Guest Post: The Role of Middle Management in Toyota or a Lean System


Mark's note: Today is the first of a series of guest posts that will appear over the next two weeks from a variety of bloggers while I'm on vacation.

Tracey Richardson is a consultant and LEI faculty member who previously had 21 years of experience with Toyota, starting as a Group Leader in 1988.

In today's blog post, Tracey talks about the important role of a middle manager as a servant leader and a person who develops other people. Her contact info is at the end of the post. Her blog is She also shares a lot on LinkedIn. Thanks to Tracey for her contribution!

What is the Role of Middle Management within Companies implementing Lean?

This is a common question that has been raised during my training sessions that I thought warranted a brief discussion.    

Each company has different hierarchy levels they operate with to differentiate responsibilities and job scope. At Toyota, we had various levels ranging from the team member (floor level) to the plant president.

Within that range, there are various responsibilities, one of those being the “middle manager.” Many, in that role, have stated it is a very demanding position in that they are the “go between” with the team members and senior managers and the “mouthpiece” for the strategy deployment at the floor level.

It's the middle manager's duty to not only explain “the what” and “the how” of a job, but most importantly “The WHY”. The WHY ties into purpose, and the purpose is what I consider the “value-added-ness” (a “Tracey” word) of my role when contributing to the company goals (Hoshin or Strategy Deployment).

The middle manager must articulate those strategy deployment goals for the fiscal year down to the floor level ensuring that the daily activities are “value-added” working towards improving the Key Performance Indicators (KPI's) i.e. Quality, Safety, Productivity, and Cost for the Company.

This role requires a constant “finger on the pulse” to understand the current situation of his/her processes. This “pulse” can be visualized through scoreboards for each team or group, allowing the manager to determine the gaps been the Ideal and Current situation, which then prompts the need for Problem Solving, or I tend to call it a “thinking process”.

Standardized Work can be utilized to show this much easier than the typical “do what you can” each day to run your production requirements. I often teach the simple “Goals of Standardization” which are essential in assisting the middle management to – Define-Achieve- Maintain-Improve.

Defining is the first level of “what should be happening”. This is determined by the number of questions the middle manager asks at the GEMBA with his/her floor supervisors daily. For example:

  • What is currently happening?
  • Is there a current standard?
  • Are we tracking?
  • What is the variation?
  • What is the process?
  • Why is this happening?

These types of questions allow line supervisors and team members to begin to recognize wastes, by doing this they are contributing to those indicators we discussed before.

I've often been told by my Japanese trainers that, to be an effective leader, over 50% of the middle manager's role is to develop his/her people, all while aligning it to Hoshin goals of the Senior Management. This type of development will contribute to the ability of the company to continuously improve and remain competitive in the market.

The traditional mindset of most management (all levels) is that the team member “works for them” on a daily basis. The paradigm shift in thinking comes when the mindset becomes “I work for them”.

One of the questions they should be asking each day as a middle manager is “What can I do for you today that will make your job easier?”

This can be considered “Servant Leadership”, to me, is a must do while on the Lean Journey.

I often close my training sessions by saying to leadership and/or those middle managers:

“It's your responsibility as a leader to STUDY HARDER and develop the thinking at each level of the organization below you”.

The mentality of all your workers should be – Problem Solving, Everyday, Everybody!!!

Tracey Richardson –

President of Teaching Lean Inc


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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. Tracey,
    Love the role defined as Servant Leadership. Why do we often title folks at this level; managers, directors, or vice presidents?

    I agree this attitude is a must do…and more than anything represents a ‘culture shift’ toward any successful lean transformation.

    Those who only direct, bark orders, and push-push-push, do not lead. They fuel the fire for an environment of fear. Fear of change and fear of innovation.

    Sad how many organizational structures reward middle managers for doing the very things that stifle the progress of lean.

    Let’s start changing some mindsets by changing some titles. How about…

    Servant Leader of Operations
    Manufacturing Servant Leader

    Would we dare Chief Executive Servant?

  2. Excellent post Tracey, I am glad to have discovered your blog through this guest-post!

    I recently read “If you can’t teach, you can’t lead”. This is very consistent with your Japanese trainers.

    One challenge for middle managers is when there is not a very clear strategy. They are put in a very difficult position because they and their team are pulled (actually pushed) around in many directions.

  3. Great post, Tracey. Middle managers do seem to have it the toughest as the transition point between strategy and action. What I see is a lot of times upper management does not make it clear what the strategy is and why. Once the why is understood, it can make it easier for the middle managers to make decisions that fall in a gray area. This gray area is where time can be wasted or saved by understanding the why.

    I like Steve’s CES.

  4. I agree with you Steve….I like the new titles!!!!

    @Brian.. I agree it makes it difficult when there is no hoshin (strategy deployment) direction from upper management. I would say try to create an Ideal State and work towards it until those goals can be defined as a “true north” direction.
    @Matt – I often felt that gray zone at times even at Toyota….it is a difficult role…. Tracey

  5. I think that is a great role for the middle manger and a great description of what their role “should be”.

    So many times, I have watched people discuss getting “C” level and operator buy-in as the key to a Lean Transformation. Seldom do I see the middle manager discussed. He just seem to be the person in the “middle” that job is on the line if the schedules and quality is not met.

    The effectiveness and competency of middle management in every company I have ever managed or owned (most specifically manufacturing) has always determined the success of the organization. In hindsight (I can take no credit at all), I believe the good ones assumed the role that you described more than the less successful ones did.

    Nice post.


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