Coaching and mentoring as detoxification

Developing the Deming/Scholtes approach

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Kelly Allan

With the focus on individual coach-mentoring over the past couple of decades and the runaway interest in coaching and mentoring interventions to address an individual agenda, many coach-mentors are now developing an appreciation of the wider organisation as a system. For those who have followed the progress of the Quality Movement, there are ideas now being rediscovered by coach-mentoring practitioners and we are noticing there is a new following for these ideas as coach-mentors reach out for systems-based solutions. Organisations have always been complex and the issues that have challenged organisations have not changed as radically as some authors have suggested in Part One of this special issue of e-O&P. What I am offering to this dialogue, is a personal perspective influenced by my experiences of the Quality approach and by what I have seen of coach-mentors discovering the value of learning how to overcome Deming’s ‘deadly diseases’.

Why do coach-mentors want to know more about ‘Quality’?

This article is written primarily for people who have not yet been exposed to the core principles taught by Deming and others in the so-called Quality Movement.

Beyond the world of professionals who work in the quality department or consulting firms, these concepts of how things really work are not applied as actively as you might expect. This is a shame, because these concepts apply to virtually every organisation and have true universal application. There are, however, some organisations where the leaders do understand the real meaning of Quality – and how it relates to managing an organisation. And, before you ask, no it’s not about inspection, assurance and control so that you can update the ‘quality manual’ and get a big tick in the International Standards Organisation or British Standards Institute ‘boxes’ to keep the auditors happy!

Photo courtesy of The W. Edwards Deming Institute®

I do a lot of public speaking throughout the world and an increasing number of coaches/facilitators/mentors express their frustration both publicly and privately to me about trying to help people succeed within a dysfunctional organisational context. Some of the questions and points they make include, “Is my advice to my client supposed to be to encourage dysfunctional behaviours so my client can get ahead!?” By dysfunctional they usually mean: “Play more politics — but be nice outwardly but cunning and selfish inwardly, learn to be more passive-aggressive.” This not the idealised, rose tinted glow of coach-mentoring practice that most coach-mentors signed up for. I would also suggest there is more ‘advice’ giving than might be modelled in the coach-mentoring textbooks. Coach-mentors are eager to embrace lessons that address the need to work effectively in Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) conditions. In fact, organisations create much of their own VUCA, without realising it. The Deming/Scholtes approach helps to reduce VUCA and offers a way of connecting and learning from the world of Quality and organisational consultancy, whose leaders have been the inspiration for my company’s practice.

Most coaching, mentoring and facilitation is waste of time.

A key concern expressed by coach-mentors who have been approaching me for guidance is that much of what they do is a waste of time. Why a waste of time? Because they are trying to help their clients be better, emotionally healthier people – AND to get ahead in their jobs — while constantly being thwarted by the toxic elements of prevailing management styles/beliefs within the organisation. One coach summed it up by saying, “Most organisations in which people work are broken and cause people to engage in toxic, self-defeating, self-destructive and anti-social behaviours.”

Indeed, I agree that much facilitation, coaching, and mentoring in most organisations is a waste of everyone’s time. Well-meaning and highly expert coaches are thrust into a role of trying to fix the symptoms of the problem. The symptoms of this emerge through behaviours, for example the supervisor who isn’t “tough” enough, or a fast-track “high potential” who doesn’t care about hurting others on his/her way up the corporate ladder of power.

The real, deep root problem comes from the management belief system in place at most organisations. Management beliefs that use the tools of internal competition, annual performance appraisals, budget scarcity, rating and ranking of people, pay for performance/results, fear, command and control management, and the like. Those elements counteract and defeat so much of the good that coaches try to do because those elements cause dysfunctional behaviours. By the way, all those elements are ones that Deming [1982 and 1993] and Scholtes [1998] pointed out to be toxic, destructive, and/or ‘deadly diseases’, several decades ago!

There are still those who misconstrue the core messages underpinning the Quality Movement and who erroneously believe that ‘we have done Quality’. It is the wider context of the organisation that needs attention and if you want to drive change, it is important to realise that this is actually what Quality has always been about.

How does one go about making an entire organisation better?

Unfortunately, the prevailing belief and answer to that essential question is that you improve the organisation by improving the people. Certainly, all of us can improve – and forever, but unless we are aware of the systems based constraints inherent within the structure of the organisations we work in, we are all caught in an invisible web that holds us back, stuck in the same place even when we think we have moved forward.

I have observed over the years, that consultancy has been a ‘dirty word’ in the coach-mentoring lexicon. Yet the jury is no longer out on the topic of how to make an entire organisation better. For many decades, consultants in various guises from across disciplines have been tapping into the core elements that work. The pendulum is now swinging and attention is moving back to what can be learned from the consulting arena, where the knowledge base about systems and change in organisations is well established. And the Deming/Scholtes approach has its roots in the arena of Quality consultancy.

Surely focusing on individual change will ultimately change the organisation?

Within most organisations an individual has perhaps 4%-6% discretion over her/his own success. And, yes, I’m talking about I.T., sales, marketing, design, engineering, service work, call centres, and the like, as well as manufacturing and assembly organisations. Keep in mind that as a general rule 85% of people engaged in a manufacturing operation never touch the product. Thus, it is a mistake to perceive that manufacturing is
hugely different from other endeavours.

That may seem to some like an outrageous statement. Yet, I assure you that ‘thought leaders’ in the Quality Movement, have been presenting this and related ideas since 1924. To my knowledge, Walter A. Shewhart [1939; 1986], was the first to present this ‘new thinking’ about how to understand variation in people, processes, and things in organisations. This inspired his protégé, Dr W. Edwards Deming to build on them [1982; 1986; 1993]. Sixty years of subsequent research and practice, from across many disciplines, has shown time and again that the highest leverage actions and interventions for organisation improvement come from improving the processes and systems in which people work – NOT from trying to take actions to improve the people first.

Let me put the main theme in this way, having insight into how things really work in an organisation comes from knowing what is really going on with processes, systems, and understanding the aim of the entire organisation. In other words we cannot know what to improve first, second, and third unless we have insight into the tools, processes, and ways of work that individuals, teams, and departments use to accomplish this aim. If we don’t take that approach [processes and systems first] to gaining insight, then coaching/mentoring efforts come up against a strong, toxic, status quo belief system of how to make things better. This, of course, only makes things better on the surface and for a short time, because the prevailing focus is that people are the problem. They are not. However, they are a key part of the solution if the systemic issues are addressed in the first instance.

There has been a convergence of thinking from across a diverse range of disciplines that has demonstrated many of the mechanisms and reasons that account for how and why these ideas work. There are far too many ideas to cover in a short article like this. So, I encourage you to explore them further, and look across the spectrum of management and organisational research as well as Industrial/Organisational psychology. Key names you might look for are Peter Senge [1990], Peter Scholtes [1998, 2003], Brian Joiner [1994], Kurt Lewin [1948, 1976, 1997], Russell Ackoff [1991], Edgar Schein [1987], Peter Drucker [2010], and Mary Parker Follett [Graham 1994]. There is a wealth of research and methods already available, if you care to look.

Deming’s White Bead Experiment and the future of coaching and mentoring

The coaches who approach me at conferences and speaking engagements with their frustrations seem to know from their intuition and/or observations that it is the system in which people work which is the biggest determinant of outcomes. What they don’t know is how to go up against the established, prevailing, and toxic beliefs and practices, about “performance management” for example, that are practised in most organisations.

That is what I want to cover next, and to share with you some of the basic principles. For those who already apply these, I hope this helps to put them into a coaching context. For those of you who have not yet been exposed, I hope you feel inspired to find out more.

Peter Scholtes and I had many conversations over a decade about how to put these core principles into practice. After a great many trials and errors, we came to the conclusion that the transformation of thinking that can rid organisations of the toxicity resulting from the prevailing performance management beliefs and habits is best achieved by starting with the lessons of Deming’s White Bead Experiment.

In fact, I believe so strongly in this as the best introduction to this way of thinking, that I have asked The W. Edwards Deming Institute® to make the videos available to you online at no charge. The Deming Institute has happily agreed. Thus, you can watch Dr Deming conducting the transformative White Bead Experiment via this link. and, there is an additional link of the debriefing of the White Bead Experiment:

This way of thinking is a natural fit for coaches and mentors and it has been available to organisations for decades. The present volatile economic climate has inspired a resurgence of interest in systemic approaches to both individual and organisational change, so before you reach out for the new texts look back at some of the basic principles.

There are four key areas of insight that come from the White Bead Experiment. Deming identified these in his book ‘The New Economics’ [1993]. Deming encouraged Peter Scholtes to write about them in ‘The Leader’s Handbook’ [1998]. These are summarised below:

One: Understanding variation

This includes, but is not limited to, statistical variation. Spreadsheets of results, for example, can cause problems because they mask variation. In fact if you look at reports on performance and if you don’t understand Common Cause Variation vs. Special Cause Variation, you are very likely to want to put in incentives, rewards, punishments, and pay-for-performance programs, instead of working on improving the systems and processes in which people work. It is very dangerous not to know about Variation. Deming said that not understanding Variation leads to “tampering”, and tampering makes things worse over time.

Two: Having an appreciation for organisations as systems

What is a “system?” People usually struggle with explaining the systems they work in, and a system is never accurately represented by an organisation chart. So, people capture aspects of the system using language like “it is the way we do things around here.” Our beliefs, our bureaucracy, the Cover Your Arse (CYA) techniques, and work-around practices are all indicators of the ‘real’ system at work. From time to time, my company takes on client companies that are at risk of going out of business. One of the first things we look at [with a view to changing] is the amount of time that senior leadership wastes by trying to optimise their own performance or their department’s performance by applying simplistic performance based approaches that masquerade as systemic solutions. The main question we ask is: “Are you all one team?” We ask this because typically the team is the most accessible system that any individual works within. The real answer is usually: no.

Three: Theory of knowledge.

One aspect of the definition of Theory of Knowledge is this question: How do we know what we think we know is really so? In so many organisations there is no discussion of theories, no testing, no investigation. There is only implementation based on the opinion of the most powerful person. Deming taught the use of the Plan-Do-Study-Act Cycle as a way to reduce costly failures and to capture opportunities. Test your assumptions and beliefs in small, fast, inexpensive experiments using PDSAs.

Four: Psychology

In my experience most of “People Management / Human Resources” as it is typically practised is about manipulating people to do what leaders want them to do. Incentives, bonuses, and various rewards are just a club to wield that has implicit threats of lost bonuses, being tagged as a loser, getting bad performance reviews, and being “counselled” or “coached” into better performance. Such practices are typically referred to as extrinsic motivators. Yet they are really about “activation” not motivation because they become de-motivators over time. To bring out the natural, intrinsic motivation that people have, we need to remove such practices which are really barriers to success. One simple and easy way to get started in bringing out intrinsic motivation is to engage people in continually improving the processes of how the work gets done, keeping in mind that we want to engage them in improving processes by listening to their ideas, providing them with expert support in improvement methods, and NOT via threats related to performance ratings, incentives, goals, targets, quotas or rewards.

Start with understanding variation and getting the ‘fundamentals’ right

If you are new to Deming’s way of thinking, there is simply no better starting place than understanding the concept of variation. You don’t need more than about two hours of simple math training to see the concept at work. You don’t have to become a statistician! If you understand the basic concept of Special Cause Variation vs. Common Cause Variation, and use some inexpensive software to plot data on a simple control chart, you have an extraordinarily powerful tool for influencing decision makers. Plotting data is one of the most important activities you can do. Doing so lets you see both results that are unique to an individual and results that come from the sum total of the system in which people work. And, when you know that, you know what to do first, second, and third.

Without knowing if the results are unique to an individual (vs. coming from the system), coaches with the best of intentions are, in my experience, likely to cause harm leading to frustration, depression, toxic behaviours, and feelings of helplessness. Why? Because the problem 94% – 96% of the time comes from the system in which people work, and not from the people. Psychologists have a term for this tendency to focus on the person instead of the system which they call the fundamental attributional error.

So, I urge you to start with these fundamentals for success and look further into variation, how to lead a system, and how to develop a theory of knowledge, as well as to consider the psychology of how to bring out intrinsic motivation. Understanding these phenomena will lead towards the detoxification of organisations via worthwhile coaching and mentoring. I wish you well in this quest, and I am happy to answer questions by email.


I wish to thank Pauline Willis for her patience and diligence in improving the clarity and impact of this article. Of course, W. Edwards Deming and Peter Scholtes made it possible for me and others to see a better way forward. For that I am forever grateful. The W. Edwards Deming Institute® via Kevin Edwards Cahill provided the free links to the videotapes of Dr Deming demonstrating the fallacies of commonly accepted beliefs about how to make things happen and get things done.


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Video: “Introduction to Deming’s Management Ideas” ,

About the author

Kelly L. Allan is the Chairman of the Advisory Board of The W. Edwards Deming Institute® and Founding Associate of Kelly Allan Associates, Ltd., a company with 24+ Associates that has been in business since 1974. Kelly has published articles, commentary and letters in a variety of journals, including Fast Company, Personnel Journal, Inc. Magazine, The Harvard Business Review, and The Wall Street Journal. He has been featured in Fast Company, Quality Progress, The Masterful Coaching Fieldbook, The Knowing-Doing Gap and Abolishing Performance Appraisals. He speaks and gives seminars on management topics in North America and throughout the world.
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