Throw Middle Managers a Life Line

Posted on by CATALYSIS

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The lean approach to organizational transformation seeks to create an environment that is conducive to empowering team members at the frontline.

While Executives leaders are learning their role in the lean improvement process, tools and techniques for driving process improvement are being taught and implemented at the frontline.

Executive leadership is working work hard to learn its role in this new environment. Although they are in a steep learning curve, they must simultaneously lead the organization forward. It is important not to forget the team members and their middle managers who find themselves in the crosshairs of all this change. 

The first challenge for those “in the middle” is that their experience and training instructs them to lead by directing. “I tell you what to do and you do it.” Middle managers are challenged to drive “better” results while they are still learning new ways of leading.

The second challenge is that they are in the midst of dealing with changes as their role and the role of those above them shifts to a support and coaching function, rather than directing.

Change is hard and involves the risk of making mistakes. When meaningful change occurs, mistakes are inevitable. While inventing the light bulb, Edison learned that not all experiments are successful. When errors occur, we find that leaders commonly seek to know “who” failed rather than what we learned from the experiment that did not achieve the desired results.

To help middle managers succeed, executives must keep in mind the following:

Don’t Expect Immediate Success

The first key is that all leaders must “expect” that we will not achieve the targeted performance in the first trial.  The transformation only gains traction as each process team gains confidence through running “experiments” that expand capability and competence. The team members “own” the process and if it doesn’t work the first time, they change it until it does. The experience and deep competence of team members is finally respected and unleashed through the continuous improvement process.

Focus on Process

The second key is that “the process rather than the people” must be the first focus for improvement. We commonly handicap our dedicated care-givers by providing them “weak processes” which prevent them from achieving the best outcomes. A weak process is a process that is based on “tribal knowledge” rather than standard work or a process that differs between personnel, shifts or teams. Strong processes enable our least experienced team members to achieve excellent outcomes on a regular basis.

Play Offense Rather Than Defense

The third key is for the executive team to focus on the process of improving as “the lifeboat to success.” This change enables us to “play offense rather than defense.” By encouraging our people to make changes that drive better patient outcomes, we tap their creative energy and build a foundation for sustained success.

By following these three keys middle managers can become today’s heroes and tomorrow’s leaders.


Tom Hartman, Executive Coach



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