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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/


PDCA: is it REALLY important?

PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycles are one of the most important parts of lean, because improvement is a cycle (learn more here).

I am often asked if all steps are really important or if the sequence truly matters. The short answer is YES. The long answer is YES, because:

  • No “Plan” –> you are working without a goal. This creates useless tasks, repetitive and redundant testing and, even worse, nobody will really know if things are going ok or not. If you don’t have a goal, there is no standard definition of “good” or “success”. In other words, you don’t have a hypothesis. It is also difficult to have a motivated investigation team if they don’t have a clue of the goal of their work.
  • No “Do” –> you might have great plans and a very clear goal, but you will not learn until you do experiments and prove/refute your hypothesis (learn more here). This problem usually happens with very complex issues, inexperienced people or high-risk situations (“I’m scared to try”). The effect is often called “paralysis by analysis”.
  • No “Check” –> testing results are incompletely or not analyzed at all. Learning will not happen and/or conclusions will be wrong.
  • No “Act” –> working standards are not updated. Knowledge is not incorporated to regular work and the company is condemned to repeat the same errors again and again.

As a summary:


The rules to improve anything


This picture is an old-time classic about communication. Originally made as a joke about how software is developed, it has many different layers which represent very well many of the problems of lean deployments:

  • “What the customer really needs”: First rule: listen to your customer and make the goal clear. No goal = no way to know how success looks like. Simple.
  • “How the customer explained it”: Second rule: go to the gemba. Customers are typically good at explaining their pains and setting a goal (e.g. “ship my product quicker”) but they are not always so good at explaining why things happen (e.g. “you don’t have enough trucks, my product waits too long. You should buy more trucks to be able to ship product quicker”). The best (and only) why to find out what to do is observing the process. Do it.
  • “How the business consultant described it”: Third rule: improvement must be developed by those who really do the job. Experts are ok and can give great value to your thinking process. However, the solution must be owned by whoever runs the process. Hiring somebody and asking him “solve this problem for me” simply does not work in the long term.
  • “How the process was documented”: Fourth rule: standardize. This does not mean “document everything” or “create human robots”. Standards are instructions to make the job in the best way possible known. They are made based on the experience of everybody. Standards must be fair and easy to change. This a great explanation by the Lean Management Institute:


  • “How the project leader, analyst, programmer understood it”: Five rule: communication. Poor communication is the main root cause of project failure (interesting article here). The impact is even higher in Lean or 6 sigma. Keep communication in mind. Tell others what you are doing and why.
  • “How it was supported”. Last rule: be ready to fail. Failing is bad, failing and not being ready for it is catastrophic. Change is mostly based in PDCA, each test proves or refutes something, so being wrong ( = making an hypothesis that was proved wrong) is part of the game. Don’t panic and just be ready for it.


Are these rules enough to succeed? No, unfortunately. But keeping them in mind can increase your chances of success!

Innovative Lean Leadership


Bob Emiliani’s Innovative Lean Leadership web page is full of knowledge and ideas. His experience and understanding of Lean tools and Lean leadership is evident. Both his blog and twitter account are really worth reading. I’ve chosen two great posts as an example of the content you can find at his page:

Some important learnings:

a) Lean was born “as a management system designed for buyers’ markets”, this is, when Demand is lower than Supply.

b) The importance of management involvement was already an issue at the time Lean was reaching America for the first time.

c) Early TPS training did not have any reference to VSM or A3 to explain TPS concepts like “flow” or “problem solving”.

Based on John Shook’s Lean Transformation Model, Bob adds extra information to the model and remarks the importance of the “Basic Way of Thinking” as the foundation for success:



Webinars: LeanLeadership


This is a nice place to look for webinars and events about Lean. Many Lean experts share their thoughts and experiences, answer questions and help others improve their understanding of Lean concepts:

Very helpful!



Excellent page with reports, templates and great, great interviews. Don’t miss the queueing theory section!

Planet Lean


Planet Lean is a great resource to find articles, case studies and interviews about lean. Most collaborators belong or have worked with the Lean Enterprise Institute or one of their affiliates.

Lean blog

Lean blog

Mark Graban’s blog on “Lean in hospitals, business and our world”. It focuses sometimes in healthcare, but many of the ideas apply almost everywhere. Nice source of information.

Speed loves quality

Anyone who has been for a while working in continuous improvement has heard several times the motto: “Lean is for speed, 6sigma is for quality” in any of its multiple versions. I was trained myself in 6sigma before I started working with Lean experts. I used to believe that Lean was just about speed. But this is false.

These posts by Mark Graban can help anybody see why:



One of the best parts in my opinion is this:

“I asked my NUMMI-trained plant manager back in 1996 which thing our plant had to fix first – quality or productivity.

He wisely said “Both. They go hand in hand.”

And this is very true. Speed without quality makes no sense, but quality without speed is also a bad option. Speed drives quality for many reasons: quicker learning cycles, problems are easier to see (since smaller batches are possible), problems can be fixed quicker (ever faced a company with a slow system to implement improvements?), etc…

No doubt, speed loves quality.

Non-value added


Is it better doing something useless or doing nothing? Doing nothing, absolutely!  Counter-intuitive? Find out more now!

If you are doing something useless, you are wasting resources. Somebody (the boss? the quality department?) might think it is critical work because “things have always been done this way”. It is possible that you do that useless stuff wrong (oh no!), therefore afecting parts of the process that are really important. Maybe one day will come when you need that time and resources to do something really productive, but everybody will be very busy doing the wrong thing, and the value-added work will wait forever.

So please, if there is nothing to do, do nothing. It is way more productive.

Image: http://www.onefte.com