The poor old middle managers get it both ways.

They’re a prime target for the senior people.

We’re on board, we’re walking the talk, but you can’t get them to buy in.  Always the weak link in the chain” says the director (at least in the CE’s presence).

And the front line staff aren’t usually too impressed either.

“They don’t communicate, they don’t understand what it’s like down here,” says the worker.

The truth is, it’s tough.  It can feel like you’re the meat in someone else’s sandwich.

Once upon a time there was an NHS [non-UK readers – National Health Service] trust that committed itself to the lean approach to improvement and did it the right way.

Unlike many, they realised it wasn’t just about efficiency and improving processes.  They understood it needed a change of culture too (see Footnotes).

They started by running a culture change workshop for their management team.  Like lots of these things it focussed on a before and after simulation of a work task, in this case building and delivering a large piece of capital equipment (one made out of string and sticks it has to be said).

They then ran the workshop in each of their directorates.

That’s when Mike, the property maintenance manager in the facilities directorate, got involved.

Maybe it was the nature of his work that made him see the point more easily than others (some of the medics in the trust were even trying to opt out of the whole process).

Mike came away from the workshop enthused and keen to apply what he’d learnt to the unplanned repair and maintenance that seemed an inevitable part of looking after a mixed bag of buildings of all ages on a number of sites.

But he was struggling with his own manager (who had different priorities) and his site supervisors (who hadn’t had the chance learn as he had).

He shared his concerns with the consultant who was helping the trust make their transformation.

The consultant was keen to get some early wins.  So they could see how all this worked in the real world, he suggested that Mike, some of his staff and his manager take a trip to the HQ and main distribution centre of a logistics company about 50 miles down the motorway.  Xyz Ltd (let’s call them) had a reputation for purpose and efficiency based on their application of lean principles.

There was some resistance to the proposal – “What can a hospital learn from a private sector company that distributes widgets?” was one of the comments – but Mike persevered and, arrangements with their hosts made, off they set in a hired mini-bus.

This is what they found

  • a spotlessly clean and tidy warehouse
  • purposeful work by a well-motivated welcoming workforce
  • charts and graphs on the workfloor showing the progress by the quarter hour of scheduled work
  • a group tackling a problem that had cropped up with what they called an A3 report (see Footnotes)
  • a new shift coming on sharing an update on the tasks for the day
  • a separate training room right next to the warehouse floor to teach people the new way of working (the company called it the University of the Shopfloor)
  • on the way out, two teams processing invoices, one traditional and unimproved, the other just getting into their stride with a new floor layout, display boards showing progress,  a new process eliminating blockages in their workflow, and significantly improved performance.

It was just what Mike needed to move his aspirations into reality.  The group came back buzzing with the purposefulness of what they’d seen, already discussing in the minibus how they were going to make their own transformation.

And the myth of the middle manager as the weak link in the chain took another small blow.


Culture.  The experts write volumes about work culture.  For me it’s the answer to the simple question “How do you do things around here?” – “You can’t break wind without signing a form” vs. “My boss dropped by yesterday to say ‘Thank you’”.  Both tell you more about the culture of those places than a book on the subject.

A3 reports.  A standardised report developed as part of the Toyota Production System showing on one piece of paper an overview and current state of the problem, a root cause analysis, proposed countermeasures, an implementation plan, the results, and future plans.