How Leaders and Middle Managers can Avoid Talent Waste and Optimize Productivity in Lean Organizations

How Leaders and Middle Managers can Avoid Talent Waste and Optimize Productivity in Lean Organizations

In practicing lean, the most significant waste I find is in talent, irrespective of the way organization is designed, flat or hierarchical, matrix or pyramid. This happens for multiple reasons: our way of work, the way we respond to internal or external drivers. So, I thought of capturing and sharing why it happens and what we could do about it.

Rapid changes in our business environment today demand speed. We have seen flat organization becoming a norm for increasing the speed of decisions. Besides, a decision on one process can have a significant impact on distant processes. To address this, organizations attempt cross-functional alignment, expecting the leaders of each function to discuss openly and decide in a collaborative way.

Unfortunately, what practically happens in most organizations is slightly different: decisions are escalated to higher levels: CEO, CFO, COOs; collaborative leadership does not take place at the middle management levels. To the external world including customers and suppliers, decisions are made faster, actions take place at a reasonable time frame. However, such organizations miss the opportunity to build internal talent capabilities in the middle layer and eventually face problems. If this way of work continues to prolong, middle management starts to get disengaged, waits for instructions for both strategic to tactical decisions, and eventually becomes a task player. Senior management is stretched out until it becomes unmanageable and performance falls.

The same situation can happen in a not so flat organization too, where the design of the organization is more functional, with the intent of creating a resource pool, skills, and competencies in different functions. Here in the middle management layer, i.e. functional leaders and above become comfortable in sharing and discussions within their own kingdom. Due to various reasons, they don’t see the value in collaborating with their peers to solve real business problems that their own function alone cannot address.

The result is a dysfunctional management team. Things get slow and ineffective; organizations suffer from a lack of trust. The resources that are developed become proficient in one or few processes and hence cannot see the wider spectrum of the problem or opportunity in any given situation.

In both situations, we see organizational capabilities and confidence taking a nosedive. Here is what I think we can do to change.

What Leaders Should Do

Talent Waste

1.     Leaders manage their own time and ensure that they do not get involved in tactical decisions or frequent interventions. Of course, if there is a crisis they need to attend to that.

2.     Do not have too many direct reports. If you want to work on developing your next-level people very closely, have 5-6 direct reports, ideally not more than 7.

3.     Do not create a dysfunctional management team/layer. A team becomes dysfunctional if the management team is working in a silo fashion, report only good things, not open about serious potential issues in the fear of looking inept, or lack of cooperation from peers.

4.     Establish a way of collaborative leadership in middle management. Provide timely feedback.

  • Encourage people to have open discussions, respect, listen, and take a wider view.
  • Enforce a process that allows the middle management to evaluate decision options and expected outcomes.
  • Decide in a collaborative way, if there is any company business issue to be addressed, come forward and help peers.
  • Keep transparency with the senior management while consuming capacity from senior management: CEOs, COOs, and CFOs.

5.     Make people accountable for what they decide to do.

  • Do not revisit the decision without taking any action. They can choose to act and verify the results frequently.
  • Develop people at the grass-root level.

What Middle Managers Should Do

What Middle Managers Should Do

1.     Do your homework, do not expect senior executives/bosses to do your job.

2.     Practise stakeholder management, and learn how to get the message across, and buy-in if you think you have a great idea. Sometimes it needs to be positioned as ‘their’ idea, don’t get fixated about ‘my’ idea.

3.     Connect to both grass root level and senior executives.

4.     Have the courage to table issues, things that are not going well, seek cooperation from peers.

5.     If you are not able to make a meaningful difference, and things are not changing despite your best and honest effort, don’t waste time, plan an exit.

To conclude, talent management has been close to my heart for a long time. Over the years we have seen waste in talent in both the Eastern and Western parts of the World. It happens in somewhat different scenarios yet has similar consequences that impact organizational effectiveness.

The article was first published a few years back in my LinkedIn profile. Here are some magnet parts of the discussion in the comment section there.

Great article Alauddin.  Easy read and on point.  It is really important to properly delegate appropriate decision-making to the management level below the C-Suite level not just to develop talent but to create capacity for the organization.
In the area of collaboration between functions, it is critical to make sure you don’t have KPIs by silo that is counterproductive to optimizing the business process you are executing.  Unfortunately, I have seen such cases multiple times.  One acronym I love is WIFM (what’s in it for me).  This is a principle that most middle managers apply to their jobs either overtly or more subtlely.  C-suite management needs to understand this principle and must ensure that all involved functions win when the process in question is optimized. Having counterproductive KPIs by function is an invitation for dysfunctional behavior.

Mark Poole, MBA, MEng.

Very well articulated Alauddin san. You have covered the key aspects very well. 
In my experience, another aspect which causes these behaviors, both in leaders and middle managers is the measure of success. And conversely the success of a leader to break silos and deliver results is his ability to share success. So, if a leader is able to define and share success for an endeavor, with his peers and teams, I believe he would have achieved the optimized use talent with associate delight.

Sanjay Peshin
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