When Do You Resort to Firing?


Blog reader Grant, in Australia, sent me an email newsletter from a lean training and consulting organization that will remain unnamed (as I don't want to drive any traffic to their website, if you must know who it was, post a comment and maybe I'll post the name). The newsletter (which I couldn't find online anyway) was about tips for “Getting Buy-In” related to lean and change. Good topic, right?

There were some okay tips on the list, including:

4. Select initial improvement projects using the criteria of “hassle-reduction” or “time-saving” and demonstrate by example this works.

10. Influence the performance management system so that continuous improvement become one of their key result areas for the year.

But then you get to the list and you find this:

12. Fire the most change resistant manager tomorrow and say why – send a message that you are serious!

Is this Jack Welch influenced/inspired Lean Do these guys recommend that you fire the bottom 10% of your managers so they “Get the message”? (Update: Check out the comments for this post… what really is Jack Welch's position on firing the bottom 10%?) What message, exactly, does this send? Well, it depends.

I think this is HORRIBLE advice if you're just starting your Lean initiative. You have to give people a chance to learn, to change, and prove they can do things the Lean way. You have to try to teach them and show them what the new expectations are. You shouldn't go firing people right away unless you're looking to instill a culture of fear, which is the opposite of what you want with lean.

That said…. if you do have a true “concrete head” or an “anchor” who refuses to change after some time and significant effort on your part as a leader, you might have to no choice but to get rid of a manager. Chances are, if that manager is such a concrete head, then they are possibly dragging down the rest of your team. Sometimes, firing (or moving) a real Lean resistor is good for morale, if all the other managers were on board.

Either way, there are no easy answers. It depends on the situation and requires a lot of leadership judgment. I think it's irresponsible and tacky to have such flippant sounding advice about firing someone in a “lean” newsletter.

What do you think? Have you had to fire to some concrete heads? What steps did you take first?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. The most difficult part of our lean journey is the mid-managers. The most common phrase I hear; “I dont have time”.
    Although I have secretly wished to fire the “concrete heads”, I’m finding a better alternative is to prove to them lean works. Every success is a chip out of the concrete.

  2. I guess it depends on what is referred to as “managers” here. Are we talking about President/VP/GM level managers or plant managers or department managers within a facility or some other level of management? People generally try to do what is asked of them. If your managers, at whatever level we want to talk about, are not behaving “lean”, then the expectations aren’t clear or well communicated, generally speaking.

    This particular consulting agency seems to be setting themselves up like the “Efficiency Experts” in Office Space. It kind of appears to me to be a frequently mis-cited spin on part of the book Good to Great where Jim Collins uses the analogy of getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. The extrapolation is that if you show quickly that you are willing to kick someone off the bus that people will straighten up and find their seat, so to speak. Of course, the point the authors of the book are trying to make is that great people will produce great results and there is no substitute for having great people in your organization. But, that doesn’t really mesh well with slash and burn and people as variable cost thinking. A sort of cognitive dissonance, I guess.

  3. When starting a Lean journey, one of the rules of the thumb is:
    10% are “Rowers” and they need more support
    80% are “Watchers” and over time they will become rowers
    10% are “Grumblers” and they never change, so ignore them

    (See “Getting the Right Things Done” by P. Dennis p. 124)

    In this case point 12 of the article is referring to the “Grumblers”, those resistant to the change, who could actually jeopardize the lean journey. I do not think this is equivalent to Jack Welch’s fire the 10% bottom performers.

    Management by fear is not a good way to gain support to the Lean journey. Proving that Lean works is a much better way.


  4. Welch doesn’t say to fire the bottom 10%, he says to give them a brutally honest performance review — that’s what’s most lacking in most organizations. Then you give them a year to either improve or find a position that’s more suited for them. Only if those things don’t happen do they get fired.

  5. You’re right about Welch, here is a Q&A excerpt from USA Today. Deming would probably agree in the sense that a manager/leader should give continuous feedback, honest feedback, so you can improve (assuming most people want to improve and want to do a good job) rather than waiting for the annual review to just fire them. I stand corrected.

    Q: That sounds innocent enough. But isn’t it really about firing the bottom 10%?

    A: You’ve got a bad take on it. It’s letting the bottom 10% know where they are and then giving them a chance to move on. About 70% (of the bottom 10%) leave on their own. Who wants to be on the bottom once they know it? You don’t fire them. That’s being mean. This is not a mean-spirited thing. It’s you sitting across the table from me and telling me, “Jack, you’re not measuring up. You’re going to have to improve.” If I don’t, you tell me that it’s best for me and my family to find someplace else to work.

  6. Well either CBS was wrong or Welch has changed his story. CBS News, a 60 Minutes II interview that was online, said this:

    “No, we all had a tough go,” says Welch. “Look, the worst thing a person does is fire somebody. Or lay somebody off. It’s the most unpleasant moment of a leader’s life. That’s why people don’t do it.”

    But in his new book, “Winning,” Welch says bosses have to do it on a regular basis: get rid of the least productive, bottom 10 percent of their work force.

    Does anyone have a copy of “Winning”? Which is true? The Jack who said DO fire the bottom 10% or the Jack who said he was misunderstood?

    I can see where there’s room for confusion on the 10% rule.

    GE experts??? What say you?

  7. No matter what Welch is saying today, he most definitely did order managers to fire the bottom 10%. I was working as a consultant to G.E. in the late 70s and early 80s, when Welch took over, and that was exactly the directive that went out. He’s rewriting history now.


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