Micromanaging…Or Lean Leadership?

I am a couple of weeks behind on this one, but I thought it was a good blog and worth mentioning.

If You’re Not Micromanaging, You’re Not Leading” was the title of a blog post by Michael Schrage at the Harvard Business Review blog site.

The title hijacked me right away.  Title alone goes against everything lean is about.  Then I read the article and found Michael was actually advocating for lean leadership behavior without calling it that.

…this vignette affirms my belief that leaders need to “go to the source”even before they turn to their best people. Seeing the data raw instead of analytically pre-chewed can have enormous impact on executive perceptions.

Sound familiar.  Michael is talking about directly observing the work.  A foundational principle of lean.  He gives a second example of why directly observing is important.

At one global telecommunications giant, for example, a critical network software upgrade was not only slipping further behind schedule, but the bug density was slowly creeping up, as well. The program managers’ key performance indicator dashboards showed nothing alarmingly unusual except the seemingly usual slippage and delays associated with a complex project with moving parts worldwide. The executive responsible for the deliverable (but not the software engineering itself) felt something amiss. The error rates felt too high and the delays too long, given the clarity of project milestones. He wasn’t technically sophisticated enough to read the code or analyze the testing, but he asked several project managers to share how their code was being documented. The raw material astonished and appalled him. The code was both hastily and poorly documented; the result was confusion and ambiguity that not only created delays but introduced errors into the software. The deadline-driven programmers, unfortunately, thought nothing of improvising just-in-time documentation via email, and misunderstandings and typos quickly propagated program-wide. The result was a worsening mess.

The executive intervention — making documentation a priority, streamlining version coordination, and changing the testing protocols — didn’t get the complex program back on schedule, but stopped things from getting worse, and dramatically improved both product quality and post-launch maintainability. It could never have happened unless leadership had the courage and competence to go to the source.

Great examples to bring drive home the point of how important directly observing the work is.  But, I do disagree with Michael on one thing…

Is this micromanagement? You bet! But real leaders are constantly called upon to create new contexts for people to succeed. Sometimes holding people accountable is the path of least resistance rather than what’s best for the organization.

I don’t think so.  Understanding current reality is not micromanaging.  It is necessary to be a great leader.

Micromanagement is telling your employees how they should be doing their job.  Worrying about how each detail is done which is different than worrying about what are the details and understanding the current reality.  There are quite a few comments below the blog mentioning similar thoughts also.  Micromanagement is more than just understanding the process and current reality.  Micro-managers fret about HOW you got the raw data or HOW you completed the work and try to tell you HOW to do the work.

Overall, a very good post.  I just hope it does not lead people down the path that understanding is micromanaging and then it carries over to be a black mark for lean.

What do you think?  Directly obrserving work or going to the source, Micromanaging?  Or not?

Posted on June 14, 2012, in Culture, Leadership, Principles and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Matt, I don’t think it is what you do that makes your employees feel like they are being micro managed, it is how you do it that has the impact.

    Micro management has more to do with telling people what to do than seeing what is done.

    More of a do as I say than do as I do.


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