Pretty much what I do these days is help companies transition from old fashioned functional silo organizations to Value Stream structures – cross functional teams aimed directly at strategic objectives. It’s not for everyone. Typically companies have to spend a few years or more fumbling around trying to use lean tools to increase labor efficiency before it dawns on them that using lean tools as an extension of their non-lean management structures and processes doesn’t accomplish much. When they reach the point of understanding that the problem in the past hasn’t been lazy production folks nearly so much as it has been ineffective management, the exciting part of the lean transformation begins.

One of the first questions the senior folks ask when faced with the prospect of trashing the old functional departments and redeploying all of their people into Value Streams is ‘What are the senior people supposed to do when everyone reporting to them is gone?’ What does the old Director or VP of Sales, Operations, Engineering or Supply Chain do when no one reports to him and there is no one left to do his bidding – no one to ask ‘How high?’ when he gives the order to jump.

And at that point we realize that we have a serious problem. When asked what they spent their time doing before, that answer is that they have pretty much spent their days keeping an eye on all of the folks who worked for them – fixating on short term metrics, firefighting, dragging people into daily and weekly meetings to go over the minute details of the business … basically micro-managing; adding very little and generally serving as a source of pressure and distraction for people trying to do their jobs.

You begin to realize why empowerment is such a huge leap for many managers. In some cases it is a lack of trust in their underlings, but mostly the problem is that if middle and lower level folks have the authority to make short term decisions the senior folks won’t have anything to do all day.

The answer, of course, is that they should do what they should have been doing all along – looking ahead instead of looking down.

One of the most telling scenes in the movie Patton was a few months after the Normandy Invasion when Omar Bradley summons Patton and tells him Eisenhower is letting him out of the dog house and putting him in charge of the Third Army with orders to race across France and relieve the pressure on the armies that had come ashore on D-Day. Patton asks when Eisenhower decided to let him back into action, and Bradley tells him that decision was made six months previously – long before the invasion even began.

The power of the scene is that Eisenhower was already worrying about what came next. With the invasion plans set he handed the execution off to Bradley and the others – empowering and trusting them to deal with whatever problems and setbacks came up along the way – and virtually turned his back on it, assuming its success and changing his focus to what would be needed after the invasion. This is senior leadership at its best: define the immediate objective, give the subordinate he resources and authority needed to execute it, then leave them alone to get the job done.

Had many senior manufacturing managers been in Eisenhower’s place that never would have happened. They would have been far too busy looking over Bradley’s shoulder, second guessing and countermanding his orders, and generally making his job much harder than it already was.

Having responsibility for short term results taken off of their plate and assigned to a Value Stream Manager should be a huge relief for senior managers – not a threat to their status. Lack of vision and lack of focus on the future is a huge problem for many, many companies. The plan for the future has to be more than an assumption that everything will be the same and our goal is to do everything we do now only better.

Senior managers’ should be primarily focused on questions such as, What markets do we serve? How are we creating value for those customers? How do our competitors create value? How can we create greater value and grow our share of those markets? What new technologies will affect the products and processes we deploy that will impact our value creation? Where will we get the human resources needed to support our future plans?

When there is no vision and there is no strategy, the default strategy becomes ‘cost reduction’; and when the primary goal is cost reduction it is a sure fire sign of senior leadership that spends all its time looking down rather than looking ahead to see where we are going.