Tales from the Pyramid – the Swiss cheese

TfP_swiss_cheeseSwiss cheese as most people imagine it is a holed one. The pyramid in this post looks much like a portion of Swiss cheese, with holes in its middle layer. These holes stand for rogue middle managers who don’t align to corporate objectives, resist change or passively sabotage improvement programs.

Their behavior have various backgrounds and reasons yet impair the dependent departments and/or organization-wide initiatives.

Not playing by the rules while being in charge of a department is like leaving holes in the organization.

They are expected to carry out or support projects but don’t. In most cases they resist change fearing to lose the prestige and advantages of their current position. This is usually the case with people having (unexpectedly?) reached a top position, given their background, career trail and competencies.

High potentials usually do not worry about changes and challenges, they’re ready or even longing for them..

In industry I often saw this with maintenance managers, once good techies or engineers, promoted because of their technical skills but poor managers.

While struggling with management chores, they gradually lost their keenness about technique. Younger newcomers with technical degrees are more up-to-date and eager to climb the promotion ladder.

For the outdated managers, survival is often granted by their long experience and withholding information and knowledge, faking their expertise. Few knowledge is usually captured in (IT) system and even basic standards are not set.

The same phenomenon can happen in any department*, letting the organization dependant upon very few people with the alleged** know-how and barely willing to change the situation.

*‘Holes’ and similar behaviors can be found in the lowest layer of the pyramid, either because of the people’s own attitude or because they must carry out orders from rogue managers. Fortunately, in the lowest layer such individuals generally have limited influence.

**Sometimes the know-how is nothing but a myth.

The Swiss cheese pyramid looks like the one with the ‘hole’, but in that case the hole is made by a consistent category of employees, while in this case, the cheese holes are as many individuals.

One big hole or many smaller ones lead to the same effect: the organization is weakened, dependant on few, most of the time not fully company-oriented people.

Compared to the BlessingWhite types of employees, I would say the holes are mostly made by ‘hamsters’ and ‘crash and burners’.

Mending the holes can be complicated, requires a mixture of psychology, training, coaching and if nothing helps, the ultimate replacement.

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Tales from the Pyramid – Base first

Some improvement initiatives start bottom-up, especially in bigger companies or corporations, when a department manager or local executives decide a Lean deployment program launch without a formal go from top-most bosses.

It can also be a pilot workshop in some area, “just to see” the outcome, agreed by top but without much of their involvement.

Unless the top management is convinced about the improvement initiative and is supporting it, the pyramid looks much like the base is moving forward while the top stays put.

These kind of initiatives may start well, whether because the base is willing to improve operations and reap some benefits for its own or is simply executing orders.

The head of the organization may remain unaware or uninterested for a while or let the thing start without endorsing it, for some reason.

Such a base-first initiative is not likely to succeed as chances are:

  • The champions leave
  • Priorities change
  • Successes may be visible on shop floor but do not show on financial reports
  • It looks like the initiative costs a lot (expenses can be counted) but does not yield countable results from corporate point of view
  • Distracting resources from normal occupation may not be agreed after a while
  • The improvement areas or themes make no sense at corporate level
  • Top management may get clearer idea about improvement potentials, but now want them aligned with strategic objectives

Whether it is stopped or realigned, stakeholders will probably resent it and get discouraged to go on. After all, stopping or realigning the initiative is equal to state the efforts were useless (and nobody stopped them from the beginning).

I do not believe in success of bottom-up initiatives and I can’t remember having seen one succeed after a longer period. Some of them may last some time, but sooner or later one of the above mentioned phenomena will bring it to stall.

If you have a success story started bottom-up to share, you’re welcome!

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Tales from the Pyramid – the torn pyramid

Post after post in the Tales of the Pyramid series I describe what happens to the corporate hierarchical structures, usually pyramids.
This time the pyramid is torn. Half of the organization moves ahead and backs up the project while another half resists change.

Typical example is a broad market strategy change that requires to renew products and/or customers portfolios, discontinuing products that do not fit into the scheme anymore, stopping to serve some markets segments, etc.

Forecasting, procurement, production, marketing and shipment usually have no problem embracing this kind of change, but sales seldom welcome it.

Salesforce has strong incentive about sales and disrupting their bonus-process with a new deal is no fun to them. There are those easy-sales that yield bonus without big effort. There are products the customers are accustomed to and make them change to an alternate requires big effort while being risky.

Salesforce often fight to keep the portfolios as they are best for them, regardless to the overall interest. If they can’t convince, they often do not (totally) stick to the decisions and new objectives, letting customers order products bound to disappear and still visiting customers which are no more desirable.

As unwanted orders keep being fed into the process, the pipe never totally dries up and portfolios are not renewed as decided.

Remote subsidiaries play the same game justifying their play with local rules and constraints.
Sales are not the only division that can tear off the pyramid, but I witnessed it often with them.

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Tales from the Pyramid – Head first

Imagine a bold general in front of his troops, commanding the assault against the enemy.
Spurring his horse to assault he dashed.
His troops didn’t move.

It’s more or less how some top executives must feel, when confident about the tactical moves and their overall strategy, they order the decisive manoeuvre but the bulk of the forces does not follow.

In organizations and companies, giving orders and dictating rules and procedures doesn’t guarantee they will be carried out, applied and followed.

Employees nowadays are less obedient than the previous generations were. Today employees want to be associates in every meaning of the word, not only pawns on the big chessboard.

Management turned employees into intrapreneurs, rewarded individual performance, turned many of them into bounty hunters and mercenaries.
The latter go to battle heartily when success is easy and reward alluring, but may stay put or even run away otherwise.

Other internal forces may play against the big plan, like labor unions for example or some influential managers not sharing the chiefs’ beliefs.

Another factor for the mass to move or not is the speed the instructions, explanations or invitation cascade down the pyramid. The larger the organization, the slower usually the diffusion and the greater the risk of distortion as the messages are passed along.

Or it looks like another flavor-of-the-month idea/program/project. Disillusioned staff just waits for the next big idea and goes on like usual, unimpressed by the top fuss.

There are many reasons the mass will not move on, top managers like generals better check about all possible hindrances before throwing themselves head first into the big fight.

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Tales from the Pyramid – the hole in the pyramid

No senior manager ever denied his/her organization does not suffer a hole in the pyramid. I coined this expression (originally in French) after seeing it in all companies I visited as a consultant.

Pyramid with a hole

The hole in the pyramid is a management vacuum left by middle managers who do not (fully) take over their management role. Most often those managers:

  • are former lower level employees promoted to management, e.g. best worker promoted team leader, foreman or even production manager, or technical expert
  • promoted to manager, e.g. R&D or production engineer promoted to department manager, etc.
  • didn’t get any training or coaching about management, had to self-teach mostly by trial-and-error
  • are proud of their promotion and happy about compensation and benefits
  • are awkward and uneasy about management and leave it (to others) whenever possible
  • hide in paperwork, reports, and Excel sheets, behind computer screens in remote offices
  • are source of resentment from both their boss and subordinates.

Their boss cannot rely on them and often have to substitute themselves for them. The subordinates and often former same-level colleagues will not get fair treatment or decisions nor support in execution.

>Lisez-moi en français

The promoted manager inclines either to take the hard way to wipeout former friendship, the soft way trying to please everyone or no way at all, trying to push (unpleasant) decisions up to his/her boss.

Lego_022aSome of them cannot switch to management and incline to return to operational tasks whenever possible instead. This is common among maintenance staff.

Others go an opposite way and refuse any task not compatible with their new status. Working all day behind a computer screen is a symbol of the busy manager, so no way to spend time on shopfloor or take care about the team. Of course this is a personal and convenient interpretation of management’s status.

The problem top management suffers from is the fact the hole in the pyramid is virtual: positions are manned but job isn’t done.

Top managers most often have to step-in, substitute themselves for lower position. Doing so distracts valuable and limited time for tasks which are not theirs and lack time to fulfill the tasks they’re paid for. I use to say they get pulled down.

Victims and guilty

To my surprise, every time I describe a situation in such terms to managers, they heartily agree, all too happy to find an empathetic consultant understanding their daily suffering.

Well, only until they hear the rest of my discourse.

The top managers are, in my point of view, victims and guilty. Their guilt is not to coach and develop their subordinates in a way they get empowered and able to take over their job, including the unpleasant tasks.

Sometimes this is a source of power: letting others be dependant on the boss makes him/her indispensable. In the long term though, this can cost the boss the next promotion as he/she is indispensable where he/she currently is.

Sometimes it is simply the weakness not to take time to coach, pretending to do it faster or better instead. I know, I behave in such manner myself sometimes in the past. I must confess that letting subordinates pull you down can be pleasant: easier tasks give a rest from boring, challenging or delicate higher level tasks.

But this is not what is awaited from high ranking managers.

Mending the hole

What to do with the hole? The answer of course depends on the specific situation, but giving a chance to the person holding the position is a good start:

  • having a face to face discussion about the requirements, the mutual expectations, the gap and how to close the gap
  • give the manager coaching, training if necessary
  • set objectives the SMART way and monitor results
  • discuss the results and seek consensus about the next step
  • if no consensus in sight, the boss is the boss

Sometimes efforts are useless, it is the wrong person for the job.

I remember several cases in which the head of department was the wrong person and obviously suffering from the situation. The proposal to return the person in his/her expertise, excellence or comfort zone, usually the previous position was welcome and the story ended reasonably well.
In some other cases there was no other option than sacking.

The hole has to be mended with new recruitment.

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Tales from the Pyramid – What versus how

Newly promoted team leaders or even managers do not always know how to behave in their new role, especially those climbing up the ladder from operations and technical backgrounds.

What these new managers do not always understand is the sudden switch from orders to carry out to empowerment with more autonomy and decisions to take.

What versus how

The lower the position in the hierarchical pyramid, the more job execution is dictated. Procedures, instructions, work guides, worksheets detail the “how” to do, in what order, with what means and so on, letting little freedom to do differently.
This is particularly true in industry with high standardization.

Lego_018aWhat can appear as fearsome alienation is often a cozy non-commitment execution role, depleted from any responsibility and further stress. As long as you stick to the instructions, as stupid as they may be, you are safe from reproaches.

Conversely, the higher to the top of the hierarchical pyramid, the more autonomy is granted, with increasing demand about engagement and self-management. higher positions are given goals and objectives, the “what” to achieve, without specifying how. The choice of “how” is left to the discretion of the subordinates.

Thus the former line leaders, technicians or skilled workers, used to receive and to execute instructions are often somewhat confused when making their leap onto managerial functions.

They are now in charge and must learn to translate the “what” they are assigned into “how” to their own subordinates. Of course, most of the time the transition is sharp-edged, there is seldom training or coaching to help the newly promoted to find ways into their new role.

Digging the hole into the pyramid

Some find their way by trial-and-error, a long and sometimes painful process with former pals being the less forgiving in case of error.

Some may regret their former comfort of mindless execution and some never really embrace their new role. The latter fill the ranks of the “good workers gone poor managers”.

Among them, many will fill their positions without delivering expecting results nor behaviors. They create what I call the hole in the pyramid.

But this is the next story.

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