Tag Archive | Development

Myth: Middle managers hate Lean


This is one of the most popular myths about Lean. Middle managers are dangerous people who stop any improvement initiative and lack strategic vision about operational excellence. They must be kept away from any Lean work at all costs or they will blur and corrupt Lean ideas and concepts and will destroy people’s morale… Is this true? Of course not. However, middle managers are special people who need special care when applying Lean. Let’s learn why.

According to Wikipedia, middle managers are:

Intermediate management of a hierarchical organization that is subordinate to the executive management and responsible for at least two lower levels of junior staff.[1] Unlike the line management, middle management is considered to be a senior (or semi-executive) management position.[2] Middle managers’ main duty is to implement company strategy in the most efficient way. Their duties include creating effective working environment, administrating the work process, making sure it is compliant with organization’s requirements, leading people and reporting to the highest level of management.

Let’s see what makes middle managers so special:

  • They are the highest management position in the organization with tactical (“get things done”) responsibility.
  • They are the lowest management position in the organization with strategic (“shape the future”) responsibility.
  • They have the highest “authority vs. accountability” gap in the organization.


What happens when Lean comes to a new company? Remember that Lean initiatives start normally at the shop floor, which means:

  • Operators, technicians and line management adopt Lean management ideas: they are encouraged to control their work, test ideas and remove functional barriers. They are empowered to become process owners.
  • Middle managers definition of success changes from “telling people what to do” to “remove problems and develop people”.
  • Executive managers still work and think according to classic management ideas.

During this process, middle managers might feel:

  • They are losing power.
  • Their job is not necessary anymore.
  • The definition of job success is unclear and inconsistent across the organization.
  • Their bosses don’t know what Lean is like and still request traditional “command and control” behaviours.

As a consequence, we create a middle manager sandwich:


When the environment at a Lean transition is like this for a middle manager, he/she can perfectly react with anger / fear / frustration and move back to classic management and sabotage, either actively (canceling changes, taking control) or passively (removing support) the Lean work.

What to do?

  • Be aware of the middle manager’s special condition and look for symptoms of frustration (learn more here).
  • Make sure middle managers are part of the Lean transition, feel recognized and participate in those important decisions that affect their work.
  • Help executive managers support and empower their people, avoiding wrong behaviours like “command and control” or “abdication” (learn more here and here)
  • Communicate continuously Lean concepts and ideas. They are not evident at all and can be easily misunderstood (learn more here)


“I hate you” logo from http://listsurge.com/top-10-ways-to-make-someone-hate-you/



People engagement is one of the most important things in a Lean implementation and, in general, it is a critical factor for any activity in any working environment. Surprisingly, “engagement” is a relatively new term in management. Almost nobody talked about it in the 80s; it became increasingly popular in the 90s and it has been a trending topic since then. Probably because it is so new, there’s much discussion about what engagement really means. Its definition has quickly evolved since the 90s, when engagement was related just with “performance”. Some years later “enthusiasm” and “passion” were added to the equation, and today passionate performance is a commonly accepted definition.

Engagement is more important than it seems. Engaged people really make the difference. Research shows that engagement has a great impact in a company’s performance: from innovation speed and retention to financial results (source: Towers-Watson 2012 Global Workforce Study):

Sadly, barely 1 in 4 employees (24%) are engaged on the job, according to Towers-Watson 2014 Global Workforce Study. The data is very consistent with their 2012 report, indicating that organizations still need to work in creating environments that promote people’s engagement.
Engagement percentage
Is a leader’s role important in people’s engagement? Absolutely. Engagement is an inner feeling (just like motivation is), therefore nobody can purely “engage” others. However, there are many environmental factors that heavily contribute and make engagement more probable. Reasearch shows that:
When neither managers nor leaders are perceived as effective, only 8% of employees are highly engaged. Not unexpectedly, in companies where both leaders and managers are perceived by employees as effective, 72% of employees are highly engaged. Companies with effective leaders as well as managers can expect to have more highly engaged employees.
Towers-Watson 2014 Global Workforce Study
The same study shows that the most important factors are base salary, development opportunities and job security (regardless of employee age):
Environment and leadership are so important because engagement is in many aspects a matter of perspective. Those companies that are transparent, communicate their strategies and develop their future plans with the participation of their employees (e.g. using Hoshin Kanri) are more likely to have an engaged workforce because people know they are part of something bigger than their own job. Your job may be “cutting stone into blocks”, but there is a very important psychological difference whether you think your goal is “cutting stone into blocks” or “building a cathedral”.
CathedralCan you know how engaged are your people? Partially. Intuition and communication play a key role here because people send signals constantly. In many cases it is possible to evaluate:
  • The engaged state for what people GIVE
  • The disengaged state for what people GET
The disengaged state can have very diverse origins, however there are 4 layers to care about to increase engagement:
  1. The individual (“I have personal problems”). Although they are not necessarily related to the job, personal problems kill engagement. It’s important to be ready and alert: 1 person out of 7 has a serious personal problem every year.
  2. The work (“I don’t like the work I do”). Nobody loves every aspect of his/her job, but if you hate everything about it, engagement is impossible. Correct work assignments are critical.
  3. The supervisor (“I’m not recognized”). Show people you care. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, said T. Roosevelt.
  4. The organization (“I don’t believe in the company values”). Company values matter. Really.
Engagement is important for you, your people and your organization. Take it seriously. Don’t be like this:

How to make your people think


This is a question I’m asked frequently: “Is is ok to let everybody propose anything during a problem solving session?” Mmm, absolutely! After some seconds, I typically get this other question: “But, isn’t it better to select the best ideas and concentrate only in those?”. Mmm, absolutely, again!

How is that? Because our brain thinks and develops ideas in a very special way. This is how it works:


Our brain benefits from this 2-phase process:

  • Start promoting creative and divergent thinking. Everything is valid. No idea is forbidden (just for the records, this phase does not have to be a brainstorming session necessarily, there are multiple other ways of doing this and brainstorming might not be the best one). The intent here is to break the psychological or cognitive inertia: our brain feels comfortable and likes following common patterns and solutions that have worked in the past.
  • Finish promoting practical and convergent thinking. Keep your feet on the ground. Calculate needed resources and evaluate possible barriers. The purpose here is to concentrate in those ideas that have the best effort/benefit ratio.

Like almost anything in life, a problem solving session is half technique and half art. A winning strategy in most cases is to use questions to facilitate the meeting (very similar to the coaching style). In all cases be sure that you follow the basic 3 rules of facilitation:

  • Be challenging
  • Be clear
  • Be honest


After several posts on goal setting, I’ve found this post about a different type of  goal setting exercise: the case when it is related to people development. Here it is:


It’s an interesting read about the most important part of any lean initiative: developing people. When working in this, forget about the classic H-Q-D-C set of metrics and focus on people development aspects. There are some different versions out there, all of which have many similarities. The one proposed in this case (using a weight losing program as example) is this:

  • Behavioral goals: changing a specific action/routine.  (e.g. “weight-loss friendly routines” like eat breakfast every day). These are routines you commit to, which are checked periodically.
  • Competency goals: improving an ability.  (e.g. enhancing the ability to make healthier choices when it comes to food and exercise) . They typically require gaining knowledge, practicing skills, and shifting perspectives.
  • Outcome goals: accomplishments that move you toward your aspirations. (e.g. lose weight)

When teaching lean, it’s important to keep this in mind. People new to lean will need to know why the are learning/using it (e.g. what’s the purpose), will learn new skills on the way (e.g. root cause analysis) and most important, must use new routines (e.g. “go and see” when a problem happens) that must be checked periodically until the behavior has changed.