Practicing the "Basics of Management"

By Bryan Lund, guest contributor to the Lean Blog:

I posted the following question on as Mark noted in a previous blog entry:

“How important is the past in learning about how to handle the future? Specifically…I think that the saying, ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’ is especially true in the realm of lean manufacturing and improvement initiatives. For example, Lean Manufacturing has its roots grounded within the Gilbreaths’ work, Fredrick Taylor, Deming, Juran, Ford and even in our WWII production ramp-up programs such as ‘Training Within Industry’ where supervisors were taught three critical business improvement skills: 1) how to instruct standard operations, 2) how to improve operations and 3) how to lead people.

Do you think, if we brought ourselves back around to the basics, that we could be more successful at the local, regional and national economic levels if we just practiced, ‘the basics’ of management?”

If you haven’t been to the link to my LinkedIn question above…I will try to summarize the answers I received below for your convenience. I received ten answers in all and the answers paint a very diverse picture of what I thought was a fairly straightforward and simple question:

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My favorites: “It’s only important if you want to succeed.” and “Absolutely. Keep it simple.”

Another response was a bit counter to what we normally hear in lean circles, essentially stating that “there is no such thing as ‘basic management'”.

On a side note: I find the approach of treating management like an art form intriguing and would like to know if others in the Lean blog community share similar convictions as the person responding to my question does, or does that mean something else entirely than management as pure art? Click “comments” at the bottom of this post to answer.

I asked this question about the past because a theory I have is that North American management theory doesn’t stress the “basics of management” in the way we get at attacking problems with Lean thinking. I personally attribute many lean failures to “lack of know-how” at all levels of the organization, but not for lack of trying. For more on lean failures, see Mark Graban’s postings on his 5-whys survey.

The prevailing answer I did receive from the group was that we should “learn from the past so as not repeat mistakes already made.” A simple answer; and our intuition tells us this is may be the “right” answer, if there is such a thing. However, do we heed this advice over time? I, for one, don’t think so and feel that it is a major factor in continuous improvement failures on a grand scale. Here is why…

So, why do lean initiatives fail? The most common answers are listed in Mark’s survey: backsliding, lack of management support, resistance, etc. Following this logic, if we know that we should learn from our past mistakes, than we should expect to see several of these reasons substantially lower in the LEI study than others. Indeed, judging from the LEI survey results, we see that it appears many people and organizations have learned lessons from the past and have put in place permanent countermeasures against “backsliding”, “flavor of the month”, and “financial value not recognized”. We apparently have learned to sustain improvements, gain buy-in from the masses and report our savings better than we have in the past! O.k., stop laughing. Something seems amiss here with the LEI survey results.

However, Mark did us a great favor and drilled a bit deeper. He added the category of “lack of top management” support; look at the results. At the risk of making grand statements without knowing the statistical significance of Mark’s survey results, we see before our eyes what we have learned over and over again: top management support goes a long way towards countering many systemic problems in an organization.

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For example, as people feel that top management support is feeble, we tend to see more backsliding, flavor of the month, and lack of recognition of the improvements. In other words, lack of top management support amplifies other systemic problems.

Why is this? The answer lies in investigating why management support wanes over time. First of all, ask the opposite question: “why does management support build over time?” My opinion, in North America, is that managers like a winning team, and who doesn’t really? When things are going well, we tend to repeat whatever it was we did as it brought favorable results. So, if this assumption is true, then we can assume that managers will abandon something if it didn’t get good results. The problem with this relationship is that at some point in time, managers’ support is going to be weak, because not everything is as successful as we experience in the past. In other words we have a tendency to jump around the management toolbox, looking for the winning combination every time. It just so happens that a popular toolbox right now is full of lean tools.

We cannot “blame” people for this naturally occurring phenomenon. Why can we not place blame? Because our world is full of incentives! Unfortunately, the incentive in this relationship is not to fail or you won’t get management support. When the incentive is “not to fail”, we tend to not take risks. When we don’t take risks, we tend to get complacent in making improvements because “lack of management support” is now an entrenched culture and usually only supports a “sure thing”. The natural result is that we tend to not bring up problems.

Fortunately, there is a way to provide management support…indefinitely. However, it requires adopting an inverse relationship of the factors recently discussed. In other words, managers must support people who embrace problems and reward them for participation in solving those very same problems regardless of size, rather than supporting those people that have the most highly valued successes. If sustained, this concept doesn’t suffer degradation over time. Why? Because there is always a problem to solve! Where success is sometimes fleeting, a problem arises to be solved. Now, how can “basic management” from the past help us here? “Success” rarely has time for the basics such as training, problem solving, workplace organization, etc., as we are busy moving on to the next best thing. However, an environment where problems are embraced is in dire need of constant training, problem solving, and workplace organization by everyone in the organization. Management needs to institutionalize problem consciousness in everyone, everyday, as part of their work. How is this done? Through a kaizen event?

Think about the basic Toyota “4M’s”: huMan, Machine, Materials and Methods. A person coached by a member of management on methods improvement alone can solve problems related to 5S, Standard Work and ergonomics. Do a “basic” time & motion study sometime with an operator and then review together. How many problems do you find using the 5 whys? With relentless support, many ideas can be generated by employees that will solve real problems afflicting them and others every day. Are they large successes? Absolutely not. If the solution to a small problem doesn’t work, is management less likely to abandon the improvement initiative if there are 1000 other proposals of similar nature in the idea pipeline? I think it is worth finding out. Small improvements are not sophisticated or sexy like a big, well scoped and sponsored kaizen event where people’s names are in lights for weeks afterwards. But small improvements can save companies millions of dollars year after year, where it seems the precisely opposite, formula of big Lean kaizen blitz thinking is costing us more than we think.

If you want to read more about small improvements I would suggest the following books, all by Productivity Press, but unfortunately some of them are out-of-print (or expensive, via used copies)

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an book titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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