Chalmers St – Consulting

The Role of Middle Management – What they need for success.

Middle management is often considered the place where change dies. This is because middle management has direct influence over the specific daily, weekly, and monthly tasks that occur in operations. This influence is paramount in either adopting a new practice, technology, and role change or ignoring the desired change and moving on with daily jobs. Earlier in my career I learned about a phrase developed to describe this phenomenon called “salute the tower.” Top management cast down objectives from high, middle management said, “yes” and then went back to their normal day-to-day activities completely ignoring the direct change. It is not healthy; middle management needs plenty of support to be successful.


First, let’s get some definitions out of the way. In the last article I shared my thoughts on what top managers often get wrong and how we need to help them. Top managers are easy enough to define. They own the budget and they approve, hire, and fire. They are the leaders at the top. Middle management is difficult to define, especially in large Fortune 500 companies. Middle management in these companies can sometimes look like top management. Additionally, in these companies there can be a massive difference in the degree of responsibility and accountability between a middle manager responsible for a function such as IT and a front line supervisor overseeing a production line. For the purpose of this article, let’s keep the definition simple. Regardless of the scope of their role, the challenges of middle management are very similar. Middle management are all the people that have direct report employees. They take expectations from higher level management and translate those directives into actions, tasks, and sub-objectives for their direct reports to follow and achieve. 


Let’s go back to the premise. How do we sustain change in middle management and why is middle management the place where changes go to die? The cause is not actually due to their influence over operations. This is just the effect from the role they play in the organization. The cause, as you might imagine, has several factors that often combine to create a massive risk in executing successful change. Rather than spend time talking about all the causes of failures, I will outline what I believe middle managers need in order to change and sustain high performing operations. 


First, middle managers need everything that I covered in the March article regarding Top Managers. This can be achieved from the mechanics that we all know and love in standard Lean and Six Sigma practices:


  • Clear goals – These can be created through any strategy deployment method. Hoshin Kanri is quite popular, but there are many others. Pick one and stick with it. 
  • Operational structure and standards – For me, this is leader standard work and standard work. It can also be quality systems such as ISO 9000. It can be following the Toyota Production System or creating a system of your own. Pick one and stick with it. 
  • Time for continuous improvement – This is often more challenging than the first two bullets, though I would argue it is as simple as creating budgeted time for improvement, then protecting that time as fiercely as you might protect hours working in production. I have seen companies set aside time daily for retrospection or specific days of the week to perform improvement activities. I have seen companies budget earned hours into projects that are specific to improvement activities. There are many solutions; there just needs to be commitment and accountability for holding to the solution.  
  • Skilled employees – This comes down to training, but not just training in a role. It comes down to training on how to improve management skills. For example, supervisor training and Training Within Industry. It can be different leadership training, training on the business and products provided to customers, and of course, Lean Six Sigma or CI Mastermind Training to develop problem solving and process improvement skills. The only real challenge is making the time. See the bullet above for the solution to that challenge. 


Now, if it were only that simple, we as change agents could put the structures above in place and successfully change our operations to continuous performance improvement machines! That would be all too easy. There is another set of needs that middle management has which are more difficult to address through operational structures. This is due to the intangible nature of these needs: motivation, risk avoidance, and personal assurance. Some of these are discussed in the book “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team.” I will make these points briefly. If you really want to understand, I recommend that you read the book. 


  • Motivation – Middle managers will engage in change to either get something (promotion) or avoid something (fired). I have been taught that we can boil much of human behavior down to this dynamic. In fact, as change agents working with middle managers we must understand the “whys” and “hows” that drew these individuals into management. We often find that it was simple career progression, not a desire to work with people or to take an organization to performance excellence, or identify new disruptive opportunities to change the business. For this reason motivation for many types of change can be quite low because most of the changes will not end in promotion or getting fired. As change agents we need to identify tangible motivations for middle managers to take on a change. 
  • Risk avoidance – See my statement above on getting fired. In my previous work we had a saying that no one gets fired for holding too much inventory, but managers get fired for missing sales targets. Can you guess how that mindset affected inventory reduction projects? Achieving greater performance requires change and change comes with risk. For middle managers who have been around a while, they may see the down side risk of upsetting a customer or upsetting crucial employees. The work involved to mitigate it all creates risks and huge obstacles to change. They may feel they are better off avoiding the change rather than pursuing it. This works in concert with the next item.
  • Personal assurance – Middle managers are in their positions due to experience and a track record of success. In their experience they have seen a lot and are understandably skeptical of the new, latest and greatest improvement idea. They know that there is no assurance that given things go well they receive recognition, and no assurance that if things go wrong they become the proverbial scapegoat. 


As change agents our job is to understand the motivations that might be lacking for the middle manager to adopt change and take on the specific risks that may exist as obstacles to their motivation. By understanding these, the change agent can develop actions and campaigns that create the personal assurance that middle managers need to both support the change and sustain the new practices that are part of any change we may wish to implement. 


One final note on why change dies in middle management is the lack of aligned ownership. I have seen leaders try to muscle change through the organization by reducing the ownership and autonomy of middle management. I have seen quality engineers and industrial engineers all full of enthusiasm make the same mistake of trying to drive improvement through brute force rather than influencing middle managers. Middle managers know the local realities of the specific plant or production line or work team where the change is taking place. And no one else understands this reality at the level they do. Only middle managers can address the specific obstacles holding back change. Therefore, they must have the autonomy that comes from ownership to adapt the change to their specific environment. Our job as change agents is to check alignment of the middle manager and find the balance between the tactics specific to achieving the objective and the desired tactics of the middle manager. 


Middle managers are crucial to making and sustaining change. Their daily practices and internal motivations will result in success or failure. As change agents we have the structures to motivate middle management to make and sustain change. This is not enough. There are intangibles to consider as well. Only by using these structures and addressing the intangibles will the change avoid death at the level of middle management.