Thursday, July 19, 2007

Middle Managers are Biggest Obstacle to Lean Enterprise

According to the 2007 State of Lean Survey conducted by the Lean Enterprise Institute, the number one ranked obstacle to implementing lean is middle management resistance to change, jumping up from number three in last years survey.

Last years number one reported obstacle was backsliding which dropped all the way down to sixth place in this year’s survey.

It seems to be an interesting shift in just one year that it appears most respondents now can sustain gains better but must deal with the “concrete heads” of middle management to progress on their lean journey.

As a lean practitioner in the field working closely with several major clients, I have my own opinion on barriers to the lean journey. What about your obstacles to progress on your lean journey? Do you agree with these finding?

This survey was completed by 2,444 managers and executives within the base of LEI’s monthly e-letter subscribers. I wonder what the mix of senior level executives to lower level lean practitioners is within the 2,444 respondents. I see middle management resistance, employee resistance and supervisor resistance all making three of the top four obstacles to lean. Do you find that odd? Notice anyone missing from the list? Make me say, ummmmmmm!

From a senior executive point of view, I would say we could be a great lean company if it wasn’t for all our middle managers, supervisors and employees resisting change. Looks like the bus needs to makes a bus stop to let some (a lot of) people off. To make it more complete, how about adding supplier resistance and unreasonable customer demands to the list?

As a lean thinker, I find this difficult to believe. First, I would ask five whys to get deeper at the root cause of the obstacles to lean. It is not the five-who process to find the root blame. Until we stop trying to pin blame on someone else, we will not make progress on our lean journey. It is better that we should reflect on our own thinking and actions to see what obstacles we create and fix them first.

Despite my issues with the survey findings, LEI does an outstanding job promoting and teaching lean thinking along with helping organization on their lean journey. For more information, visit LEI at


Curious Cat said...

Good post. If I was going to use this data at all I would want to know why so many of the problems stated are blaming people. Why are those people not "doing the right thing?" Shouldn't management middle, top and other be asking those questions and fixing the system (or maybe fixing the people would be the right answer in their opinion).

If those people are not resisting for good reasons which is implied by stating they are to blame (there are not reasons listed like - middle managers have much better ways to manage so they don't use this bad lean stuff [which would be resisting though for a good reason]).

If the best process is to have the process done in a certain way (lean manufacturing methods) and it isn't being done that way what do you do? If "management" was a factory line would that the 3 classes of workers are resistant to doing things the best way be accepted the problem?

Do they really know lean manufacturing as well as they seem to think based on the problems they put at the top of the list? I don't see Ohno looking at that and saying, I think you got it - those people just need to stop resisting and then lean will flourish.

My opinion is that the senior leadership needs to do much more pretty much everywhere. And people (pretty much everyone) needs to learn alot more (and not just implementation) - gaining a much deeper understanding too.

Anonymous said...

I wish the survey results were different, but the "people" issues have crept up steadily from the bottom of the pack in 2004 when we began asking the questions as part of a customer survey. I'll definitely include a selection about top managment in next year's survey. (Wished I had done it this year, when I saw the results.) BTW, the choices presented in the question were simply based on various struggle points I had seen or had been reported in the Lean Community.

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I think the input here and in our Forums will help us make the annual survey more valuable.

Chet Marchwinski
Communications Director
Lean Enterprise Institute

Mike Gardner said...

Middle managers do what they are rewarded for doing. If they are rewarded for their progress implementing lean improvements, that's what they will do. So, the reason middle managers are the biggest obstacle is probably that senior managers have not seen fit to change their own views or practices.