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Jeff Liker

Jeff Liker: Top leaders must go to the gemba to develop leadership in their middle-managers

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Saturday, May 9, 2015 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

The differences between top and middle management are not only in “developing a lean enterprise,” but they are in different positions in all regards. Let’s start with the assumption that a lean transformation is underway because the company is not already lean. In a traditional organization the top is responsible for results, usually to someone else like owners or a board of directors. They are looking at the enterprise level and trying to figure out the knobs and levers they can control to get the enterprise to deliver the results they are judged by. In reality they have only indirect control and most of the knobs and levers are loosely connected at best. Middle managers control a specific unit and also have results to deliver, but since they have a smaller number of people with a more specific task they are also managing the day to day and relating more closely to people at the working level. The middle often feel trapped between pressures from above to deliver specific results and daily human pressures to from below on disciplinary and work life issues.

Both top and middle managers will find ways to make things work and deliver the results and they have years of experience managing in that way. They have habits and the organization has routines. When they are in unfamiliar territory they are uncomfortable, which happens in any time of dramatic change. The top executive may be more visionary and since they are distant from the gemba they are not as sensitive to what changes are actually taking place and how people are responding. In fact middle management often insulates them from the reality. Middle management now has more balls to juggle, ones they are used to and ones they are very uncertain about.

If you can show the executives results they are happy. It may be difficult to get them engaged at the gemba as they think they are supposed to be running the ship from the help, which means lots of meetings and phone calls. They are associating with peers at their level and believe they are deciding things and running things at the magnitude of the enterprise level. They will agree to go the gemba but may or may not do it often enough or seriously enough to learn deeply.

Middle management will come on board if they get actual experience that leads to better results. If their people are happier and things run more smoothly, and they can deliver results, they can quickly get engaged and even passionate about lean. But they must be coached and carefully guided on the journey. And the change agents must be talented enough to get their people engaged and enthusiastic. If the change agents are disruptive and creating fear then middle managers will reacted very negatively. The middle management is also not use to being engaged at the workplace as leaders of systematic improvement. They will feel too busy to go to the gemba and measure things and work to improve things if it takes a lot of their time. That is an advantage of a method like the kata or the short PDCA cycles that Toyota preaches. A little bit every day is often better then big doses of work, though a well run kaizen event can significantly open up the middle managers if they commit to being directly involved in a leadership role.

If you can get results from lean and bring senior executives to the gemba and show them how engaged people are they will also get excited. Then you have an opportunity to get them to the gemba.

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