Eliminating the 7 Roadblocks to Empowerment

LS 004 | Eliminating the 7 Roadblocks to Empowerment

Eliminating the 7 Roadblocks to Empowerment

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Why empowerment matters (0:39)
  • Roadblock #1: Supervisors (3:02)
  • Roadblock #2: Skills (5:03)
  • Roadblock #3: Time (6:26)
  • Roadblock #4: Tools (& Materials) (7:10)
  • Roadblock #5: Physical Structures (8:28)
  • Roadblock #6: Reward Systems (10:21)
  • Roadblock #7: Information Systems (13:45)


Welcome to episode 4 of the Lean Smarts Podcast! I’m your host Daniel Crawford and this is the show where I share simple and actionable lean tips and advice for starting, expanding, and leading a lean life, and a lean organization. Today I want to talk about the word “empowerment” and share with you seven ways to make this abstract word practical in your organization.

Why Empowerment Matters

Let me explain why empowerment is an important idea for lean cultures. When creating a lean culture, we elevate the value of every employee and engage their brains and hands in the process of continuous improvement. Basically, to create this engaged workforce we’re persuading them to participate and we’re making them powerful, so that their participation is effective within the organization. This is why it’s important for lean organizations to figure out how to empower their people. If the people are powerless, they can’t get anything done, no matter how much they try to participate.

But empowerment can unfortunately be a word without a whole lot of meaning. Leaders can walk around all day saying, “you’re empowered,” but the statement has little meaning or consequence if it’s not made practical. There’s nothing more frustrating or confusing than to tell powerless people, “you’re powerful.” It comes off as a platitude. Until the message of empowerment is translated into practical changes in the organization, there will be major hindrances that hold people back–and even just piss them off!

So if you’re in a position of leadership, don’t only encourage people to make a difference and make changes, but also do your due diligence to make sure there’s nothing in the way to prevent them from making that difference.

For the rest of this episode I’m going to identify seven potential roadblocks on the way to empowerment. If you can address these seven roadblocks thoroughly, you’ll make power accessible to everyone in your organization.

Brief aside here: John Kotter from Harvard Business School originally identified four roadblocks in his book Leading Change. These include supervisors, skills, structures, and systems. What he did is great, but in this episode I’m going to break it down a little further–making it a bit more granular–and extend it to seven.

Roadblock #1: Supervisors

The first roadblock to empowerment is supervisors. Supervisors represent the organization and are given delegated authority to act on the organization’s behalf. If the organization says from the top, “we want everyone to make 2 second improvements and to 5S daily” but a supervisor doesn’t continue or honor this message, then the organization is ineffective at empowering its people—or at least in the area of this supervisor’s responsibilities.

Supervisors have to know what the expectation is, they have to be on-board and believe it, and they have to follow through with it in words and actions. If you’re going to empower employees, that message should really be spoken first to supervisors and clarified with them before speaking it to the masses.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the supervisor who is on-board with empowering employees but who is either too busy or doesn’t understand the specific behaviors he or she needs to do to provide support. For example, if the supervisor is always firefighting problems and not present on the floor doing gemba walks, teaching and training, and managing visual controls, employees will likely lack the support they need to follow through with the expectations of the organization.

One way to delineate what supervisors do to support employees doing the work is to create what’s called leader standard work. David Mann explains this well in his book Creating a Lean Culture and is a good read.

Supervisors might also need training to develop new skills, which leads us to the next roadblock.

Roadblock #2: Skills

The second roadblock to empowerment is a lack of needed skills. For example, if employees are told, “We’re becoming a lean organization and you’re empowered to make changes,” how are they supposed to know what a good change is? If employees don’t have even an elementary understanding of the concept “fix what bugs you,” the 8 wastes of lean, or 5S, they may very quickly get confused, frustrated, and become ineffective in their attempts to make changes.

If you’re in a more regulated industry or one that involves engineering disciplines, employees will require a basic understanding of change control processes and the various gating requirements of quality, engineering, and others to see a change through to completion.

And if you’re in a company practicing 2 Second Lean, you’re going to want to teach some general guidelines for how to create before and after videos, how to upload them to YouTube, or any other requirements you have.

Lastly, if supervisors don’t have a clue what lean is, or at least aren’t one-step ahead of the employees they are leading, the message of empowerment can quickly become ineffective or ignored altogether.

Roadblock #3: Time

Roadblock number three is time. If employees are told they have the power to change and improve processes but no time is budgeted for the new expectation, the empowerment message will fail. They’ve got to have time, and it’s best for leaders not to assume it will “just happen” and be fit into an already busy schedule.

Time is every person’s most valuable resource–even more valuable than money. You can steal money, but you can’t steal time. It’s a consumable resource, and it’s a resource that must be budgeted if empowerment is going to actually work.

Roadblock #4: Tools (and Materials)

Roadblock number four is tools. Sometimes there are essential tools that are needed for an empowerment message to take effect. For example, if making changes requires access to a printer or computer and there isn’t one available to operators, they just won’t make changes. Or if they do, they’ll hate the fact that they don’t have the tools they need to do their job and you’ll get less participation.

If you’re running an organization following Paul Akers’ example of 2 Second Lean, then you’re probably going to need to buy a few iPhones for employees to make before and after videos–unless you have a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy that works. Because BYOD may not work, if not everyone has a personal smart phone to use.

You can add on materials to this roadblock. If simple hand tools, construction materials, kaizen foam, colored tape, or other materials aren’t made available to people you’ll get less buy-in from operators. This is a money investment, but if you mean what you say with your empowerment message then you’ll do it.

Roadblock #5: Physical Structures

Roadblock number five is physical structures. These are things like buildings and walls, but could also include fixed equipment, desks, chairs, and other constraints. When I visited Xylem Design for the first time multiple employees told me about the day they tore down the walls in their facility. They used to have departments separated by walls, and this physical segregation of people and space lead to poor teamwork, communication, and support. Because lean is a team sport, if people like engineers, managers, and personnel from other departments are hidden behind doors and walls, those physical structures can get in the way.

This is all the more true in engineering and regulated environments. If the people with authority to review and approve changes are seated at desks located behind walls or in other buildings than manufacturing, you’re just not going to provide production good support. At some point or another you should consider the advantages of tearing down the walls, relocating chairs and desks, or getting rid of some stationary offices altogether.

Many lean organizations place everything on wheels–even desks and office equipment–so that everything and everyone is accessible and flexible. Although getting rid of your office isn’t necessarily what you have to do, you might want to think through how much more support people would have if you relocated it to the production floor. Paul Akers’ lean desk is a good example of this. Check it out in the show notes.

Roadblock #6: Reward Systems

Roadblock number six is reward systems. Many organizations use production metrics. They may also use measures of employee performance in the form of performance evaluations. Both of these function as reward systems that incentivize (or punish) the behavior being measured. You want to make sure these systems are aligned with your empowerment message.

A great example of performance metrics is what I saw at Xylem Design. CEO Greg Glebe provided me a one-page overview of Xylem’s “playbook.” It includes their guiding values, the 8 wastes of lean, their 4 daily disciplines, and even performance metrics. The metrics are phrased in the form of five questions. Anyone can review the five questions and know if they are contributing positively as an employee of Xylem Design. Questions 4 and 5 pertain the most to this idea of empowerment and reward systems. Each question is followed by a brief explanation on the one-page playbook. They are as follows:

Do you get Kaizen? Kaizen is “continuous improvement by everybody, everywhere, everyday.” Our daily disciplines give us the groundwork to improve our workplaces and our lives. Those who actively learn and live our Lean culture are compensated accordingly.

Are you an active problem solver? See, think, do! You’re far more capable than you might realize. By honing your powers of observation and critical thinking, you’ll learn to see waste and discover endless opportunities to improve your world at work and at home. We’re a unique company always improving, and expect you to meet the challenge to do and to be better than you are today.

If you reflect on these two questions–do you get kaizen, and are you an active problem solver–these performance metrics are directly aligned with Greg’s empowerment message to employees to make good changes and eliminate waste. But sometimes reward systems like these are not aligned and create a conflict of interest. So take a look at them and refine them if needed.

I mentioned production metrics as a kind of reward system as well. I won’t get into the example of production metrics too much in this episode but basically they need to have a process focus. If the metrics are results focused you’ll end up rewarding behaviors that counteract lean culture and empowerment of people to truly improve their environment. Results focused metrics reward firefighters who make the monthly numbers at whatever cost but don’t have the time or opportunity to learn from crises and prevent them from reoccurring, and that’s what continuous improvement and the empowerment message is all about!

Roadblock #7: Information Systems

Roadblock number seven is information systems. Sometimes the way in which you store and allow access to information can also be a hindrance to empowering others. If certain information is needed to make a decision or get work accomplished but it’s not easily accessible, peoples efforts will be handicapped by lack of information.

Computer systems can often be the bane of empowerment for everyday operators and employees who work in a physical world versus a digital one. Many softwares also come with expensive licensing making it hard for organizations to give every employee access to the software and the information located inside it.

Although technology is cool, a lot of lean processes actually prefer simple, physical, and visual information systems in the form of visual control boards and even paper. Going analog still has many advantages to this day.

The Seven Roadblocks In Review

That covers the seven roadblocks to empowering others. Let’s review them one more time:

  1. Supervisors
  2. Skills
  3. Time
  4. Tools (& Materials)
  5. Physical Structures
  6. Reward Systems
  7. Information Systems

Each of these should be considered when trying to create a lean culture and when empowering people to do something. Any one of them can get in the way and compromise your efforts. So take time to make empowerment practical. It’s not only the responsibility of management to make people powerful but also to eliminate the organizational obstacles that get in peoples’ way. If you do that, they will believe you and stand a better chance of actually doing something with the power you’ve given them.

Show Notes & References