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.

1 Mark R Hamel February 21, 2011 at 11:10 am

Hi Jamie,

A great and very thoughtful post! The transparency that lean brings can be down right disconcerting to folks. Micro-managing makes it much more difficult.

Lean leaders need to turn over the specifics of the “how” to their people, as long as the how is consistent with lean principles. Letting go of our personal preferences/micro-managing ways can be difficult, but it’s the only way people will engage, learn and take ownership in the end.

2 Jamie Flinchbaugh February 21, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Thanks Mark.

Leaders need to ENGAGE their people in their how, but I don’t agree with turning it over. The thing is, you can’t help solve problems or make improvements unless you engage in the details. Also, the idea of transforming the entire value stream means you can’t let each individual or team do their own thing, because it all needs to connect together.

This is why we believe building a common language, a common lens, and a common way of thinking is so important. It ensures that leaders and their teams are headed in the same direction.

3 Mark R Hamel February 21, 2011 at 3:37 pm


Turning it over does NOT mean abdicating responsibility and letting folks run around willy-nilly. The leader must make sure that the “how” is consistent with the principles. No way to do that unless you get into the proper level of detail and coach within that context, like when using A3’s. And yes, the construct for improvement, like strategy deployment, value stream improvement plans, and daily accountability processes, must be established as well.

4 Jamie Flinchbaugh February 21, 2011 at 3:44 pm


I think that is why people struggle with this. They need to get into the details, but getting into the details FEELS like micro-management, even when it’s not.

5 John Hunter February 21, 2011 at 4:45 pm

I do not think it is such a fine line in reality. I think it is a fine line between transparency and people WORRYING about micro-managing. But in a well run organization their is nothing about transparency that approaches micro-managing. I think people worry because in their experience when a boss gets close to their work that has been followed by micromanaging. But that is confusing historical correlation with causation, in my opinion.

I agree with everything you said. I just would put the failure of micro-managing on bad management practices, not as a potential weakness around transparency. And as Mark says just someone saying “micro-managing” doesn’t make sensible management bad.

6 Jamie Flinchbaugh February 21, 2011 at 5:42 pm

John, no, it’s not the fault of transparency. It’s the fault of the culture. But if you see the experience of a company that hasn’t had the right culture, adding transparency leads people to react as if it was micro-managing.

7 Matt Wrye February 22, 2011 at 4:20 pm

Transparency can seem like micro-managing. It’s not, but when people aren’t used to being transparent it can create some negative feelings and reactions. It is about how the manager responds to this that can lead to micro-managing. Mircro-managing is about control and power. Understanding the details and guiding someone is not the same as dictating what they do. It is a subject that is hard to explain but you usually know it when you see or experience it.

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