Human Resources in the Post Deming Era

Guest post by John Hunter, founder of (in 1996).

At the 1994 Ohio Quality and Productivity Forum conference, Peter Scholtes and Mary Jenkins shared their presentation, Human Resources in the Post Deming Era:

YouTube video

Mary Jenkins:

The vast majority of our time is spent discussing business strategies, product strategies and very little time, proportionately, is spent understanding the human systems and what kind of systems need to be in place to support or enable the business strategies to take place.

25 years after this presentation, this is still true in my opinion. There are many ways in which the management of our organizations needs to improve (understanding how to use data effectively, systems thinking…) and one of those important areas is in managing people. Managers spend far too little time learning about the existing conditions the people in the organization face, coaching those employees and working on improving the management system to help employees do great work.

Peter Scholtes:

The worst way to promote into an entry level management position is through interviews or through performance appraisal or through any of those things that are not very bright ways to approach the filling of a position. The best way to fill a position is with data; observational data from ad hoc experiences, temporary assignments and so forth in which people have had a chance to exercise (with a great deal of organizational support, so they can be successful) some of the activities that would be characteristic of the yet to open up managerial positions.

So when you have a vacancy in a managerial position, the ideal is to have a lot of people with experience in that kind of work; and you still end up having a judgement to make but at least it’s a judgment based on experiential data, not on guess work and how well someone performs on an interview.

This is excellent advice. When I had a leadership position with a team I had us have the whole team sit in the interviews with potential candidates (the team members were all early in their careers and in this and other ways I tried to help them learn and develop their skills). Two people who had worked with the team as temporary employees for 6 months were included in those we interviewed. Both were excellent employees during that time. One did well in their interview so hiring her was obvious to everyone.

The second applicant had a terrible interview; obviously the worst of all the interviews. After we discussed her interview a bit I asked everyone whether we should hire her. Almost everyone said no – because her interview was horrible. One person near the end partially hedged their opinion and said maybe we should give her another chance.

I said it seemed to me that the purpose of the interviews was to provide us some additional information about the applicant that we couldn’t get by just reading resumes. But we had 6 months of experience which seems to me to provide far more evidence that this person would be an excellent employee. Not only that their resume and interview seemed to make it likely they would be good enough at the job, but we actually knew they would be great because they had done it already and everyone agreed they did their job exceptionally well (which included giving them many assignments that were identical to what we hiring for).

Everyone quickly agreed that she would be a great employee and we should hire her. They had been conflicted because the interview process was normally an important part of the hiring process. And doing so poorly on the interview likely signified too much risk that they wouldn’t handle the job well. My guess is the applicant was just very nervous; they were right out of college (they had almost no previous experience with interviews). Yes, that also points out a weakness with relying on interviews at all (you could be ruling out others that would be great employees just because they had a lousy interview). They did turn out to be a great employee.

I think that story is a good reminder to focus on your aim (and also don’t be too quick to accept “results” that indicate you should chose something you think is a bad idea). We were trying to hire a person that we all wanted to work with that we would confident would do a great job. We all knew this person was a great fit. But I think many of us got confused because one of the tools we used to assess potential hires gave a very bad indication for her. But we forgot that in this particular case we had much more compelling evidence and the interview didn’t matter at all (you might ask why bother with the interview, and I can see that point – it was “policy” for one thing…).

It would be very wise to design your management system, as Peter suggested, to provide opportunities for people to learn and demonstrate their abilities to do other jobs in the organization. You do also have to be careful that system works properly; if you have large biases selecting who is given those opportunities (those the boss likes best, etc.) that will create problems for the organization.

Related: Peter Scholtes – Leading Quality, Some Practical Approaches to the Managers New JobEducate New Managers on Their New Responsibilities

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