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The Indispensable Role of Middle Management in Lean

Posted by Maggie Millard

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Nov 16, 2022 10:14:00 AM

managerMany organizations that seek to implement the Lean business methodology find that their structure is too rigid and bureaucratic to effectively support or sustain Lean principles. Those that overcome this challenge often start by reimagining the role of middle managers, evolving them from "enforcers" to enablers and coaches of front-line workers and supervisors. This management shift boosts Lean efforts and strengthens the organization's leadership pipeline. Successfully making this transition requires a concerted effort by both senior leadership and middle managers.

The Drawbacks of Top-Down Leadership

Although most companies desire to leverage a knowledge-based, empowered workforce, they struggle to let go of a rigid top-down hierarchy.

In a top-down management culture, senior leadership mandates initiatives to middle managers, who translate those into tasks to be performed by front-line workers. In this scenario, senior executives are the only decision-makers, and front-line workers do what they are told, as passed through by middle managers.

As a result, those closest to the products or customers have no sense of power or ownership and cannot associate their daily tasks with the organization's strategic objectives. In addition, they have no forum for sharing or trying out their ideas about how to improve the way work gets done.

The crucial tasks of building continuity and ensuring front-line workers reach the strategic goals defined by the executive team should fall to middle managers. But enlisting them as enforcers rather than enablers impedes their potential value to the organization. 

Additionally, that hierarchy creates other problems, such as the proliferation of functional silos. Each middle manager may focus on their own priorities based on their interpretation of senior management’s direction. This may lead to conflict over resources, localized improvements, competition for recognition, and disconnection from the organization's strategic objectives. Front-line staff may find this work environment frustrating and stressful. 

Successful lean organizations break this pattern by redefining the management pyramid.

Change Management Strategies for Implementing CI Software eBook

Empowering the Middle

The role of middle managers in a Lean transformation is that of improvement culture facilitators. They have three crucial responsibilities:

  • Set achievable, strategy-aligned goals for staff.
  • Provide each team member with the essential tools and skills to perform their jobs successfully.
  • Remove barriers that get in the way of the free flow of ideas.

By adopting this approach, middle managers transform from enforcers to enablers and create an open conduit from the senior executive team to the front lines.

Middle managers are in the prime position to support the five core Lean principles:

  • Value: Middle managers are closer to the customer than senior leaders and are situated for understanding customer needs.
  • The Value Stream: Middle managers have insight into which activities add value and those that are waste.
  • Flow: By visiting the Gemba and collaborating with process operators, middle managers can recognize and react when the flow of value is interrupted.
  • Pull: Visualizing and managing work-in-progress is a core responsibility of middle managers.
  • Continuous Improvement: Middle managers give staff encouragement and support to share and implement improvement ideas.

Strategy Deployment

Organizations that have successfully adopted Lean practices, including Toyota, General Electric, Motorola, DuPont, and Merrill Lynch, have evolved their middle managers into change leaders by leveraging strategy deployment within the Lean framework. 

Strategy deployment, also called Hoshin Kanri, is a structure for translating key objectives of senior leaders into an annual plan with specific steps and accountability. It starts with senior management crafting breakthrough goals that can be achieved in three to five years. These cascade into yearly goals and improvement priorities. Further, they break down tasks for every level of the organization.  

Strategy deployment prioritizes the organization's goals, centering the significant few from the trivial many and propagating the discipline to focus on the few crucial metrics. This alignment helps managers allocate resources and accurately prioritize improvement efforts when it comes to execution.

For this reason, middle managers should be involved in the process of creating the annual goals as well as the deployment plan. Involving them in the early stages of strategy deployment empowers middle managers to actively enable their teams. In addition, their involvement helps ensure strategic alignment and improve decision-making at every level.

The Advantages of Strong Middle Management in Lean

Nurturing middle management with the adoption of Lean principles and strategy deployment results in enormous benefits. Once they become skilled at coaching and empowerment, middle managers can let go of low-value responsibilities and focus on opportunities that align with the organization's strategic goals. By doing so, they can increase the productivity and effectiveness of their team by spending more time improving processes, training, coaching, and promoting knowledge transfer that builds Lean culture. 

An added benefit of reframing middle managers in a Lean organization is the development of leadership skills, forming a pool of future senior leaders. 

Leader Standard Work

So, what does empowered middle management look like in practice? It starts with leader standard work. In the same way that standard work defines the current best practice for any activity or task, leader standard work sets out the tools, actions, and behaviors practiced daily by managers. In general, 50% of a middle manager's time should be spent on these activities, including:

  • Ensuring that processes are performed according to standard work: Lean rests on the idea that improvement is both continuous and intentional. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that processes are operated according to the current best practice until they are altered following an improvement cycle such as PDSA. Middle managers are responsible for frequent visual inspection and communications with front-line operators to ensure the standard is maintained.
  • Collaborating to identify the root cause of variation: When there is variation from the standard work, it is the middle manager's responsibility to uncover the root cause of the variation and resolve the underlying issue in collaboration with front-line staff. 
  • Coaching and developing team members: Middle managers must devote time to mentoring and coaching staff, helping them build their skills to recognize and implement improvements.
  • Calculating and reporting results: Middle managers are in the best position to analyze and report on the health of Lean culture, especially the progress toward annual goals defined through strategy deployment. Ideally, they will leverage continuous improvement software to calculate the impact of specific improvement projects.


Standard Work for Frontline Leaders webinar


How Can Senior Executives Support Middle Managers?

It is clear that middle managers play an essential part in the success of Lean. Senior leaders must ask a lot from those in this role, so executives must create the conditions necessary for success. Crucial steps include:

  • Involving middle managers in the strategic planning process so that they clearly understand and feel accountable for their goals and objectives - not just informing, but getting their input via the "catchball" discussion process
  • Providing Lean training explicitly designed for managers that address their unique roles and responsibilities
  • Applying Lean principles to the role of middle managers by removing unessential tasks and creating space for leader standard work
  • Adopting technology to structure the responsibilities of middle managers
  • Mentoring and coaching managers to develop their skills and help them reach their full potential
  • Recognizing managers for their achievements and those of their team
  • Encouraging cross-functional collaboration and communication

If you look at successful Lean organizations, you will find middle managers who are empowered, engaged, and excited to fulfill the organization's purpose. They understand their annual objectives and know how to get the most creativity and innovation from their team. Likewise, you will find senior leaders who understand the crucial role of middle management and dedicate the resources to help them succeed.

Topics: Lean

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