The Fine Line Between Micro-Management and Surfacing Problems

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on February 21, 2011 · 10 comments

Not many people want to be the victim of micro-management. And most managers don’t espouse operating that way. But not all micro-management is created equal.

As organizations pursue lean effort,s I see a tension between making problems visible and micro-management. Many organizations are very sensitive to anything that feels like micro-management, even just a detailed question or email.

This is in part because we try to hire smart people who are expected to perform at high levels, and are in turn trusted to do so. Anything that imposes additional reporting or transparency can be interpreted as micro-management, and resisted immediately. An example of this can include building work plans for the week, or for the month, and getting them posted and managed as a team. Another example would be building lists of problems that are being worked on, and their status. If this, because of its focus on details, is interpreted as micro-management, your efforts may be dead before they start.

The problem is that you cannot manage work that you cannot see. Managing the work visible is a central aspect to improvement. In the factory, it is about making tool status and work-in-process levels visible. In knowledge work, it is about making tasks visible, and understanding what is getting in the way of getting tasks completed.

The difference between engagement and micro-management is how management responds to this increased transparency.

Micro-management is imposing your personal preferences and styles onto people. “That’s not how I would do it” would be an example of micro-management. If instead managers responded with help, then it turns from micro-management into a problem-finding system. “What is getting in the way of getting this done?” is the kind of conversation design.

This will take some learning and adjustment. The more people are expecting micro-management, the more resistant they will be to anything that makes their work more transparent. But you won’t get very far if it isn’t transparent. After all, you can’t solve problems that you can’t see. That resistance can only be overcome with a consistent behavior from management of support instead of micro-management.


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