Larry Fast
August 19, 2016

How 'Managing Up' can Boost Your Continuous Improvement Results

Managing up leadership to boost your continuous improvement efforts.

The topic for this article is “Managing Up.” This subject is the result of an excellent, stimulating discussion that broke out in one of my recent workshops. We were talking about the failure of management (read; leaders) over the years to deliver the necessary leadership for continuous improvement journeys to be just that -- continuous. Career-long. Forever.

As surveys over the last 30-plus years have confirmed time and again, the vast majority of such initiatives to achieve and sustain excellence last less than five years. They simply have petered out for lack of strong, sustaining leadership from the top. There was clearly the absence of a relentless champion for excellence.

Our group discussed lots of excuses about why this has been the case. But the one thing that jumped out in the conversation was the bright young plant manager who attributed at least some of the problem to lower-level managers who are either afraid to “manage up” or are simply reticent to do so -- which makes them an equal part of the problem.

Our suggestion to each of you in this:  Look in the mirror to assess yourself and determine if you are part of the problem! If you are, then -- once acknowledged --you’ll become a part of the solution through open discussions with your peers and especially one on one with your direct supervisor.

What is 'Managing Up', and Why Do We Need It?

See below examples for 'managing up':

1. If a supervisor isn’t communicating and behaving in ways that match the words coming from higher up, then an hourly associate should ask why.

2. If a supervisor isn’t seeing the support and behavior necessary to excel, then the supervisor should ask her manager why.

3. If a staff-level manager isn’t seeing the support and behavior necessary, then he should ask the plant manager why.

And so on right up to the senior operations executive asking the same question of the CEO!

Encouraging Leadership

I know from personal experience that sometimes bosses think they are communicating well with words, gestures and behaviors. Often times this simply isn’t the case. They are often way too subtle if they “get it” about continuous improvement and totally oblivious if they don’t!

Don’t be afraid to hold up the mirror to them and give them honest and helpful feedback. If they don’t have an operations background, they may simply not have the knowledge or the confidence to be bold in their communications and with their presence. Help them. Tell them what you and your people need for them to do.

"I know from personal experience that sometimes bosses think they are communicating well with words, gestures and behaviors. Often times this simply isn’t the case."

Don't be afraid to engage leadership on your continuous improvement journey

I’d ask that each of you think hard about this as it relates to your direct boss. If you have the issue being described here, plan a one-on-one meeting in your supervisor’s office to discuss the CI journey. Go prepared with specific examples of how you see the boss’s communications and behaviors as he walks through the value stream/plant. What does he see? What does he not see? What happens if there’s an issue to be followed up? Are the interactions with the staff, machine operators, etc., meaningful? Do they demonstrate support and a commitment help the work area improve?

And how about the simple things that, if not done, reverberate through the building in a matter of minutes, e.g., does the corporate leader set the right example by always wearing the appropriate safety protection or does he think the rules don’t apply to him?

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The best plant managers don’t make exceptions for anyone on the plant rules -- not outside visitors and certainly not employees of the company up to and including the board of directors. Do the leaders really understand the processes and add value during their discussions, or are they simply on a back-slapping social visit without substance? Or does the leader stay in the comfort of the front-office conference room and rarely walk the shop floor?

I once met a bright young plant manager (PM) who had changed companies and was in a plant I was visiting. He had only been on the job for a short time. I asked him: “When was the last time your boss (a VP of manufacturing) visited the plant?” The PM said: “Well, I’ve been here 18 months and I haven’t seen him yet.”

This was a young man who sorely needed some mentorship but was getting none.

Obviously, this is not a great start for any new PM; he certainly shouldn’t have to ask his supervisor to come and see him. But on the other hand, why not? Invite the boss in and start a dialogue of expectations -- his and yours -- as you tour the shop. Talk honestly of what support and guidance you require. Ask for specific, scheduled one-on-one meetings by phone starting every two to three weeks as you require. When you’re on top of the job, you may want to reduce the frequency to monthly. This is all part of “managing up” as well.

Think about all the opportunities you’ll have to influence your relationship with your superior, accelerate your learning curve and affect your future career possibilities (for better or worse!). Your boss may be wrongfully assuming that since you’re a plant manager now that you should know what to do and when. My experience has been that this is rarely the case, especially when it’s the first time this new PM has sat down in the big chair and/or if it’s in a new company where the people and processes are unknown in the beginning.  

My experience also is that as long as these confidential discussions are held one on one, behind closed doors, improved working relationships, great learning on both sides and enhanced operating performance will follow.

Continuous Improvement Programs - Kickstarting your journey with these tools and methods

I’d love to hear your stories and examples, successful or not, based on your use of “managing up” to help get the communications and behaviors you need from your bosses. This can be such a win-win -- but only if you have the open dialogue. I’ll look forward to reading about your experiences in the comments section!

Larry is Founder of Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence, and a veteran of 35 years in the wire and cable industry. Larry is the author of The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence--A Lean Leader's Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence,  the second edition of which was published in September, 2015. You can follow him on Linkedin.


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