Managers, Continue “Doing the Work”

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on

As noted by Henri Fayol, the source of modern management theories, there are five elements to managing; Planning, Organizing, Commanding, Coordinating and Controlling. These are all important aspects of a manager’s day, however, the more time a manager spends doing these tasks, the less time they spend with the customers. Despite the amount of work managers have on their plates, it’s worth setting aside time to talk to customers and work on the “front lines,” so to speak.

Managing all the time is a quick way to lose sight of who your paying customers are. As a manager, hiring employees and planning for big picture business needs tends to become the focus (which is good). However, it’s important to remain connected to those engaging your business (e.g. giving you money); they’re the reason your company stays alive. A simple heuristic, don’t go more than 2 weeks without a conversation with a customer, is a great place to start.

Similarly, Taiichi Ohno and Toyota’s Production System use the term genchi genbutsu. This Japanese phrase translates to “real location, real thing.” The point being that to solve problems, we do better by going to the source of the problem, instead of trying to solve it from a board room a few floors (or few thousand miles) away. The lesson for managers here is that they should remain involved in the day to day action of the business so when the time comes to apply big picture thinking to solving problems, one is better prepared. Ohno came to this realization decades ago in a manufacturing setting where managers were often trying to troubleshoot for production staff without understanding the real physical nature of the work environment and of the role. Other areas this pops up a lot are customer service and sales.

Customer service teams often spend their days being talked down to or berated by angry customers, only to have their managers demand more work from them. (no one ever calls in because they are super happy with the product.) Managers in an office likely just see a number, e.g. too many minutes on a phone call, and demand that employees cut down the time per customer on a call. The customer service team knows, though, that with an extra minute or two, they can prevent the frustrated customer from having the experience again (and thus preventing another call). A manager who is on those calls occasionally (genchi genbutsu) will have a better understanding of the work and how the team is currently solving issues for customers.

Very similarly, sales teams are often held to a standard set by someone in an office that doesn’t understand how long a sales cycle actually takes. To avoid creating a dysfunctional team dynamic, any manager overseeing sales teams should still be doing some of their own selling.

If a rift grows between management and team members, consequences are likely to follow (e.g. people quitting, customer service suffering, customers walking, etc). When managers spend time on the front lines, they’ll be better suited to make decisions that the customers will appreciate as well as maintain better relationships with employees and team members.

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