In a Lean or Continuous Improvement Transformation, who is the most important – The Executives, the Middle Managers, or the Frontline workers?
This question often gets asked by many who are trying to understand how to roll out a Lean / Continuous Improvement program (or Six Sigma deployment, etc.). Some will say the work is done on the frontline, the gemba, so the frontline people are the most important, and should get the most focus. Others will say the Executives must be on board for a successful transformation, so we need to focus on getting executive buy-in. Even others will say, no wait, no one ever really considers more than a cursory glance at the middle managers. So here’s a word of caution – don’t forget the middle managers.
Many organizations start the implementation of a Lean/CI effort with big announcements proclaiming the benefits of this approach, and that everyone will be trained on the new techniques. It typically starts with the Executives to make sure they are on board; after all, they can kill the program through restricting funding, not releasing resources, etc. During these executive overview sessions, a training plan is usually developed starting with the frontline workforce – since they are the ones who make things happen. There is a big push from the executives to see action since it is fresh in their minds and it is costing them “a fortune”, so they want results. To accomplish this quickly, experts are brought in to help with projects and deployment, and the middle managers are given cursory overview at this time – they will be trained in detail later. These deployments are typically successful, and show excellent results. The executives, though happy with the progress, eventually start looking for ways to cut costs, and determine that since there is so much success, the training program can be cut back. After all, they reason, the middle managers already received the overview training (like them), and they don’t need the details like the frontline workforce. The training budget is cut, and the middle managers continue on to struggle (often silently) with the transformation.
Over time, the use of the experts is cut back as the executives feel the organization is progressing nicely on its journey, and the middle managers are expected to pick up the slack. Since the middle managers were not trained in the specifics of some of the tools & techniques, they do not fully understand how to use them, and they are either misapplied, or, because the mangers were never fully engaged (the experts facilitated the effort), they resort back to their traditional management mode – their comfort zone. Continuous Improvement efforts start to become not so continuous. The executives reason that this CI stuff was a nice experiment, and although there were some nice results, they just read about the next new thing, so they’re going to try that. The frontline feels betrayed, and the middle managers continue to muddle through their day.
Having lived through a situation like this, it is not fun. To see the potential of an organization slip away is extremely frustrating.
Unfortunately, this happens more often than we would like, and on varying scales (sometimes it’s an organizational wide effort, sometimes it’s simply inside a large department). The key to stopping it from happening is to fully understand, up front, what you are getting in to. Lean and other Continuous Improvement efforts are more about cultural and organizational change than they are the tools. It takes time (and investment) to transform from the traditional way of doing things to a Lean mindset. The investment is primarily in people, and it is a long term investment, not just something to do this year to improve the bottom line. To think otherwise is a recipe for failure.
So back to the question of who is more important – to me, the answer is they are all important; their relative importance depends on what stage the organization is in its journey. In the beginning, executive sponsorship is absolutely critical. Giving middle management an overview then providing details to the frontline workforce is essential during rollout. Then to sustain, it is imperative to provide middle management the training they need to make sure it becomes the way you do things, and not just another “flavor of the month.”
Last, but definitely not least – don’t forget the ongoing training and education as employees come and go to the organization and as new tools and techniques are refined and improved. This is often neglected, or worse, knowingly dismissed due to cost issues. It almost always comes back to bite you later.
Let me know your thoughts!