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How Do I Address Resistance From Middle Management?

Michael Ballé
3/27/2012
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Dear Gemba Coach,

Why does middle management resist lean transformations; how can they be brought on board?

That’s a good question and one I was discussing a few months ago with the CEO of a company that is in its fifth year of lean transformation. This company is an interesting Gemba to tackle the question you ask. Two years ago, the same CEO wowed an audience of lean practitioners when he presented his transformation efforts at a Lean Summit. In an industry struggling through its worst crisis in 20 years, his firm is doing well. It’s profitable, has been hiring new people steadily and the level of internal conflict has come down noticeably from the bad old days with the previous management style.

The gist of the lean effort has been the CEO’s commitment to his Gemba (he spends two full days a week walking various workplaces) and a strong focus on grassroots problem solving. The CEO focuses on teaching everyone a simple approach:

  1. Remark: is the process visual enough and can frontline managers see problems at a glance. Do they know how to formulate what they see in enough detail and can they share this focus on specifics with their teams.
  2. React: teach managers not to put problems aside in order to keep on working, but to react appropriately to issues they come across. The CEO works with his hierarchy to try and distinguish clearly good/bad reactions, particularly when dealing with subcontractors or other functions in the company (ie: start by sweeping your own porch before blaming someone else).
  3. Reflect: develop the ability to ask why beyond the obvious and seek the root cause of the problem, mostly by examining what we’ve done that might have created the situation in the first place.


Although results are there, very visibly, and no one discusses that, it still ain’t easy. The CEO gets a real kick out of discovering creative ideas put in place by his best people to solve old problems in new ways. I find his results impressive. That’s because the majority of Gemba visits are about repeating for the umpteenth time the basics of 5S, or noting that the team does not keep up the minimal rhythm of one problem detailed every day, or pointing out that “the supplier screwed up” is not a satisfactory expression of cause.

Challenging Is a Challenge
Although moments of truly innovative thinking on the Gemba are rare, these walks are well worth it. The one person who learns most from the Gemba is the CEO – by spending so much time on the shop floor he has a pretty good idea of what’s going on in his company, which helps him delegate a lot more decision making, in particular to his direct reports. The direct reports themselves have been considerably developed and gained both in autonomy and involvement, BUT, and here we go, although they have picked up the “go and see” of their chief exec, they still haven’t clicked to challenging, asking why, and showing respect. They spend a lot of time at the Gemba, but are still mostly solving problems for their direct reports instead of asking questions (although the CEO says this is changing a bit, albeit slowly.)

And, to your point, the middle managers clearly still resent the questioning practice. Resent is probably too strong a word. They see it as the CEO’s pet theory which they indulge with more or less good grace. Some find it downright infantilizing, others see some worth to having technical discussions with their senior management, but all attribute the success of the company to their hard work (correctly so) and are convinced that if they were let alone to just get on with things, the company would do even better. This second opinion is proved wrong whenever, for whatever accidental reason, the CEO stops regularly visiting an area of the company. In less than three months, the old demons of burning fires and blame games start reappearing, as well as the negative impact on the numbers. In this company, the economic value of lean practice can be seen quite clearly.

To sum up, here’s a company where the CEO is living lean as you’re supposed to, and where lean has the expected results, both in terms of financial results, business performance in terms of hiring in a depressed industry, and people involvement. And yet, as you point out, the middle managers, who are the actual basis of all this progress, still resist. It’s all the stranger since this is not a company where it’s felt that middle-management is bureaucratic and low-value added. Not at all. Company-wide results are clearly attributed to middle-management efforts.

Roots of Resistance
This question, I believe, touches the core of 1) what makes lean like the scientific method, 2) why it’s so successful, 3) and why, regardless of its success, so few senior managers really adopt the practice and stick to it.

I could be wrong, but I’ve come to believe that middle-managers resist the lean techniques because they’re being constantly second-guessed by their hierarchy in front of their subordinates.  The Gemba visits break down the hierarchical frontiers as the entire line from CEO to operators discuss problems formulated and solved by middle-managers. This challenges:

  • Their intuition, as the first answer is mostly wrong and practicing asking why and then why again is extremely hard. Mostly it stops with the conclusion that the middle-manager is thinking globally and hasn’t actually spent enough time looking at Manpower, Machine, Material, and Method on the specific case: something operators know well enough, but that often throws middle-management who are convinced their role is to solve process problems.
  • Their position, as in real-life middle managers spend their time telling others what to do without being particularly good ad explaining the why or how of their orders. With the Gemba visits, they have to detail their thinking and are often found wanting (actually, always, since the practice of challenging is about thinking further).


Not surprisingly, for any executive, it’s easier to stay within the boundaries of setting objectives and letting people get on with them in whatever way they wish, or, on the opposite side, giving orders and expecting them to be followed without discussion. In a company practicing lean, the hierarchical levels are very clear, but they are built on respect: every issue is open to fact-based discussion at any time. As a result, far fewer “decisions” are being made, and policies evolve from repeated experiments and explorations – it’s a very different kind of environment (which is also why they perform better). This is very challenging to a middle-manager because of the expectations both of technical competence and openness to discussion with their teams and colleagues.

All Aboard?
Can anything be done about it? I doubt it. I suspect that resistance to deep thinking is simply part of human nature. I also suspect that what makes lean firms great are those unique moments of pure sunshine when a team goes beyond it’s default nature and comes up with something new, something no one had thought of before. If we accept that middle-management resistance is par for the course, what can be done to mitigate this? It’s in no way perfect, but, beyond saying “well done” during the Gemba visits, a couple of social events can be organized:

  1. Problem-based training: At first training is a blunt instrument because we’re never quite sure at which level of detail or specificity it should occur. As the senior management get more experienced with the Gemba walks, they also start to see some situations crop up time and time again. Middle managers can thus be trained at how to handle specific work situations, in order to be less discomfited when they’re being challenged and have not done the obvious – this is particularly important for middle managers joining the firm from other companies.
  2. Get-togethers: regular, short (less than half a day) events where middle-managers are brought together to discuss a theme. In the previous case, the CEO will chat to groups of middle-managers highlighting specific problems he’s come across during his walks (mainly safety issues) and asking all to be particularly careful. The idea is to make middle-managers realize they’re not on their own, but part of a network of people striving for the same results.
  3. “Show-and-tell” presentations: asking middle managers to present regularly to their peers their problems solving efforts (A3s come in really handy) both to valorize the person’s work and to share information across sections. In technical firms, such a “university” set up (say, a 20- minute presentation once a week or a fortnight) can be the only moment where specialized people hear in depth about technical issues encountered on some other aspects of the product. This, it turns out, is an essential basis to teamwork.


I’m sure there are many more countermeasures, and these are just three I’ve come across that are relatively low investment and high payoff. In any case, the issue remains, and, I suspect, always will. We need to accept that middle-management will resist being put on the spot and will be brought on board personally, one person at a time. There are some encouraging signs at the firm I was previously discussing. Young hires that are now starting to get to lower level management echelons are fare more positive about the Gemba-style questioning than their elders. There was a touching scene recently where a newly minted manager told the CEO how his own father had berated him for not realizing how lucky he was to work in a firm where the chief executive was so involved with product issues and so easily approachable. The kid just shrugged it off, but did acknowledge that this firm was different from anything his friends in other companies described. It even sounded like it was a good thing.

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