I RECENTLY received this e-mail message: "I work for the US City Government, and the City Council has been throwing the word 'micro-manage' around in the council meetings.

"Since there is an election coming up, they all seem to have their own idea of what the word 'micro-manage' means (of which some are way off base). What is micro-managing and what is not?"

Micro-managing has become a hot buzzword. I use it, my clients use it, and now the government is beginning to use it.

As stated above, the term can be misused. Perhaps it is time to better define the concept.

Micro-managing is usually synonymous with the "old way of doing things".

"Dinosaur" managers use the micro-management approach. The term essentially means to supervise every small step in the workflow process - hence, "micro".

Those were the days

This method worked fairly well in the "old" production days, when assembly-line workers were uneducated and unskilled.

These workers normally did one routine step and that was it. They made few or no decisions. They had a minimum production quota.

Their breaks were monitored, their lunches were monitored and, of course, the time clock was monitored. Time was viewed as what was "bought" by the company.

Close supervision or micro-managing ensured that production levels were met. Management literally had to tell employees what to do and watch them to make sure they did it.

This system worked well when the workflow was simple.

Times have changed

As the business world became more complex, micro-managing became less effective. Time was not what the company bought and the worker sold. Productivity became the key.

As processes became more complex, workers were required to gain greater skills. Skilled workers became more in demand and could go elsewhere if not treated properly.

Skilled workers eventually found micro-managers offensive and, more importantly, optional.

After 2000, companies became more results-oriented. In an increasingly competitive business environment, they had to.

As time became even less of a factor in the results equation, motivation and innovation began to be understood as the real forces in productivity results.

Workers became employees and then associates and team members. Employees began to be viewed as assets and not just expenses.

Employers began to understand that employees could provide the greatest competitive advantage as well as the No. 1 management headache. In short, employees could make or break the company.

Don't be an obstacle

Managers realised that good management meant maximising employee productivity, and this could no longer be accomplished by micro-managing.

Instead, knowing their staff and helping them to do their best was the best way to reach superior production levels.

Instead of being an obstacle, managers began to understand it was their job to remove obstacles, and time constraints were one of the last obstacles to fall.

Today's managers are aware that they must constantly assess and improve their workplace processes.

They know that accountability is much more than putting in time and punching the clock.

They no longer insist on telling their employees how to do something because, often, the employee knows more about what he is doing than the manager.

Also, managers have learnt that employees not only can solve workplace problems, but they can create and innovate as well.

The employee that creates and innovates does not appreciate being treated like the assembly-line worker of the past. Many skilled employees feel their micro-managers do not appreciate their contributions.

Micro-managing was a process that worked reasonably well when the work was simple and the bottom line was simple.

As work became more complex, micro-managing lost its effectiveness.

In today's workplace, micro-managing is responsible for many bad bottom lines, poor performances and bankruptcies.

With all the negatives, what's to like about micro-managing?