Caught between a rock and a hard place

FEATURE – What is the role of middle managers in a transformation and how can we ensure they can fulfil that role – instead of being blamed for the failure of the initiative and even excluded from it?

Words: Eivind Reke and Nadja Böhlmann

For years, middle managers have been one of the most common scapegoats for failed improvement programs, implementations in which they often end up being bypassed (for more on this please check out this excellent research article by Holmemo & Ingvaldsen). In this article, we suggest that instead of excluding or altogether removing middle managers from transformations, we should relieve them of exhausting coordinating work and administrative tasks and give them the space and means to think and act.

But how did we even get here? To understand the struggle of the middle manager, we can go back to one of Masaaki Imai’s most important points. He once said: “There are three most important requirements if you want to be successful and embrace kaizen and lean. The first of course is the Top Management commitment, second is the Top Management Commitment, third is Top Management commitment.” With quite a bit of water having now flowed under the kaizen and lean bridge, it seems that the majority of lean companies have taken this point to heart. There can be no lean without a lean CEO, we are told. But where does this leave middle managers? How can a lean organization motivate middle managers and organize their work?

First of all, we need to clearly define the role of the so-called middle managers. These are our team leaders, line leaders, department managers, etc. In fact, there can be many levels of middle management in an organization (anywhere between three and ten), depending on its size and structure. Each middle manager is responsible for the daily delivery of their factory, department, line, group, or team, and for the translation and implementation of the latest strategic program cooked up by the Executive Suite, regardless of how much (or little) sense it makes.

In short, it’s tough to be a middle manager! Hired for their coordination and “political” skills and not necessarily for their ability to develop people and their technical capabilities, chances are they will often be held in little regard by the same employees they lead. In the worst case, they even lack a basic understanding of the work they are tasked with managing. Their daily activities usually include answering emails, attending endless meetings, putting out fires, coordinating deliveries (“do this”, “stop that and do this instead”, etc) and overseeing – when they are not side lined, that is – the implementation of new processes, tools or systems. The modern-day middle manager is truly caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. So, what is the lean alternative to this?


Middle managers are often promoted internally from non-managerial positions or recruited from the outside to occupy a seat on the next level of the corporate ladder. Congratulations on your promotion! Now get on with it. This seems to be the approach in a lot of organizations: the pressure of delivery means little to no real training and it’s sink or swim. To succeed with kaizen and lean at each level of the organization, all employees must be given the opportunity to grow and learn what is necessary to succeed in their job. That’s why it’s important to develop a learning culture and invest in kaizen or lean academies. Just like the rest of employees, middle managers need to be given the opportunity to learn and to understand how important their role is. They need to be able to step back from ever-day problems and gain an overview of their responsibilities so they can learn to prioritize.

Once middle managers are given the right tools and knowledge, they should engage in the following sequence of activities:


Freeing middle managers from the mundane task of telling others what to do can only really be achieved when people can easily tell what their next task is. Depending on the type of work and organization, you can rely on a FIFO supermarket, a one-piece-flow production line, or a digital or analogue visual management board. Regardless, kanban removes the burden of having to coordinate the work and is a prerequisite for the “sell one, make one” or “use one, procure one” idea that lies at the heart of Just-in-Time. Kanban also shows us where the weak points in our systems and processes are. To easily track the problems and issues arising from these weak points, the next step is visual management and regular collaboration.


Visual management is key to separating normal work from abnormal work and spot non-compliances. It is also a great tool for showing progress, what the next steps are, and how the process is performing in real time. Gathering data at least once a day to discuss key element – how the team is doing, what the plan is or where improvement is needed – will help the team and our middle managers to better understand the delivery process, its weak points and where change is necessary. Visual management with kanban is unforgiving, but when things do wrong it also helps to remove blame from people. Instead of asking, “Why didn’t you finish the job?” we can ask “Why was this kanban card not delivered?”. By focusing on problems rather than people and by aligning the team on quality, instructions, problems and improvements, visual management helps middle managers to facilitate the growth of team members. This way, people will develop their technical capabilities and become more autonomous and confident, which in turn will make them more inclined to try new things and look for kaizen opportunities. Relieved of their coordination duties, our middle managers can now start worrying about quality.


Quality issues are great learning opportunities, because they reveal weak points in our processes. Weak point management means finding and facing these quality issues every day. The only way to do so is to go and see, talk with workers, and think more deeply about why the issues we see are occurring.

Most often quality issues can be broadly divided into three categories: local quality accidents, process quality problems, and design quality problems. Local accidents are often related to difficult working conditions or lack of training and can usually be solved with in-line support. Process issues are related to some aspects of the support systems that make it difficult to do the work seamlessly and effortlessly. Finally, design issues are misconceptions in the design thinking that led to the creation of the service or product, resulting in systemic flaws. These different types of quality issues are not always easy to see: in fact, the closer they are to the design stage, the more difficult they are to pick up on. That’s why we need a system that flags them up.


As part of efforts with visual management and weak point management, we must give our middle managers the ability to track the performance of their team and look at performance loss. How are we doing? How should we be doing?

Again, we can see these as three levels of performance loss: promise loss, performance loss, and process loss. Promise loss consists of design issues that disappoint the customer. They are often related with the limitations of internal systems and processes that determine what we think we can deliver. Performance loss happens when we don’t deliver what we have promised. It’s typically defects that need to be scrapped or reworked. Finally, process loss is what occurs when the process doesn’t perform as intended. Even when the problem is corrected before it reaches the customer, it burdens our delivery system with extra work. Process losses are a great place to start when we are trying to discover our misconceptions on process/product design.


Middle managers must have the ability to act to sustain quality and the space to reflect on their decisions. There are three fundamental questions that should always be asked: 1) Which feature is affected by what loss? 2) Which system do we need to change to reduce this loss? 3) What will the impact be of the change on features and systems? With the ability to act comes a stronger sense of responsibility. Asking these three questions over and over again is key to developing leadership that has quality at heart. Finally, we need to give middle managers the opportunity to grow by reflecting on their own actions and help them see how the decisions they make – even small ones – affect the overall ability of the organization to perform. It’s important they appreciate the impact they have on people, product and process.


A freer and more effective middle management will need to shift their attention and responsibility from the coordination of the work to worrying about quality, from the implementation of programs to the improvement of systems and processes, and from assessing performance to building trust, psychological safety and relationships.


Eivind Reke photograph

Eivind Reke is a lean author and Chairman of Los Norge.

Nadja Böhlmann photo

Nadja Böhlmann is Group Kaizen Promotion Officer and Program Manager at Teknos Group Oy. She has been a Guest Speaker at several conferences.