To be capable of effectively directing work and leading improvement, management need to have a reality based deep understanding of how value is created and what impediments exist.

Often, management will talk about the importance of having engagement from their staff. Equally important is having engagement of management. The most powerful engagement comes when all levels of management are part of the real workforce, working at the real workplace, and don’t view themselves as separate from it.

The View from the 51st Floor

Or the executive wing. Or the corner office. This is the standard level of engagement from senior execs. They live in an entirely different world, or at least in a different building, on a different floor, or on the other side of glass.

Things have generally changed from the days (in one enterprise where friends of mine worked), where not only was there the executive bathroom (with key), but there was a separate managers’ staircase, and those below a certain senior grade weren’t allowed to use it. But it’s still generally the norm that communications from above are one directional, delivered in an email from an “Announcements” mailbox, or from a stage at an all-hands (compulsory) meeting. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a sense of Commander’s Intent.

The standard opportunity for execs to learn the situation on the ground is via standard reporting channels. And as we know, reports tend towards green as they get summarised and passed upwards. Often, the only way to get any real information to executive level is to bypass the reporting chains and use backchannels. Many times as a Lean Coach, I’ve had members of teams show me something and ask me to tell executive management about it. Oftentimes, this is some all-hands edict from the exec in question that holds up actual value creation work.

The Royal Visit

Better than relying on cold (but massaged) figures, this at least acknowledges that the figures are produced by real Resources [sic]. If this results in the Big Boss gaining a Fingerspitzengefühl of how work works, and how BB’s decisions impact value creation (sometimes negatively) then it’s A Good Thing™. However, it often goes like this:

This is very rare – your team is lucky to be chosen. So let’s make sure that the Big Boss thinks well of you. You’ll get your chance to show your slides highlighting your successes – if you’re lucky, BB will take a few notes. Then it’s out onto the floor, making sure that everything smells of fresh paint. Your visual management will be to-the-second up to date if it’s positive, or hidden if not; every laptop will have its Kensington lock; every desk will be tidy. As if it’s like that all the time, and no problems ever exist.

(Of course, if there are any actual problems surfacing, the visit will be cancelled, and you’ll get a kicking from immediate management for not having held them back until after the visit).

You’ll then show BB around, introducing to every presentable (both visually and in tendency to avoid asking awkward questions) member of the team. And the conversation will be something like

Oh, you’re a developer are you?
How long have you been one of those?
Treating you all right are they? Jolly Good!

The trouble is that this is all about hiding problems and presenting success. How can management understand your pain if there apparently isn’t any?

Management By Walking Around

This is very much better than The Royal Visit. Senior managers are regularly in the workplace, and are exposed to whatever visual management is in place, so not only gain a point view of status, but see how it changes over time.

Unless you’re actively forging your visual management — it’s not impossible, but needs the active complicity and/or cognitive dissonance of everyone in the team — your actual status is there exposed to any and all in the vicinity, including passing Big Bosses. Which means the kind of status report series that goes:

Common Status Report Sequence: Green, Green, Green, Green, OH MY GOD THE BUILDING IS ON FIRE

Common Status Report Sequence


is very unlikely. And while there is of course significant social pressure on delivery teams to report green, it’s nothing compared to the pressure you get with a burning building. With this understanding, the level of trust in the team should increase, and demands for summary status reports reduce.

This however is not the same as being fully engaged in the work, nor in its improvement in a way that involves those who are actually carrying it out.

At the Gemba

The common way to do this is to send the executive “Back to the Shopfloor” — a short period doing the work of the core value adding workforce, often in disguise to avoid being treated specially, followed by a period of reflection back on the 51st Floor.

I very much like the idea of regular reflection. We should all do a lot more of it, senior managers most of all.

But what if this weren’t a special setup. What if it were so common that you didn’t need special measures to avoid the constant smell of fresh paint? What if we asked executive management to have part time roles in the actual workforce? How much better would they understand the stresses of the workplace? How much better would they be able to see the problems generally, and the problems that management create? How much more able would they be to incorporate this with their contextual understanding to enable real, powerful, effective, strategically directed improvement?

And best of all, with standard work that takes place where value is created, how engaged would management be in the improvement of how work works? Why else does a reserved non-value-add role like Management exist?

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Martin Burns

Transformation Consultant at CA Inc (formerly Rally)
Previously: Leader of software delivery portfolios in large scale orgs.
Specialism: Transforming complex delivery organisations to be more Lean/Agile.
Mindset: Continuous Improvement Obsessive
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