The Discipline of Management: Standard Work

I think one of the major issues facing organizations of all types is the attention paid to “leadership” at the expense of “management.”

I would offer, for the sake of discussion, the following broad definitions of the two concepts. By “leadership” I would highlight the discretionary followership that a person develops through their articulation of some goal, purpose or objective. By “management” I emphasize the skills and mindsets that embody execution, the ability to get things done and done well.

The two are not at odds. Some rare individuals possess both capabilities at high levels of competence. However, it is my contention is that it is fashionable to elevate “leadership” at the expense of “management.” In my experience organizations invest relatively lavishly on “leadership development” and yet treat “management” as either something everyone in a position of management can do either naturally or through basic instruction as though management were nothing more than basic plumbing.

But if we think of management as a cluster of capabilities that enables excellence in execution, then we need to consider management as encompassing work team formation and operation, cross-disciplinary coordination, change management, individual and group performance management, root cause problem solving and many other skills, each of which represents its own enormous area of practice.

One reason why so many organizations are mediocre is that (a) too many of its people want to think they are a “visionary leader” because this is seen as a ticket to promotion or its what’s expected of them to keep their executive rank; (b) most people struggle at being a “visionary leader”; and (c) management capability suffers because of the over-emphasis on leadership.

Henry Mintzberg’s viewpoint on management as compared to what he calls “heroic leadership,” is summarized in an excerpt from his blog. Here’s his comparison of the two:

One consequence of the prevailing definition of “leadership” as “heroic” is that it tends to work against the notion that leadership of the visionary kind is subject to structure. Such leaders are seen as intuitive and paradigm-busting mavericks who we must not weigh-down with notions of structure and discipline.

However, even if we concede that heroic or visionary leadership is inherently an unstructured and inspired activity (which is debatable), I contend we are left with a sizable amount of work called “management” that benefits from structure and continual improvement.

The key is to think of the daily, weekly, and monthly activities of every manager from the first-level supervisor all the way to the CEO as a set of processes that, like other processes, benefits from lean design principles: simplicity; elimination of non-value adding activities; direct observation; 1-piece flow etc.

This is also where the lean principle of standard work arises: the definition of the current best way to do something as the organization’s standard for that work. In the case of frontline staff this often takes the form of standard operating procedures and checklists. For executives, it takes the form of a standard cadence of activities, a standard calendar.

For example, all middle managers in an organization would have a standard weekly cadence of frontline visits, individual coaching and performance reviews, customer contact and root cause problem solving activities. Similarly, the VPs would also have a standard monthly cadence of frontline visits, coaching, customer interactions and root cause problem solving activities.

Naturally the details of the defined work cadence would vary from organization to organization but the idea that every person in an organization at every level would have structured and standardized work is the point. It also means that meetings are not just called, they must be justified on the basis of adding value within the context of a set of managerial calendars that is established in advance. Of course the absolute number of meetings and their length would need to decrease to free-up the time for higher value-adding activities such as root cause problem solving.

A previous video post talked about Standard Work for every role in an organization and measuring adherence to it. To get better at execution, organizations need to embrace the idea that senior managers are subject to standard work as part of having better “management.”




2 Comments on “The Discipline of Management: Standard Work”

  1. Andrea says:

    I agree, Bruce. Great points. Managing is important and I have also seen too many people believe in personal accountability without the systems to ensure that deliverables are managed. And managed because nothing exists in isolation but affects others.

    • brucem says:

      There is a kind of bias towards a vague idea of “leadership” that I think sometimes comes about because it helps to distract from failings in “managership” that leads to confusion, wasted time and energy, and low morale.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.