Can you define it?
It’s a word that is tossed around quite frequently, but what does it mean? Unless it is made practical, it won’t be very actionable. In that situation it might be better not to use the word at all for clarity’s sake.
Thankfully, someone has made “empowerment” practical and clear—or at least one person. His name is John Kotter and I discovered four requirements for empowerment in his book Leading Change when scanning through it.
If you want employees to take broad actions to transform your organization and apply lean, you should take a moment to consider Kotter’s four S’s. (There’s no connection to 5S or 3S in Kotter’s 4S’s).
Each S is a barrier to empowerment and must be addressed if employees are truly going to be “empowered” to do something.
The Four S’s Are:
Removing Structural Barriers
It’s easy to tell someone, “you’re empowered!”
But the moment they try to change something with their newfound power and discover that there are four other departments that all must approve the smallest change, they may not feel so powerful anymore.
Even worse, the people in these departments may spend all their time in another location or another building altogether.
How is an entry-level associate supposed to make a change when the structure of the organization (and its approval process) disable him or her from getting anything done?
There are structural barriers, and they are hindering change.
Now, let me be clear: we’re not a proponent of no structure. That would surely bring chaos, regulatory infringement, and lack of clarity to an organization.
But there are often changes that can be made to a company’s structure of people and resources to better support change initiatives.
- Could Quality be present on the production floor at dependable times to assist in approving changes?
- Could a management team dedicate time and resources to evaluate and approve changes?
- Could the layout of departments or even job titles and assignments be changed so that people are less hindered?
If you’re in a more regulated industry (e.g. medical, aerospace, pharmaceutical, etc.), you may feel the effects of structural barriers even more than others.
If people are going to be empowered, it’s a good idea to consider optimizing existing structure, or even changing it.
It’s interesting that when Paul Akers was asked what was his single greatest physical improvement at FastCap, he answers by saying “removing the walls.” This is a structural change, and Paul says it’s the greatest physical change he’s ever made!
Training People in Needed Skills
When employees are told they are empowered to do new things, a few things can happen if you don’t also give them the skills they need to be successful.
For example, any of the following could happen:
- They don’t follow procedures for making changes.
- They make seemingly random changes that aren’t aligned with your expectations.
- They make ineffective changes because they don’t have previous experience or training.
- They don’t do anything because they don’t know how.
For example, if you tell employees, “We’re going to be lean,” how are they supposed to “be lean” if no one shows them how? They need it modeled to them, which means training them in new skills.
Systems are the processes that enable behaviors. Five of them that are of interest are appraisal systems, reward systems, information systems, cultural systems, and training systems.
Many companies have some form of appraisal system for reviewing employee performance on a regular basis. If lean is truly an essential and nonnegotiable value at your company, it is important that the appraisal system is updated to evaluate employee performance with respect to lean.
Some companies also have reward systems. Although there is debate over rewarding employees for lean behaviors, some companies have great success with lean reward systems.
If information isn’t being shared effectively at your company, an employee’s opportunity and effectiveness could be compromised. If they don’t have the right information, at the right time, and easily, you may have mixed results.
These systems come in a variety of forms. It could be a monthly managers meeting, or a daily standup meeting. It could be employee onboarding, or a recognition system. Establishing culture is a business decision—it doesn’t happen automatically. But there are opportunities to reinforce lean thinking every day and week in these systems.
Not only do employees need skills, but companies often need a training program that can continue training new and old employees indefinitely. If lean training isn’t added to your training system, the benefits of short term training can easily fade away.
Getting Supervisors on the Same Page
In all that you do, you have to take the time to get your management team on the same page. Every supervisor represents the will of the company. If the company wants to become lean, every supervisor must somehow be held accountable and begin “marching the troops” in the same direction.
You have as many cultures as your company as you have supervisors. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that each one got the message or is doing the same thing. Unfortunately, it’s possible that some won’t care at all.
You need a unified management team that communicates a consistent message for Lean to be successful.
If supervisors aren’t onboard, empowerment will be powerless. Make sure supervisors aren’t hindering goals that have been set. Make sure they take responsibility for seeing lean acted upon under their supervision.