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Why We Believe Micromanagement is Worth A Deeper Conversation

by Lean Sensei Women
November 24, 2020

Why We Believe Micromanagement is Worth A Deeper Conversation

by Lean Sensei Women
November 24, 2020 | Comments (11)

How well have the managers you've observed over the years influenced performance, motivation and general well-being? What did they do well? What could they have done differently? Leading Lean relies on self-reflection and continuous improvement. We explore how poorly-focused micromanagement destroys trust and how well-placed micromanagement supports leading Lean and delivering exceptional results. We encourage you to look inward to your style of management and use this as a baseline for change.

Lucy Liu: Think Big and Act Small

There is a common perception that macromanagement is empowering, while micromanagement demoralizes people. I think this view is formulated due to the intent of and the way that micromanagement is employed. 

After more than 28 years with Toyota Australia, I have learned that both macromanagement and micromanagement are required to achieve the speed of change and process stability. Many of my incredible Toyota Japanese Senseis were strategic in both Hoshin (direction management) and in the micro details of Daily Management (5S, Standardised Work, KPIs). Leaders need to “think big and act small”. 

In my view, Hoshin is macromanagement. It focuses on breakthrough/innovative initiatives aligned to mid to long term business goals through the implementation of the PDCA cycle. Daily Management can be interpreted as micromanagement through the SDCA cycle. Its aim is to ensure that standards are created, visualized, implemented, checked and sustained or adjusted for improvement. The thorough implementation of Standardized Work requires detailed process control on standards. Everyone is given the authority to pull the Andon and stop the line if abnormality is detected. Also, everyone is encouraged to do Kaizen to level up the standard. There is a common approach in Hoshin and Daily Management: everyone in the organisation is empowered to challenge the status quo and encouraged to implement creative ideas. 

Macromanagement and micromanagement complement each other and are equally important. The ancient Chinese Yin Yang philosophy could be the best way to put the macro and micro into a combined and balanced perspective. Micromanagement is not about controlling people’s thinking and creativity; it is a methodology of sustaining standard and inspiring the Kaizen spirit. 

Rose Heathcote: Shift from Controlling People to Controlling Processes

I enjoyed catching up with a friend working in the automotive sector recently. She is a self-motivated woman relishing the technical challenges of new product launches. She takes joy in her work. Something has changed, though. It's the first time I've heard her frustrated and discontented. The reason for the shift is clear—the new manager. 

Her previous manager had granted her the space and latitude to think. He'd ask probing questions, set a challenge and remove barriers. He genuinely wanted her to succeed. She'd grab the challenge with both hands and furiously work at it. As the only woman on the team, she felt fulfilled and valued. She loved going to work. She felt empowered, and he had her back. She achieved high customer ratings. They were happy. She was happy. He was a macro-manager.

With the new manager, she finds herself craving strategic direction, support and the independence she once enjoyed. She reveals how the frequency of meetings lacking purpose is on the rise, cultivating waste. KPIs measure elements outside the team's control, failing to expose the real issues, intensifying her aggravation. Her exasperation piques as she fends off unwelcome and stifling micro-management. Although the new manager has excellent technical experience, this cannot substitute for the softer needs of the team. She is mature, and her needs are simple: 

"Be my compass. Give support."

Micromanaging people is risky—when a performing team no longer feels trusted, they risk regressing to a storming phase. But, when leaders frame challenges and lead the campaign against problems effectively and teams are enabled and equipped to act, performance soars. Hard on problems, supportive to people. Lean managers shift micromanagement practices away from controlling people to controlling processes.

Karyn Ross: If We Don't Micromanage the Process, We Aren't Being Respectful to People

Micromanagement has become a dreaded word. I’m not sure why, though, because a lot of lean is about micromanaging. Micromanaging the process, that is! When leadership sets clear targets about what should be happening for customers, the organization and the people who do the work and then regularly goes to see gaps to target, that is ‘micromanaging’ the process. When we create visual management so that everyone can see, in real time, whether they are on time, ahead, or behind on work their customers need, that is micromanaging the process. When we create standard work and teach team members how to follow it so that they can be successful in creating defect free products and services, that is micromanaging the process. 

In the work I’ve done with organizations and people all over the world, I’ve rarely seen examples of ‘micromanagement’. What I commonly see are team members who have no idea what their team or individual targets are, have no work standards to follow, no visual way to see where their work is in accordance with customer needs, and who might only see or hear from their manager once every week or two. That’s not micromanagement. In fact, it’s not even management! 

In this COVID-19 crisis, let’s rethink our thoughts about micromanagement and its relationship to lean. Because I believe that if we don’t micromanage the process, then we aren’t being respectful to people. 

Katie Andersen: Provide the Leadership Support Your Team Needs to Achieve their Goals  

Over the past several months, I’ve talked with many people across different industries who are finding themselves frustrated and disempowered. With the switch to virtual working environments since the pandemic hit, their managers have reverted to micromanagement (or have amplified these tendencies): asking for updates on minutiae, wanting to be a part of every meeting, and to be copied on all emails. Or, on the other extreme, their managers have been so focused on external factors that they have become hands-off, forgetting to check on their people, providing guidance, and ensuring that their team members have what they need to navigate these unprecedented times.

Your team may be virtual in nature today, but don’t let that turn you into a micromanager of their work or turn so laissez-faire that you lose sight that a key part of your role is to both provide direction and support your team members.

As I described in the article “Are you a Micromanager or Macromanager?”,we need leaders who focus on providing clarity on the big “macro” big picture challenges for their group, and then supporting their people to achieve these goals. These “macromanagers” keep a view on the “micro” through a process perspective rather than being directive on what to do. Be a leader who sets the direction, who provides clarity on goals and targets, and then who offers support, nurture,and systems that allow your people to learn, achieve, and continuously improve. 

Your team’s role is to utilize their skills to solve problems, achieve goals, and help the organization fulfill its purpose (while fulfilling their own). Your role as a leader is to provide the support they need to build the confidence and capabilities to achieve the goals, and of course, to continually develop yourself at the same time.

Catherine Chabiron: Frame the Challenge and Micro-manage the Conditions in Which Initiatives and Kaizen Will Flourish

In tough times, with poor medium-term perspectives, leaders should reflect on their management approach: continue to define the strategy in their office and micro-manage the execution through reporting? Or frame the challenge and micro-manage the conditions in which initiatives and kaizen will flourish?

The former approach is well honed, and might work reasonably well in a growing world, when the company is surfing on the wave. Skills at developing projects, managing investments, opening new sites or signing-up partnerships will be most valued. The leader’s job in this situation is to spot opportunities and build a network of doers who will diligently execute everything that is needed to close the target.

But the kaizen approach will be more suited to the uncertainty of our pandemic times, with customers reducing their purchases or employees’ trust sinking to low levels. A few hours on the gemba will help confirm the medium-term challenge, most probably the continuity of customer satisfaction, the need to offer the same level of quality and delivery (or better), while swiftly adjusting to new customer needs or changed retailing channels. The leader’s first job will be to communicate this challenge everywhere on the gemba. This is the framing step.

The leader will also need to create the conditions within which local initiatives to address this challenge will emerge and grow: observe and question in detail, on the gemba, help out when needed, support trials and errors, challenge further when the solution may not be viable, and praise every single improvement. And never, never offer solutions but question and challenge and support until local solutions emerge. This is no longer the time of loosely managing doers with monthly reporting. What is needed is a micro-management of the learning by doing on the gemba, within the framed challenge.

Cécile Roche: Micromanagement--More Precision or Less Confidence?

Ambiguity is the source of non-quality. If the major challenges are not understood, if the real expectations of customers are not known, if the work environment allows for errors, then quality will be degraded, customers dissatisfied, and employees demotivated. The challenge for a good manager is to know how to remove ambiguities: to clarify the issues at stake, to give the means to improve the way of working, to set up systems (Kanban) that clarify customer expectations. The most important thing is to give people space for reflection, so that they can learn to solve the countless problems that make the difference between theory and reality (and we see this very clearly at the moment!).

Defining a standard means going into the precision of the gesture, (of manufacturing, creation, coding etc…). A standard makes explicit an implicit knowledge, (the team agrees on the best way known at the moment to proceed), so that the precision of the gesture leads to the best quality, and so that they are able to improve the standard.

Lack of confidence is when you replace standards and improvement with rules and control. A rule is a way of doing things imposed by others, which must be applied without thinking, such as respecting traffic lights, for example. A rule must be applied without thinking, whereas a standard must always lead to reflection in order to improve it and deal with the unexpected.

If micromanaging is helping the team to improve their precision to ensure that they deliver exactly what the clients expect when they expect it, despite all the hazards that inevitably occur, well, Okay!  If it is to impose solutions, forbid reflection and reduce people to an executive role, I think it is very dangerous.

Sandrine Olivencia: Is There A Middle Ground Between Being an Overbearing Manager and Ensuring that Projects Stay on Track?

I'm not fond of micro-managers, and yet I've been one. I don't appreciate being told what to do and how, unless I'm the one asking for help. But then, if I need help getting something done, I know how I'd like it done, and get frustrated when people go in their own direction. I believe this is the manager's dilemma.

But is there a middle ground between being an overbearing manager and ensuring projects stay on track? Too hands-off, the team goes all over the place and loses motivation. Too hands-on, people feel you don't trust them and stop thinking. 

Lean thinking offers a middle ground. A lean manager does not tell you what to do but what to learn. It's very different from what I've studied in management school, or we find in management books. In traditional management, a good boss knows their stuff, has solutions, and expects people to implement action plans. A lean manager tells you what they expect, lets you get on with it, and looks at results with you, so you learn together. Everyone can learn the "try and see" approach, even if some take to it more naturally than others. 

The trick is: how to get people to want to learn with you? Lean is useful because it provides a scaffold for learning. Take Kanban for instance: visualizing and controlling lead time forces people to stop and look at problems as they appear, and find ways to improve quality. Or writing one problem a day on visual boards teaches teams to review causes, reflect on work methods, and not just come up with patch-ups. But let's be real: it's no smooth ride. It takes many cycles of "trying and seeing", and not everyone will want to join the learning movement. And sometimes, a manager will step in when people struggle, or they have information others don't. That's a good thing. 

Becoming a lean manager is a learning journey for everyone and well worth the effort. People, manager included, get smarter about handling new problems, and build confidence in each other.


Coming from different continents, horizons and professions, the individuals who form Lean Sensei Women are all recognized lean Senseis, who help companies and organizations build sustainable growth through lean management. They believe in the development of people, respectful of both teams and environment, with a view to produce more value for customers and to society.

Catherine Chabiron: Board Member, Institut Lean France. Author of Notes from the Gemba in Planet Lean and executive lean coach.

Rose HeathcoteA learner, writer and teacher, Rose is personally dedicated to developing the capacity in people to solve problems that matter. Head of Lean, University of Buckingham.

Lucy Liu: Lean leadership and organizational transformation coach with 28 years of working experience with Toyota Australia, starting at the shopfloor and including leading TPS office and manufacturing capability development. Author of Building An Organizational Learn Architecture for Strategic Renewal.

Sandrine Olivencia: Lean sensei and member of Institut Lean France. Specialist in Obeya and product development expert for the digital world.

Cécile Roche: Lean sensei, member of the Institut Lean France, Lean Director of the Thales Group, and author of several books, in particular on Lean in Engineering.

Anne Lise Seltzer: Member of Institut Lean France. Lean Coach in Services and Support functions. Trainer for Lean & Learn at SOL France (learning organization).

Katie Anderson: Leadership coach, speaker, and author of Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn, Katie is passionate about helping others learn to live and lead with intention to achieve their purpose, be their best selves, and develop others to support learning in their organizations.. 

Karyn Ross: An author of five books including The Toyota Way to Service Excellence: Lean Transformation in Service Organizations, Karyn is an artist and coach on a mission to "Help People Improve the World".

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11 Comments | Post a Comment
Sundeep koul November 24, 2020

Micromanaging is one of the management mishap which has grown roots in for miss trust, doubts, blurred vision, unclarity and miss transparency. It stems out into frustration, scuffles, delays, stress, low esteem and organizational infectious loss.

This also has reasons of our ways of developing leaders. Developing leaders and developing circus masters has thin line of difference ..the tool and power in hand. Leaders are developed not out of power but out of how many have been empowered.

Those so called circus masters who call themselves as leaders are micromanagers by design. This micromanagement is reason for their 





characteristics allowing them to find and fund ways of Being more arrogant. They grow up my mow someone down..


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Rose Heathcote November 24, 2020

Many thanks for your comment, Sundeep. You certainly feel strongly about the topic. Thankfully, there is good and bad micromanagement. You've highlighted the extreme. I believe we can self-reflect on our leadership style and learn, should we choose to. Where we can move away from making people feel inadequate and stifled to feeling empowered and productive. It means micro-managing the right things. And respect for people.  

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Abby Person December 02, 2020
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Hi Rose,

I enjoyed this blog post quite a bit.  I believe that micromanaging your employees is a huge waste of the manager’s time as well as the worker.  If a manager finds themselves micromanaging employees throughout a particular process, then perhaps the issue is the process itself rather than the person performing it.  I think that managers who focus on improving the process and also helping employees cultivate their own skillset through this are much more efficient.

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Rose Heathcote December 03, 2020

Abby, thank you for your kind feedback and thoughtful comments. I heartily agree - this will have a profound effect on how the manager spends his or her time and how much of that is made up of waste. They may even overburden themselves in the process. I believe they have a choice: 1) micromanage the person with available capacity 2) use their time for value-adding, support-oriented, barrier-removal, learning activities. Thank you for your insights - it's appreciated. 

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Chris Freitas November 25, 2020

With the idea behind lean I believe micromanaging is the opposite of what is needed to succeed. Everyone is assigned to do a job and to do a job well and if someone needs to micromanage another persons job this defeats the idea of a lean process. Micromanaging not only wastes your time but the time of the coworker your micromanaging. If a job isnt getting done correctly and micromanaging is needed then maybe its the process in which the job was set up which is the issue. If a job is set up correctly it should run with the idea of lean behind it and micromanaging will not be needed.

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Rose Heathcote November 25, 2020

Chris thanks for your thoughts. Micromanaging people can become a waste in itself. It would be good to see more energy spent fixing broken processes and then controlling the improved version of that. 

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Simon Gary November 27, 2020
3 People AGREE with this comment

If we swap out the word "managing" for "coaching" does the feel of the topic change slightly?

If the team member is the customer and the definition of value-add becomes mutual growth (of the team and leader), I can see that there will be times where both macro and micro-coaching would be appropriate - depending on how deep into the learning zone that the customer.

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Catherine Chabiron November 27, 2020
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Clearly the dimension of coaching is key in management. And I fully agree on the mutual growth.

This is why I would qualify team members and any other internal function as partners, rather than customers. The real customer is outside, and we seek her long term satisfaction as work partners.

Since the what, where and when (to do) are taken care of by kanbans, micro-management in lean mostly deals with the how (do we do it), how (could we do it better) and of course the why (do we do it).

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Cécile Roche November 27, 2020
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Thank you Simon for the comment.

 If we agree that the quality of the work done (the value created) is linked to the precision of the work gesture, then it is normal that manager-coachs are interested in this level of precision in the gesture of their team members.

When I talk about the gesture that makes quality, I'm talking about a physical transformation (manufacturing) as well as an information transformation (software) or service...

Understanding where these very precise gestures that make or break quality are, requires a very deep interest, in detail. Is it micro control type management ? Certainly not, if the manager's intention is to develop everyone's knowledge and expertise.

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Rob November 27, 2020
2 People AGREE with this comment

Wow, one of the best post on a subject that underpins virtually all continuous improvement. It’s clear that being a manager is a huge responsibility. Language can also add a layer of confusion as we can assign slight difference in meaning when using words like “Micro Management” that bring up negative emotions. Another reason why I really enjoyed the challenging nature of the post.

My Take:

Macro: Connect organizations strategic plan both Top Down and Bottom up to team. Use catch ball to ensure expectations on team are stretch goals but achievable. Most importantly ensure team can SEE or visualize a better future by undertaking the new challenges. A team that would take on the responsibility voluntarily because they feel passionate about the future is unstoppable.

Micro: Structure of scheduled checks to see if the conditions are normal or abnormal. Empowered support staff do the checks and improvement independently as much as possible. If visual tools are used at the Gemba it becomes a great daily review point between the manager and support staff. Recognition of achievements, reflection and coaching based on observations is a great way to build team and show that we are all in it together. Standards can be used as the baseline for improvement and the checks + line stoppages the source of improvement idea’s. Add the connection point between the Macro level strategic goals of the organization to Micro level daily experimentation and coaching and your team is rocking.

3rd Element:  Identification that each team member has individual needs. This one can be controversial but I believe all relationships are personnel. The manager’s goal is to develop each individual to take on more responsibility over the improvement of the processes. Teaching scientific thinking with daily practices (Toyota Kata) is amazing at achieving this goal as they develop greater confidence to take on the unknown. The personnel bit is that each team member has their own personality, strengths and weakness & life experience and dreams. A great manager understands these points and will work on an individual level with team members to provide the best environment for improvement possible.

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Sandrine Olivencia December 02, 2020
2 People AGREE with this reply

Hi Rob, thank you very much for your insightful comment. Going back and forth between macro to micro-management in the way we and you describe is quite similar to "helicoptere" thinking : being able to see the forest as a whole and also see each individual tree, and then know how they connect, where are the critical touch points in the company.

This is quite a useful skill to have when the company grows, and we start making decisions that are too far removed from reality.

Lean provides us with the tools to develop this way of seing and managing a business, and you mention several : sharing an engaging and clear vision and strategy (hoshin), getting managers to contribute to it (catchball), "gemba walks" in operations to keep in touch with reality and involving everyone in improving quality, etc... 

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