Where to Focus – Executives, Managers, or Frontline?


In a Lean or Continuous Improvement Transformation, who is the most important – The Executives, the Middle Managers, or the Frontline workers?

This question often gets asked by many who are trying to understand how to roll out a Lean / Continuous Improvement program (or Six Sigma deployment, etc.).  Some will say the work is done on the frontline, the gemba, so the frontline people are the most important, and should get the most focus.  Others will say the Executives must be on board for a successful transformation, so we need to focus on getting executive buy-in.  Even others will say, no wait, no one ever really considers more than a cursory glance at the middle managers.  So here’s a word of caution – don’t forget the middle managers.

Many organizations start the implementation of a Lean/CI effort with big announcements proclaiming the benefits of this approach, and that everyone will be trained on the new techniques.  It typically starts with the Executives to make sure they are on board; after all, they can kill the program through restricting funding, not releasing resources, etc.  During these executive overview sessions, a training plan is usually developed starting with the frontline workforce – since they are the ones who make things happen.  There is a big push from the executives to see action since it is fresh in their minds and it is costing them “a fortune”, so they want results.  To accomplish this quickly, experts are brought in to help with projects and deployment, and the middle managers are given cursory overview at this time – they will be trained in detail later.  These deployments are typically successful, and show excellent results.  The executives, though happy with the progress, eventually start looking for ways to cut costs, and determine that since there is so much success, the training program can be cut back.  After all, they reason, the middle managers already received the overview training (like them), and they don’t need the details like the frontline workforce.  The training budget is cut, and the middle managers continue on to struggle (often silently) with the transformation.

Over time, the use of the experts is cut back as the executives feel the organization is progressing nicely on its journey, and the middle managers are expected to pick up the slack.  Since the middle managers were not trained in the specifics of some of the tools & techniques, they do not fully understand how to use them, and they are either misapplied, or, because the mangers were never fully engaged (the experts facilitated the effort), they resort back to their traditional management mode – their comfort zone.  Continuous Improvement efforts start to become not so continuous.  The executives reason that this CI stuff was a nice experiment, and although there were some nice results, they just read about the next new thing, so they’re going to try that.  The frontline feels betrayed, and the middle managers continue to muddle through their day.

Having lived through a situation like this, it is not fun.  To see the potential of an organization slip away is extremely frustrating.

Unfortunately, this happens more often than we would like, and on varying scales (sometimes it’s an organizational wide effort, sometimes it’s simply inside a large department).  The key to stopping it from happening is to fully understand, up front, what you are getting in to.  Lean and other Continuous Improvement efforts are more about cultural and organizational change than they are the tools.  It takes time (and investment) to transform from the traditional way of doing things to a Lean mindset.  The investment is primarily in people, and it is a long term investment, not just something to do this year to improve the bottom line.  To think otherwise is a recipe for failure.

So back to the question of who is more important – to me, the answer is they are all important; their relative importance depends on what stage the organization is in its journey.  In the beginning, executive sponsorship is absolutely critical.  Giving middle management an overview then providing details to the frontline workforce is essential during rollout.  Then to sustain, it is imperative to provide middle management the training they need to make sure it becomes the way you do things, and not just another “flavor of the month.”

Last, but definitely not least – don’t forget the ongoing training and education as employees come and go to the organization and as new tools and techniques are refined and improved.  This is often neglected, or worse, knowingly dismissed due to cost issues.  It almost always comes back to bite you later.

Let me know your thoughts!

Glenn Whitfield


7 Responses to Where to Focus – Executives, Managers, or Frontline?

  1. Tony Ralph says:

    Hi Glen,
    I do not think there is one thing that I would disagree with in your post. As really when we think about it Continuous Improvement should be reflected in all aspects from initial training to ongoing upkeep of these business critical processes. I especially like your points about middle management and how during the initial implementation process we must always keep the links of the chain up to date and focused. One particular implementation that I was involved in did initially contract consultants, but they were focused on not only training from the top down but preparing all levels to conduct flow down training themselves for the levels below and also incorporated a check and balance process to ensure the flow down was accomplished. Once that was completed a cross-sectional team consisting of individuals from all levels was created known as Continuous Improvement Advisors. The main focus of this team was to monitor and score continuous improvement activities and if scores dropped it became a peer pressure activity to get things back on track. It is amazing how, if implemented correctly peer pressure can be the single most effective way to ensure Continuous Improvement is in fact continuous.


  2. Glenn, I absolutely agree with you. It’s called a Value Chain/Stream for a reason. The Chain is only as strong as the weakest link. In the beginning of a Transformation, the Executives are critical because they are ‘announcing’ (I liked the use of that word in your article) a cultural change. If Exec Mgmt is not 100% invested, the Transformation will hit a glass ceiling at some point (if not crash and burn out of the gate). I’ve personally experienced this.

    The Lean Culture breeds continuous improvement. Companies cannot continuously improve without continuous learning. The fact that Execs cut education funding as part of their Lean Transformation is a clear example of how Mgmt short-term memory can quickly drift away from the Guiding Principles of Lean/SS…Begin with the customer in mind. A company’s Strategic goal should be to Optimize Customer Experience and manage costs…not optimize costs and manage the customer experience!!

    A colleague of mine (Mike Loughrin – http://www.transformanceadvisors.com/) is presenting on Lean Transformation and Executive Sponsorship at the upcoming APICS Conference in Toronto in Oct09. Would love to meet with you there and have a chat/collaborate!

    Best Regards,
    Global Commodity Manager

  3. Glenn Whitfield says:


    Great Comments! Short term thinking often gets in the way of creating something that can be really ‘special’. Not sure if I will be able to make it to Toronto, but will look into it.

    Thanks for the comments!


  4. Glenn Whitfield says:


    You are so right about peer pressure. It can be a powerful motivator. If consultants are used, it is important that management accept them and not look at them as ‘someone else we have to keep track of’. Unfortunately, too often, instead of embracing the change, management uses the consultants as a crutch or excuse.

    Thanks for the comments!


  5. Andrew Meyer says:


    interesting post. I guess I look at LEAN/Six Sigma from a different perspective. I consider them EEE programs. One must consider who is pushing the initiative and why?

    Businesses are driven to increase profits. There are two fundamental ways of doing this. Increase sales or decrease costs.

    LEAN/Six Sigma programs are put in place to decrease variable costs. But there’s a problem with these changes. What’s the largest variable expense? Salaries and employee costs. Changing these costs is difficult.

    Peter Drucker had a maxim. Changes must improve productivity by ten times or they are not worth the effort. If I implement LEAN and double worker productivity, am I going to fire half of my staff? No. Will I fire anybody? Probably not. Then will I effect my variable costs? Probably not. Is it worth the effort? Probably not.

    If someone implements a program that improves productivity by ten times, management will be forced to do things they’d rather not do. Why do LEAN efforts fail? Because no one sees the financial results.

    There are examples (GE) that are held up, but I’d contend their success has more to do with who initiated them, what their goals were, and how clearly the program aligned with those goals.

    Remember Jack Welch’s nickname for most of his career was ‘Neutron Jack.’ He had a clear and honestly expressed goal for his programs. He was perfectly willing to fire employees. Hundreds of thousands of them. Why did the program succeed at GE? Because it accomplished it’s honestly expressed goal of decreasing variable costs by firing people.

    How many ‘business leaders’ are willing to do that? So, its never surprised me that LEAN/Six Sigma efforts die. People call it LEAN or Six Sigma because they don’t want to call it EEE (Exercises in Employee Extermination).

  6. Glenn Whitfield says:


    Interesting response. You hit on what is one of the major problems with Lean/Six Sigma deployments – people simply want to cut costs, so instead of just saying, “we need to cut costs,” they try to paint it as a Lean or Six Sigma deployment. If all you want to do is cut costs, go get a bunch of Industrial Engineers (or other efficiency experts) with stopwatches and get to work – nothing wrong with this, just don’t call it Lean.

    Lean is much deeper and as much about the culture of the organization than the tools it uses. It’s about eliminating waste and enhancing value the customer is willing to pay for. Ideally, if an organization is able to reduce waste and enhance value, the customer will see the value and purchase more, thus increasing sales. I’m getting pretty philosophical here, so perhaps this should be continued with another conversation.

    Before I end though, a comment about productivity:
    What’s interesting about ‘productivity’ is how the word is thrown around without a real understanding of what it means – like when firms say the NCAA tournament costs so many hours of lost ‘productivity’. To me, productivity is only affected if you are able to either get more product (or content enhanced product) out (throughput), or reduce your operating expense (real dollars, not cost accounting dollars). In essence, generate more dollars with the same (or less) expenses, or generate the same dollars with less expense. Do that and then you’ve increased productivity.

    As always, thanks for the comments.


  7. Glenn,

    briljant post! And for the others, scharp comments! As a starting LEAN Consultant, this topic is one of the issues I’m stuggeling with. But reading about this topic on your blog, put things for me in persepctive!

    Reading it was fun!

    Best Regards!

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