Some Questions About Managers


Earlier this week, I asked some questions that managers and leaders should ask, prompted by an email I received through the blog.

I've been thinking about this and I've been trying to keep my “no blaming” hat on. Managers are part of a system — therefore, we shouldn't blame individual managers, necessarily, for their “bad” behavior.

  • Is the manager being held accountable for things that are out of their control?
  • Is the manager being blamed by higher leaders?
  • Has the manager had adequate training and mentoring about how to manage?
  • What behavior is expected or rewarded by their managers?

Even if there is a “bad manager” involved, we should ask “why?” and probe to see if there is a root cause within the organization or the management system. What do you see in your organization? What other questions would you ask?

Back when I was at GM, we had a plant superintendent who was a legendary screamer. One day, he called me and another young IE into his office. He wasn't going to yell at us, but before talking, he called a unit manager on speaker phone. He yelled and cursed and screamed at the unit manager, putting on quite a show.

Since I was leaving soon for grad school (and didn't plan on coming back), I had the courage to ask the superintendent, “Why did you behave like that? What are we supposed to learn?”

He claimed, basically, to be part of a system. His boss yelled at him like that, so he was passing it on. He traced through the levels of screaming and cursing, basically tracing it all the way up to GM's board of directors…. therefore, he wasn't “choosing” to act that way, it was just the expectation and culture he had been a part of for over 30 years. I could sort of see his point, but it also seemed like a lame excuse… but his career might have stalled out earlier if he had tried to buck the system, right?

By the way, this was a guy who also didn't believe in Statistical Process Control…. that the line should keep running as long as the product wasn't “out of spec.” And this was a plant that claimed to be managed under “The Deming Philosophy.” Hardly.

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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. That might have been his excuse that it went all the way up to the board of directors, but I can tell you that in my 39+ years of experience at GM, I have experienced screaming and cursing fewer than a handful of times, and none within the past 20 years. If someone tried that these days, they would be judged as emotionally unfit and shown out the door. That, of course, is different than holding people accountable and communicating (calmly and clearly) that expectations are not being met.

    I have not had much experience with manufacturing lately, but all the leaders I know at GM, including Gary Cowgar, Bob Lutz, Jim Queen, Rick Wagoner and Fritz Henderson are top-notch gentlemen!

  2. Mark, What you are really talking about here is the culture or “success rules” of the organization. When I work with a client one of the first questions I ask is “What are the characteristics of the managers who succeed here”. By the way sometimes you can get a dramatic change in the top but the new success rules take years to peculate down to the lower levels of the organization.That is why large system transformations like Lean are so dam difficult to do. As for GM ask your suppliers how they are being treated today?
    Lou English Ph.D.


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