Weak Link: Management’s Relationship with People


    Inspired by an article in Workforce Performance Solutions Journal Oct 2005 and personal experience.

    Waves of downsizing, employer demands, job disenchantment and technologies that keep employees plugged into their jobs both day and night have taken their toll. If recent surveys are any indication, more than half the workforce is fed up. Pollster Gallup has found that 40 percent of American workers feel disconnected from their employers, with 19 percent being “actively disengaged” from their workplaces.

    Disenchanted workers pull down productivity, increase churn and darken the morale of the people around them. The annual economic costs are huge: as much as 100 billion euros in France, $64 billion in the UK, and a whopping $350 billion in the United States.

    How can management reduce the losses caused by an exhausted and demoralized workforce?

    Emerging research suggests that workplace toxicity is the major impediment to employee morale and performance. The top reason people leave comes down to their relationship with their boss; indeed, less than one-third of managers are perceived as strong leaders.

    So, rather than dive headlong into lean, six-sigma, a technology-based solution, or other means to improve performance, first examine the effectiveness of the people who are tasked with leading your employees:

    · How often do they communicate with their direct reports?

    · What is the quality of their interaction?

    · Can they convey your company's vision in an inspiring manner?

    · Are their conversations transforming – or merely transactional?

    · Do people leave meetings with their superiors feeling energized – or sapped?

    Taiichi Ohno once said that the heart of the Toyota Production System is “management's commitment to invest in its people to promote a culture of continuous improvement”. Lean and TPS are powerful – but fulfilling Ohno's vision first requires that management understands your company's vision, and then be able to inspire, coach, and lead their people.

    Our recommendation: Be sure that on-going management development and coaching are an integral part of your company's lean transformation. Have resources available for managers to learn and get help. Consider on-demand 1-to-1 management coaching that's provided on a confidential basis. Offer your supervisors assistance with facilitating their team meetings to demonstrate a positive approach for team learning. All of these elements are a bit on the soft-side, but they're often the missing pieces when we learn why a lean transformation has stalled or failed.

    Mark Edmondson
    LEAN Affiliates

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    Mark Edmondson
    Mark Edmondson is passionate about achieving rapid, breakthrough results during a company’s lean transformation. With 30 years of front-line experience while working with over 80 companies, Mr. Edmondson developed a philosophy of helping companies create a culture that sustains operational excellence through low cost yet transformative changes.


    1. I’m surprised the number is only 19%. We need to teach our managers to quit being paper-pushing administrators and to start being coaches and leaders. I think the Toyota Way gives us that model. It’s probably also the most neglected area in the lean world. It’s easy to say “we’re lean because we’re doing 5S” (ahem) but it’s hard to bring along your managers to a new way of operating.

    2. I’ve been a manager and a subordinate. (what does that old word say? Even if we call it something else, we still have to make the primate “submissive gesture”.)I’ve gone through the “get managers better at communication, teams, etc.” process. It too easily becomes a witch hunt where HR people don’t have any idea what the realities of business are. If you are a manager having to pass on a plate of sh** to people, and say “mmmm..” you are going to be the one they get mad at.

      The reason that “change management,” “communication,” “team building,” fail is that they are higher up the “ladder of abstraction,” as the lingust S.I. Hayakawa called it, than day-to-day reality. People are concerned about the ramifications of a particular change. They are irritated because the boss didn’t tell them about the layoff before it came on the TV news, they don’t kick in and give their thinking in the team meeting because they’ve been ignored too often. Management is a series of “moments of truth” — I think I’ve exhausted the quote-marks budget at this point. The day I went to my boss and said that the 4:00 Friday meeting was going to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, and he said he understood that people have different times that aren’t good for them, and to just go ahead and reschedule the meeting, was a moment of truth. When I was excluded from the so-called lean team, he said at a division meeting that you don’t have to be on the lean team to practice lean, it was a moment of truth. Trust and leadership are built of moments so if it’s there in the heart and the head, so no amount of training or coaching are goint to make it happen.

    3. While working for a Fortune 100 corporation I saw both sides of this issue. We had a Division President who, with his staff, implemented a Cultural Transition process for everyone in the division. This was more than ten thousand employees. It was interesting, challenging, and exciting. We moved forward rapidly. Fast forward a year, and a new top management team took over after the initial team found other places to work for more money. The new management team would rather lie than tell the truth it seemed, and they would give one direction in private and then berate you in meetings for acting on their private direction. One plant had, in the good times, doubled their output per square foot, reduced their inventory by 60%, reduced their leadtime by 50%, and improved their delivery to their customers to levels above 99.5%. Today, most sadly, they have lost all of the gains we had worked so hard to get, and they are trying to hire some of us back to lead the charge for a new initiative. Yuck!

    4. I’m not such a fan of the idea of “change management” anymore. I don’t think you “manage change”, you lead people. I think when people complain about their organization’s poor change management, they mean their leadership is poor. I agree with the above comment of what is the low level concept thing that you’re doing today? Are you explaining the motivation behind a potential change to someone? Are you asking for their input? Are you being a leader through action as opposed to talking about high-level language concepts like “change management?”


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