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business, culture, deming, improvement, leadership, lean, management, Uncategorized

Flattening the Organization- Probably Not the Answer

One of the misconceptions about lean thinking is that it automatically leads to flattening the organization. Many people think that layers of management are always a bad thing and start removing layers as a way to empower employees, speed up decision-making, and improve innovation. While there is no shortage of organizations that suffer from too many layers, it should be noted that flattening does not necessarily lead to improved performance. Many organizations that flattened their structures have experienced little more than burned out managers, frustrated employees, and high turnover.

Removing layers of management downplays the important role managers play in improving the organization’s performance. This includes responsibilities like coaching people to solve problems, developing future leaders, and continually removing barriers to team member performance.

When an organization removes layers and managers have large numbers of people on their teams, it is not possible to spend the time needed to develop problem-solving or leadership skills of team members. As a result, the managers resort to directing and telling, rather than coaching and teaching, leaving team members feeling stuck with little hope of improving their skills or growing in their careers.

Flat organizations leave personal development completely up to the individual, something that rarely, if ever, works effectively. When people are left to develop on their own, the lack of objectivity will lead them to focus on the areas they want – rather than need – to improve. When this happens, the team member, as well as the organization, stagnates resulting in a deterioration in customer service and long-term performance.

Understanding the Problem

One of the reasons often given for eliminating layers of management is that managers get in the way and slow down processes. Although there are cases where this is true, eliminating layers is not necessarily addressing the root cause of the problem. The company can benefit more by understanding why its leadership is ineffective and its processes and systems are slow, rather than assuming it is because of excessive layers.  Firing managers without addressing the real causes of poor performance can magnify the problems and, after a short-term improvement in results, end up in worse shape than if no action was taken.

No Quick Fix

In spite of what many believe about management layers, they do have a purpose in organizations. Flattening the organization is a fad that ignores the importance of developing people and continually improving. As companies like Toyota, Facebook, and Google have proven for many years, long-term success still comes down to effective leadership, respecting people, and a never-ending focus on improvement.


About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.


5 thoughts on “Flattening the Organization- Probably Not the Answer

  1. “Removing layers of management downplays the important role managers play in improving the organization’s performance. This includes responsibilities like coaching people to solve problems, developing future leaders, and continually removing barriers to team member performance.”

    This is the ideal case, and I couldn’t agree more that it is how things should be. But my experience suggests that layers of management don’t emerge for these reasons. Instead, “manager” roles seem to be created as paths for career progression for employees who have hit some type of ceiling–salary, rank, tenure, etc. Such management layers don’t add value in the manner you write. People in these manager roles often don’t want to be managers, nor do they possess the aptitude for it.

    My experience may be an outlier 🙂


    Posted by Shrikant Kalegaonkar | May 31, 2017, 11:05 am
    • Shrikant – Thanks for the comment. I absolutely agree that there are times when managers are not adding value to the organization. Removing layers, however, often results from jumping to a countermeasure without understanding the root cause of the problem of ineffective leaders. I don’t think your experience is necessarily an outlier . . . I believe, though, that organizations need to understand why leaders aren’t adding value before taking action. If they don’t know how to coach and develop team members, removing them (and the layer they’re a part of) will address the symptom but the problem of continuing to promote people without giving them the ability to coach will continue. It’s a serious problem in western companies.


      Posted by Gregg Stocker | June 1, 2017, 2:48 am
  2. Developing people, as you mention in the last paragraph, is the gist for the existence of organisation in human society. The creation or emergence of managers indicates that the mentoring and coaching other people cannot be done in ‘large scale’ as the flatten structures imply.


    Posted by Hanvour | June 23, 2017, 5:26 am
  3. ‘Fad is right’. Actually that is the nice way to put it.

    One side of this says “how can I manage 44 people?”. This group conflates management with micro-management. The other side says ” we are empowering our employees to think for themselves and grow.” This group is only parroting the brochure from the seminar they went to.

    I work in a company that prides itself on being flat. My previous employer prided itself too on its effort at flattening its structure. Truthfully neither are truly flat–its a relative term. Some like to indicate ‘flatness’ by how many people are in between them and the CEO. Ok…so are we flat or are we feudal?

    Truthfully the org chart I’m working in now does speed up decisions but not by large magnitudes. And in point of fact of missing root causes, total time to execution (of something) is in fact about the same. And if I could quantify the confusion, it is about the same too.

    And yep the development framework and machinery is bereft of substance or discipline.

    The only way these types of structures have a chance at working is if there is a support framework of coaches, mentors, and informal leaders. Folks who can coach in problem solving but stay out of the formal supervisor territory. This group of folks can help move the needle. However they, too, have a day job to do and coaching someone’s former direct reports is an overburden on them as well.

    In the end I think the trend towards flat organizations is simply another re-hash of ‘downsizing’.

    The effort to flatten an organization is tremendous and rife with potential safety risks. The effort to unwind such a situation is even more difficult (that whole entropy thing ya know).

    The juice is not worth the squeeze on this one. Time, effort, and capital is better spent figuring out the root causes of gaps in performance; and if an org level or a few managers aren’t needed then great–redeploy them!


    Posted by Kyle | November 27, 2017, 4:26 pm

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