Managers’ Knowledge: What Remains Once You Have Forgotten Everything

To what extent should managers be able to do the work of their subordinates? And, if they are, how should they use this ability? This is not a topic I have seen addressed in the management literature, perhaps because there are no generic answers. The manager of a car repair shop is typically a mechanic who can do everything the technicians can, but the manager of an opera company usually can’t sing.

1. Selection of Managers

What managers know how to do depends not only on the nature of the business but also on company practices. Let us review a few of the most common methods for choosing managers and their bearing on the question, keeping in mind that there is no guaranteed outcome. Hereditary succession has produced some brilliant managers; meritocracy, some failures. And the best career planning systems ossify when used for decades, becoming more of a ritual than a learning experience for future managers.

1.1. Hereditary Succession

With hereditary transmission of management responsibilities — common in family-owned businesses — anything can happen. The heir may have spent decades learning the business or may know nothing about it. Hereditary transmission also happens in large, public companies with founders’ families.

In the car industry, you would not expect it among leading companies but, for most of its history, Toyota has been run by members of the Toyoda family, and still is. In the US, the Ford family has been involved in the top management of the company for four generations. In Germany, the descendants of Ferdinand Porsche have been feuding over control of Volkswagen and Porsche.

Soichiro Honda, on the other hand, as I heard him explain in a radio interview, discouraged his children from working for his company, because he wanted it to be a meritocracy. If your last name is on the building, no matter what you do, there is no way the people you work with will treat you like just another colleague.

A common variation in Japan is transmission to a son in law. This is what Konosuke Matsushita did when he retired from Panasonic in 1961, and also what Masaaki Imai did when he put his son in law in charge of the Kaizen Institute. I am sure there are also cases of succession by daughters or daughters in law.

One would not expect to encounter hereditary succession in a business like Lean consulting, but a high-profile Lean consultants in France, while not an engineer himself, is the son of the engineer who led the first successful implementations of Lean at French auto parts companies.

1.2. Promotion Of The Best Performers

Companies with a meritocratic ethos promote from within, and whoever is perceived to be best at a current job is promoted when the opportunity arises. The best engineer is tapped to run Engineering; the best repair technician, Maintenance; the best planner, Production Control; the best production operator, as Production Supervisor. This is often done in an emergency, with individuals expected to figure out how to deal with new challenges. If it’s the transition from individual contributor to manager, the new responsibilities have little in common with the old ones.

The new manager may find the work less rewarding than previous assignments. An engineer — trained to invent, design, develop, experiment — enjoys this work and it is “what I do,” when introduced to strangers. Suddenly, as a manager, it’s all about budgets, deadlines, personnel, conflicts, etc. In production, you encounter experienced operators who refuse promotions into management. The raise they would get is not worth the hassle, and they are not keen to distance themselves from their colleagues.

Individuals often accept these assignments only because they feel it is the only way to get ahead, or even remain in the company. Some high-technology companies, like Intel, TI, or HP, have recognized this and offered a “technical ladder” as an alternative career path for engineers who want to keep doing technical work. People at the top of the technical ladder are called “fellows.” They are paid like executives, who treat them as peers, but they have few or no direct reports.

When individuals are promoted to a management position strictly based on excellence at their current job, they come into the new position with deep knowledge of the work they used to do, but possibly none of the work of their other new subordinates, as well as none of the management-specific work. Taking this approach to its logical, if absurd, conclusion, Laurence Peter formulated the Peter Principle, according to which individuals keep being promoted as long as they are successful, until they reach a level at which they are incompetent. Asymptotically, as organizations become stable, all jobs are held by incompetents.

1.3. Promotion Of The Worst Performers

According to cartoonist Scott Adams’s Dilbert Principle it’s the worst performers, not the best ones, who are promoted. As he put it, “in many cases the least competent, least smart people are promoted, simply because they’re the ones you don’t want doing actual work. You want them ordering the doughnuts and yelling at people for not doing their assignments—you know, the easy work. Your heart surgeons and your computer programmers—your smart people—aren’t in management.”


Earlier, and in a more serious fashion, Charles de Gaulle, in his 1932 essay The Edge of the Sword, noted that peacetime armies promoted incompetents to top leadership positions, an impolitic stance for a career lieutenant-colonel in peacetime. Probably based on World War I, he also explained that the inept commanders were quickly relieved when war broke out. His own talents later became obvious.

Dilbert’s comics are popular because employees rarely have much good to say about their managers, as evidenced in the so-called 360-degree feedback that many organizations ask them to provide anonymously. “According to our 360s,” a plant manager once told me, “the managers in this plant are all inept.” Of course, the evaluations written by employees about their direct bosses are to be taken with a grain of salt. In my experience, few management practices have generated as much fear in the workplace as the 360 evaluations. They undermine managers’ authority and poison the atmosphere is small groups, where managers try to infer who posted derogatory information about them.

1.4. Professional Managers

Henri Fayol

Henri Fayol

Peter Drucker

Peter Drucker

These problems of finding good managers are well known, and have been the object of extensive research for at least 150 years, with thinkers like Henri Fayol explaining that the managers’ role is to plan, organize, lead, and control, and later Peter Drucker identifying management as a profession in its own right, requiring a body of knowledge that applies to any business. Then, a talented, well trained manager can be equally successful selling sugared water and leading the most advanced computer company. From this perspective, the manager has no need to know or understand what his subordinates do. We now know this to be a fallacy, but it is an idea that was broadly accepted in American business for decades.


Robert McNamara as Ford President

As it spread, more and more businesses started drawing their leaders from accounting and financial management. It’s not surprising, because money is just about the only thing all businesses have in common. And these leaders knew little about anything else. In his memoirs, Lee Iacocca recalled how investments in manufacturing were determined at Ford under the leadership of financial Whiz Kid Robert McNamara in the late 1950s: knowing that McNamara would cut their requests in half, they asked for twice as much as they needed. This kind of gaming would not have occurred under a leader  with roots in the industry.

1.5. Career Planning

So, if the company doesn’t want to give management positions to biological heirs, doesn’t want to promote the best individual contributors regardless of inclination or management ability, and doesn’t want to recruit generic, professional managers with no knowledge of the business, who should get the jobs? This is closely related to the subject of this post. For all their flaws, hereditary successions are usually prepared, by rotating the heir through various functions. Some companies have grafted this approach onto their meritocratic selection process by anointing as “high potential” not one individual but a group within each cohort of new recruits, and putting them through a program that includes rotations through multiple departments and special training.

You have Boeing’s Executive Potentials, or Expos, Unilever’s Hi-Pos, and other programs that have been reviewed by C. Fernández-Aráoz et al. in the Harvard Business Review in 2011. It is, however, not a common practice in US companies and there is no evidence that it is spreading. Under founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, the HP Way was to invest heavily in people development, in part as succession planning, but it was abandoned in the last three decades. The Human Resources (HR) department of today’s stars of Silicon Valley don’t offer any “career planning” to employees at any level. Google employees, for example, are expected to manage their own careers.

In the US, the bonds between production workers and companies have never been strong, with hiring binges in boom times, followed by massive layoffs in downturns, but lifetime employment used to be the dominant pattern for professionals. Now the bonds with professionals have loosened as well, and careers frequently involve job hopping.

At Toyota, on the other hand, career planning is available not only to a small elite on its way to executive positions, but to, essentially, all regular, full-time employees, including assembly line workers. This translates to a lower number of operators per first-line manager — on the other of 17, as opposed to 30 or even 90 in many companies — and one member of the HR department for every 50 employees rather than 75 or more.

The rotations in professional positions are multi-year assignments, intended to give the individual the time to master each job, develop a rapport with colleagues, and make a contribution. As a consequence, it is a limited number of postings, because it would take an entire career to cycle through all the possibly relevant departments. In addition, HR itself is usually off-limits to rotations, because of its special role.

Of course, after decades of use and generations of employees, the best systems may grow stale, with participants formally going through the motions and, on each successive assignment, focussing more or not making waves than on making a difference.

2. Managers’ Knowledge

Assuming a newly appointed manager has been through such a program, what has he or she learned, and how can this knowledge be put to work? A well-rounded manager often feels capable of solving all the problems in all departments. The temptation of injecting an opinion in the technical discussions of subordinates is often irresistible, but it should be resisted.

A manager’s knowledge of process engineering, production control, or software development may be 10 or 15 years old, and the manager’s perception of technical ability may be a delusion. Even if it is not, the manager must let subordinates own the problems. In its internal operations, Google has a name for the “Highest-Paid Person’s Opinion” (HiPPO) and a rule that, in meetings, they should not be given any special consideration. Of course, the only way to make sure this happens is for the highest-paid persons to refrain from expressing their opinions.

George Savile is frequently quoted for saying “Education is what remains when we have forgotten all that we have been taught.”  I prefer the more concise “Culture is what remains once you have forgotten everything,” as it is also broader and more insightful. There is more both to culture than to education, and to everything than to all that we have been taught. 

Even if experienced decades ago, the thrill of closing deals, the pressure of delivery deadlines, the aha moment of solving a tough technical problem, and the satisfaction of seeing inventions turn into products that improve the lives of others,… leave an imprint that endures when the skills are forgotten or obsolete. It makes subordinates feel that the manager has walked in their shoes, and inspires respect and loyalty.

Refraining from injecting opinions in technical discussions, however, does not mean delegating decisions. A manager can delegate decision making but not abdicate responsibility for their consequences, as discussed when shmoozing with Beau Keyte last March.

#management, #manufacturingmanagement, #skills

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