W&WP September 2000



Which Management Gear Are You in?


By Tom Dossenbach




The American Heritage Dictionary defines management as the act, manner or practice of managing, or handling, supervision or control, as in the management of a crisis or the management of factory workers.

In that definition, the word "manner" implies an approach, way, mode, method or style of doing something. The manner in which people approach their management responsibilities determines their level of effectiveness.

Put another way, management in woodworking factories involves directing or leading others to follow a road map that a company has carefully laid out through goal-setting exercises. Many management personnel have been involved in that process themselves. For those who do not have a road map, they at least have an idea of what their destination is and generally how to get there.

No matter how detailed the goals, managers operate in an environment that is not completely under their control. A manager may need to load and ship six trucks on a given day and have only one crew member show up to work, or a cell leader may have a critical machine break down suddenly in the middle of a critical run.

Just as there are curves, hills, mountains and icy bridges on a roadway, so surely will similar challenges be faced in the pursuit of a company's goals.

The challenge for managers is to give steady, reliable leadership. If managers are indecisive or falter, they will stand to lose their influence over those who report to them. If they do not know how or when to handle adversity, they will not fulfill one of the purposes of their being part of the management team of their company.

If a company is not where it should be right now, management should first look at itself as the reason why and find out what gear it is in.

Over the years, automobile drivetrains have evolved to provide an efficient means to get us to a given destination. The names of the gears in a transmission can be used to illustrate the various manners - ways, methods, styles or approaches - in which people can approach their jobs as managers.


If managers are in park, they have made a conscious decision to stay where they are and let others worry about reaching the company's goals.

"Others may want to try a new approach," these managers will say, "but I'm happy just where I am. After all, I've been making kitchen cabinets this way for 40 years and change is a waste of time. Besides, old dogs don't want to learn new tricks."

Many managers today look for someone else to do the tough jobs - maybe "top management." Those who have a "put it in park" attitude will surely delay or prevent their companies from progressing through its challenges and reaching its goals.

The only time "park" is good for supervisors and managers is for brief periods to reflect where they are, where they want to go and how to get there. However, the sooner they get going the better - or opportunity will pass them by.


In today's changing environment of globalization, there are constant forces that necessitate companies to quickly re-focus and change directions - often modifying their goals to reflect new objectives.

Sometimes the management of such a company will shift into reverse to formulate a change in strategy, as was the case with a prominent furniture manufacturer recently. The company decided to sell one of its plants and to import all of the products that had previously been manufactured there.

On the factory level, effective supervisors have to make adjustments in their strategies almost daily and sometimes change directions entirely. Suppose they have scheduled a certain product through the plant only to find out that the raw material is defective. Are they going to use it anyway or are they going to be flexible and change the whole schedule and move another product ahead of it until the problem is rectified?


Most managers have run into difficulties along the way and just do not know how or do not have the desire to handle them. However, instead of admitting that they have a problem and getting help, they shift into neutral and coast. This is one of the most dangerous manners of management there is - coasting.

How many times has it been said, "If you are coasting, you are going down hill"? This is so true for every manager in his or her job, as well as in their personal lives.

If managers are in neutral, they are not contributing positively to the good of the company. In fact, if they are coasting they pose a danger to the very future of the company. The more dependent their company is on their actions, the more devastating their being in neutral can be.

There are times when everyone needs to briefly pause before changing directions - if for no other reason than to make sure they understand the goals. However, a supervisor or leader who stays in neutral too long will not be able to lead his or her department.

First Gear

If a manager has just been given a new set of goals or directions for his or her area of responsibility - or are just giving them to those who work with them - they should begin implementing them slowly, but with the highest energy level possible. It takes a lot of energy to get started in a new direction - especially in making a major change. Being in first gear is a time of beginning, of training, of testing with a high energy level of enthusiasm and dedication.

Invariably, after managers get going in pursuit of their goals there are often steep mountains to overcome. They may face stiff resistance from their associates or customers. In extreme cases, they may have to shift into first to keep their momentum going while overcoming the obstacles. However, they need to be careful not to get stuck in first or it can cause delays in reaching their goals and result in missed opportunities.

Second Gear

Second gear is a time to build momentum while trying to implement change or to reach goals. However, it is also a time to build power when encountering some resistance.

When managers experience the day- to-day rumblings or problems in their departments, they should take the time to sit down and explain what they are trying to accomplish and why. This does not mean that they are slowing down, but that they are putting forth extra effort to keep their momentum going.

If they do not use this gear from time to time, they will go through periods when a project almost dies from lack of enthusiasm or for other reasons. A good manager or supervisor knows when to spend a little extra time rallying the troops or assisting them in other ways.

Third Gear

As with first gear, managers need to get out of second gear as soon as possible and shift into third gear - the gear that will let them cruise down the road to success. An example is where an assembly department has been trained in production cell principles and team participation and is now producing quality products on schedule.

Although it was noted earlier that neutral was one of the most dangerous gears or "manners" of management - third gear is another.

Once managers get into this cruising mode, the temptation is to stay in it and go as fast as they can. If they go too fast, they can lose control in the curves, on the mountains or while crossing the icy bridges that they will inevitably encounter. If they do slow down in time, they may cause problems they had not anticipated, such as alienating workers, customers, supervisors or colleagues if they do not get back up to speed quickly enough.

Another possibility is that they may negatively impact the bottom line, as I experienced personally 10 years ago in an effort to reach over-ambitious corporate objectives for continuous improvement.


Drive is the gear managers need to shift into as quickly as possible because it is flexible and powerful enough to keep them going through thick and thin. This is also the gear of innovation and creativity.

The great thing about the drive setting in automatic transmissions is that it automatically adjusts the power through the drivetrain to keep everything moving smoothly when meeting challenges. If managers encounter mountains, the transmission will automatically shift down a gear or two to prevent loss of momentum. If the brakes need to be applied, the transmission shifts down to get everything started smoothly again.

Likewise, if managers are prepared to adjust to adversity, their management and leadership abilities will be enhanced. The manner in which they manage must be both focused with a high energy level and - at the same time - flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. Every manager's company expects this - and a manager's associates expect it as well. If managers do not manage in their own management style - the manner in which they manage others - they are using the wrong gear at the wrong time.

Think about it - which gear are you in right now? Which gear would you like to be in?


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