our journey into the teachings of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Today I'm continuing my discussion with David P. Langford, who has devoted his life to applying Dr. Deming's philosophy to education and he offers us his practical advice for implementation. The topic for today is improving performance. Who's at fault? David, take it away.


0:00:28.8 David P. Langford: Hello again. So we are at point number eight on Deming's role of a manager of people. And it says he will study results with the aim to improve his performance as a manager of people. So once again, Deming wasn't into all the pronouns that we use now and everything. So when he says he, he means he, she, anybody that's a manager of people. So, our aim is to improve performance and everything that we do. Right. So I think what's going on with this simple point that he's making is to get people to think about when things go right, or things go wrong, who's at fault, or who gets the reward or who gets the blame for that process.


0:01:29.1 DL: And as a manager, if things are going well, of course, everybody wants to take credit for that, whether you're a teacher or superintendent, business owner, or whatever, then it was, the same way in politics, right? Everything's going well. Oh, I did it all. And if things are not going well, then obviously it was somebody else's fault. Right. Or if you're a manager of people, like what Deming is talking about here, we have a tendency to blame the individual without first thinking about ourselves as the manager of that situation. So I was just coaching a group of teachers and talking to them about how difficult it is to really think like that as a teacher. Because you think, "Okay, I worked really hard on this lesson, I got everything prepared, I came in and I did it."


0:02:23.8 DL: And I don't know how many times I've heard teachers say something like, "Well, I taught them, but they didn't get it." [laughter] Well, that's probably the problem, you taught them, but they didn't learn it. [laughter] Well, that's probably the problem, right? You taught them, but they didn't they didn't learn it, which is two different things. It's possible to teach and get learning, but it's better to create actual learning experiences through that process. So you have to think about if I'm not getting good results I don't care what your position is as a manager of people I have to turn the finger of blame back towards me and start to say, “Okay, what am I doing differently?” And that's a hard pill to swallow when you start to think like that and because usually most people are trying to put in their best efforts. And Deming said many times we're being killed by best efforts, [chuckle] which is like a crazy thought to think about, wow, I shouldn't be trying hard. Well, you should be working in the right way. So if you're not getting the results that you want probably the very first thing is to go back to the people that you manage and ask them what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong or what could be improved. And I have seen this with just very little kids, like three, four, five-year-olds, when the teacher says, "We just went through that lesson and it seemed like some of you weren't interested, you know, what was the problem?"


0:04:05.4 DL: And they'll tell you, [laughter], "Oh, you went too fast, or we didn't have time to think about it, or we needed more time." Or they'll tell you exactly what the problem is. And it's usually a better way to go than having your supervisor come in and do an observation, because your supervisor probably isn't there every day watching how you're managing people, how you're communicating, how you're having conversations, et cetera. But the people are there every day. And if we're talking about education and kids in classrooms, they're the ones that are experiencing your management style. [laughter] And I've found out that the more you ask, the better they get at giving you advice, telling you what to do. And when you do it, then you get even better advice. So I remember I think I may have told this story before, but I remember I had a new student that came to class and I was in a project like that and I asked the students, I said just take out some sticky notes or whatever you want to, and write down a few thoughts about how you think this last project went. What could be improved, how we could have changed it what, I might do differently next year, et cetera.


0:05:27.7 DL: Just things like that. Well, this new student, he was just like blowing this off and he was not paying attention. He's screwing around everything else. And I'll never forget one of the students that had been there all year, she turned to him and she said, You better take this seriously 'cause he's gonna do whatever we tell him.


0:05:44.7 AS: [laughter], wait, what?


0:05:49.3 DL: Yeah, I'll never forget the look on that kid's face. It was just like, Oh. And then he did... He started to sit up and take it seriously. So.


0:06:00.0 AS: Yeah. Well that's, it's... One of the interesting points about that is, when you ask for feedback, how do you receive it? I asked... I have a bunch of interns working for me right now. And I asked them to go through one of my online courses, and write down feedback in a document, a shared document that they're all writing into. It's brutal, David. It's brutal! And then when I see some stuff, my first reaction, "Oh, I can't do that because, yeah, I can't fix that because of, yeah." And it's just so hard to, you know, it's hard enough to ask, but it's even harder to receive in a way that you're able to really use that to improve yourself.


0:06:42.7 DL: One time I kept getting feedback from the students saying, you're going too fast, or you're talking too fast or can't understand it, or we need more time to process what you're saying or... I said, well, okay, I've been doing this a long time, so I've got habits and so I don't always know [chuckle] that I'm doing that. So let's work out a signal or something that if that's happening you can just suddenly kind of signal me that, okay, we need some reflection time here, or something to happen. [chuckle] And so they came up with this idea that they would pull on their ear lobe if I was going too fast or working through stuff. It's very disconcerting to... I'm into something. I'm really explaining a concept and I think I'm really doing a good job. And you look out and you see about six people going like this, and you're like, oh, oh, okay, I'm doing it again. [chuckle] But...


0:07:46.1 AS: That's one of the things that was lost in the Zoom era. It's harder to read the audience too, just to even figure out if people are understanding.


0:07:52.8 DL: Oh, yeah, absolutely. But Deming often said, help comes from the outside and by invitation. So when you're inviting those students or workers or whoever you might be managing to give you that feedback, it's just really amazing what can be accomplished like that. There's almost no problem that can't be solved, [chuckle] by using the people actually doing the work to give you the feedback.


0:08:27.1 AS: You know, when we started this episode, the one thing I started thinking about was that great saying that we all probably heard when we were growing up is "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." And my mom said that to me, and my dad or anybody, I'd heard it a lot, but I guess what I thought when I heard you kick off this episode, I thought to myself, yeah, but what if you led them to the wrong pool of water? [chuckle] or the wrong place? And that there's a responsibility on the side of the teacher or the administrator to make sure that it's not enough to absolve yourself, "Hey, I did it and they didn't drink it," that's not acceptable or that's not enough.


0:09:13.4 DL: Yeah, over the last 40 years, I've heard some awful things from teachers saying things about students know... Privately or not, this kid just doesn't wanna try or doesn't care, or this kid isn't one of 'em that came to mind was "this student isn't even worth my effort." So how do you know that? [chuckle] And, Deming said, "Why would I give somebody a grade when I don't know who among them is gonna turn out to be great someday?" And I might be limiting them with a grade at that point in time, but a feedback information on feedback about how to improve what, wow. People really received that really well. I think that's really what he is talking about here in point eight and I think it's pretty simple, but it's tough to do.


0:10:16.4 AS: So let's wrap this up by... First I'm gonna just read point eight again, and this remember that for everybody, I forgot to say it at the beginning, but this is from the Role of a Manager of People section of The New Economics. And point number eight, "he will study results with the aim to improve his performance as a manager of people." And, I think one of the things that stands out is study results also. What is the result that we're getting? And some of the things that we talked about is like asking the question, what can I improve as a manager of people? How do I seek out information to do that? And you said, the more you ask, the more and the better advice that you get. And you also mentioned his quote that help comes from the outside and by invitation. And so I think the main thing is being on a path and a desire to improve yourself as a manager of people. Anything that you would add to that?


0:11:19.4 DL: Well, what he is after is how do we go about improving? The classic way we do stuff is we send somebody to a conference or where, go give them some training or now put 'em on an online thing that they go through, all those kinds of things. And what Deming is really saying is, look, study the results. You need to know how you are doing. [chuckle] And once you start to figure that out, then they are going to do a whole lot better.


0:11:50.0 AS: Fantastic. Well, David, on behalf of everyone at The Deming Institute, I wanna thank you again for this discussion. For listeners, remember to go to to continue your journey. Listeners can learn more about David at This is your host, Andrew Stotz, and I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Deming, "People are entitled to joy in work."