34 – Middle managers in local government: the ‘scrapers of burnt toast’?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                        620 words

burnt toast

This is the phrase used by Peter R. Scholtes in The Leaders Handbook to describe the work of many middle managers as ‘expediters or troubleshooters’ in organisations that have yet to eliminate waste and create ‘efficient, smooth, uncluttered flows of work’.   He says that in a ‘flat’ organisation the layers of middle management have been removed as part of the focus on eliminating waste. In an efficient system, they are unnecessary and non-value adding roles. I am sure he doesn’t think that middle managers aren’t required.  You just need less.  It is an interesting idea.

Scholtes says that removing layers as part of improving organisational performance reduces opportunities for promotion. As a result, people leave to find less efficient organisations where their skills in ‘expediting and troubleshooting’ are required to deal with inefficiencies and waste to make the system work. I started thinking about my role and the role of colleagues in middle management, and what we spend each day doing. What do we talk about when we meet in the corridors? Are we mostly adding value or just spending our time making dysfunctional systems work?

I am afraid I had to answer ‘yes’ to the latter. Much of what middle managers do each day is about helping their teams to get on with delivering services by negotiating a way forward for them through the maze of organisational systems, processes and rules that impede them and have been created without adequate regard for their impact on operations. Many of these impediments have been designed to eliminate risk – stop delegations being exceeded, avoid conflicts of interest, observe legislated requirements.

This is obviously important but it is not what taxpayers put their hands into their pockets and draw out their money to fund. Sure, they want the council to be lawful and sensible in how it operates. They also want it to be efficient and effective in providing them with value for their money. In many ways, it is often only the middle managers accountable for delivering services who are really focussing on efficiency and effectiveness.

I think that this is because middle managers have to deal with service failure. It doesn’t matter what caused it. Usually it is evidenced by customer service escalations or public/employee health and safety problems or industrial grievances or disputes, etc. Situations that are created in which expectations are not met, poor decisions are made (or decisions are not made), or significant risks are overlooked in order to eliminate obvious, but minor, risks. Middle managers do create their own share of these situations, but often it is in response to the system they work in. Sometimes, it is just too hard to do otherwise.

When understanding the rules and steps in a process becomes complicated and onerous, it is natural for people who are focused on outputs to start finding shortcuts and making errors. If a system is designed that requires a highly trained, intelligent and experienced person to use it, and it is actually used by untrained and inexperienced people, it is likely to have a high failure rate.  Try performance managing someone.

I have often heard middle managers criticised for listening but not acting, for being understanding but ineffectual, for being nice but never getting anything done, etc. Recently, I suggested to some colleagues that we might adopt as a motto some phrases from the cover of Scholte’s book – ‘Making Things Happen. Getting Things Done’ – and I was met with some of the self-deprecating humour that is common in local government. Several alternatives were proposed that suggested that our work might be having the opposite effect. Humour often exposes the reality. The unfortunate reality is that the life of a middle manager is part apologist for the organisation and its inability to develop effective ways of doing things; part expert at workarounds for the inexplicable impediments; and part conjuror of solutions that work in spite of the circumstances.

So, how do we avoid scraping burnt toast? Stop burning it!

This is more easily said than done. After all, if you make lots of toast, occasionally some will burn. The trick is not to burn it so often. This is a systems thinking problem. The toast is burning because systems are not working. If we seek to understand purpose or expected value (from internal and external customers); redesign systems to deliver that value; and measure the performance of those systems and use that knowledge to change systems to improve outputs, there will be less toast to scrape. It isn’t difficult, it is just a different way of thinking.

Scholtes, Peter R. 1998. The Leaders Handbook – a guide to inspiring your people and managing the daily workflow.