People tend to want to solve problems from the bottom up. But most of our problems are really solved from the top down. This applies to any aspect of business, but it happens a lot in operations.
For example, I had a conversation with an owner the other day who said he needed better warehouse workers.
I asked, “Well, wait a minute, don’t you have a warehouse manager?”
“Well, yeah,” he said.
“And who’s his boss?”
“The operations manager.”
“So why are you, the owner, spending any time trying to improve the quality of your warehouse team when there are two layers of management between you and them?” I asked.
The problem wasn’t that he didn’t have the right people in the warehouse. The problem was he didn’t have the right people solving the problem.
To follow that thread, let’s say the operations manager was the one doing the hiring, not the warehouse manager. I’d suggest going to the operations manager and asking why he isn’t solving the problem.
The owner might then explain that the operations manager is busy doing other things — which have nothing to do with being an operations manager. Maybe he’s a project manager on a show, also does some sales, and acts as the HR representative. He’s busy with everything but operations.
In that case, the problem isn’t the operations manager. The problem is the owner or the general manager.
You have to keep asking why until you get to the root cause.
It’s common for the root cause to be a chain of one person not fully focused on their job, because someone above them isn’t fully focused on their job, and on and on.
If you want to fix something at the ground level, you often have to go up to the 40,000-foot level where the problem started.
Is Your Middle Management Effective?
You have middle management, but do you have effective middle management? There are a few ways to look at this.
First, is the person you hired for middle management qualified to be a supervisor, manager, or director? Or did the Peter Principle land them in their role since our industry so often feels it has to hire from within?
Second, have you assigned someone a responsibility without giving them the authority to carry it out? In the case of the warehouse workers, for example, we might find that the manager doesn’t have the authority to authorize training, schedule hours, or be involved in hiring or discipline.
So we have a manager with the responsibility of running an efficient warehouse — but without the authority to exercise management skills with the team, tools, resources, or equipment it takes to do the job correctly.
Third, even if you have the right person in the management role and they have the proper authority, are they getting the right input and support from above?
Most managers need coaching from above. But if the coaching they’re getting is counterproductive, maybe they’re being advised to do the wrong things, or not do the right things. In that scenario, having all the responsibility, authority, and resources they need at their fingertips still won’t work.
Effective Middle Management Can Solve the Problem
Effective middle management solves this problem by creating layers of authority. It’s like an inverted pyramid, with more authority at the top than at the bottom.
The fact is, at every level of your business — from the hourly warehouse worker to the office administrator — people need a certain amount of authority to do their jobs. They need the authority to make relevant decisions and carry out tasks. If they don’t have that permission, then why did you hire them?
Ask yourself, what’s the necessary authority as you move through the organization chart? Are you properly supporting that responsibility by giving people the tools, resources, and coaching they need to use it effectively?
Are you going back to review and assess work? Are you checking metrics? Are you looking at key performance indicators to assess success? Is there a feedback loop in the process?
Without a feedback loop, you’ll end up with ineffective middle management. With a feedback loop, you’ll get self-correcting middle management.
The objection I hear over and over about hiring qualified middle management is, “If I hire this person, it’ll cost too much money.”
My response: “What’s the cost of not hiring them?”
If you have ineffective middle management, what don’t you accomplish? What do you lose? What do you spend unnecessarily because you didn’t hire the right person in the first place?
“But what if they’re overqualified?” is the usual comeback.
Awesome. Hire the person who’s overqualified. They’ll do more to move your company farther and faster. An overqualified manager will get bored with the job you gave them and automatically take on more work and responsibility.
Hiring somebody for cheaper who has to stretch themselves to fulfill the requirements of the job is simply going to be a bigger drain on you personally and on the company in general.
Invest in Competent Management
Middle management is responsible for roughly 75% of your workforce. So in operations, the real expense is not having appropriate middle management — because you’re not properly supervising a large portion of your workforce.
Don’t you want managers who are highly qualified in efficient processes, leadership, management, and time management? Of course you do.
Investing there can get better utilization of — and efficiency from — the majority of your workforce.
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