Tales from the pyramid – the ivory tower

In some organization, top management is cut from its base, managing from remote offices and linked to operations and organization’s real life through reports, dashboards and KPIs.

I’ve met some of those managers brilliantly talking the talk but seldom, if ever, walking it. If they would – this is what they did with me – they would understand that:

  • Their talk is wishful thinking
  • Procedures and instructions are not always applied/carried out and if they are, maybe not in expected way
  • Opportunities for deviations are as numerous as opportunities for improvement
  • People on shop floor resent a boss not showing up from time to time

Keeping secluded in their ivory tower, these managers don’t know what is really going on in the lower levels.

There, people try to overcome their difficulties with available means. They are usually positive-minded and seeking solutions to issues. Yet their options are sometimes dangerous, devious, threatening quality or customer satisfaction, costly or not in line with objectives.

Nevertheless, the management is confident in the talk and convinced that instructions given through a chain of command will reach the lower levels and be applied immediately and thoroughly.

This is, if there is no hole in the pyramid!

Rules are also set by procedures and work instructions, passed by the same chain of command or by e-mail. There is a strong belief that lower levels personnels will read (!) and act accordingly.

The best proof the loop is left open is when you spot obsolete instructions on yellow-old paper forms, forgotten on some information panel nobody ever go see.

Middle managers and team leaders probably dutifully pass the instructions, but as no one cares if they are turned into actions, the loop remains open.

Besides, none of what comes down include alternatives in case of problems, as problems are not supposed to occur.

I remember a seasoned foreman complaining about the issues with final assembly he had to cope with because the engineer in charge of the design would not come downstairs to check his design and help the assembly team.

The foreman was not welcome upstairs either.

In order to improve things, a young rookie engineer was hired to serve as liaison officer. He went up and down the stairs and waited impatiently to have enough seniority to be delivered from the chore…

This is how things can go wrong, when lower levels are forced to decide and act by themselves, with the limited information and understanding they have.

Living in a kind of perfect world, the cut-off manager often faces shameful reality when touring the shop floor with somebody able to spot it at once. It happened numerous times during my plant tours.

I also witnessed workers cynically joking about the manager they very seldom see. One wished his boss touring me around a great new year. It was end of march and a perfect occasion for the worker to show his discontent in a mischievous but somewhat effective way…

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