Friday, August 7, 2009

Employee Empowerment is Key to Success with Lean

The management concept of employee empowerment can be defined as the creation of an environment in which people at all levels feel they have real influence over standards of quality, service, and business effectiveness within their areas of responsibility. It is a strategy and philosophy that enables employees to make decisions about their jobs. In an organization where this style of management is not natural, adopting a management style that embraces empowerment will be a difficult but critical change in order to succeed in the effort of implementing Lean Enterprise Thinking.

Organizations that support empowered people have some common characteristics:
  • There are few management layers in the organization
  • Wide spans of control exist with relative responsibilities and accountabilities
  • A process-based organization structure is used as opposed to a purely functional based structure
  • Management stands behind people being empowered

Most experts who are familiar with implementing Lean in an organization will probably state something to the effect of “…. the major inhibitor to get a lean environment is the inability to trust the workforce and really give up a certain level of control in order to give people the power to implement their own ideas and be respected as experts in their area….”.

Without this level of trust within the workforce, those who know best how to improve the operation will not feel they can make the changes required to eliminate all of the waste possible and the thought of continuous improvement will not become a way of thinking as it must for Lean to be truly successful.

Empowering the workforce does not mean that management gives up control and lets people do whatever they please. Instead, guidelines and boundaries need to be set so that everyone knows the limits of how they can operate. A process needs to be established that allows management to set the direction for the organization but lets the workforce finds unique ways to achieve these goals and objectives. By letting the workforce be free to implement ideas within their work areas, management will find that the organization is much more productive than by following the direction of a few select individuals. The trick is to leverage one’s self though the talents of everyone involved.

The process of adapting an empowerment style of operating within the organization is not solely the responsibility of management. True, a manager needs to learn to let go without giving up total control, but in order for empowerment to work, the employee must accept it and the responsibility that goes with it. In short – they have to take it. However, not all are willing or able to do, or they do not know how and what it means, so care must be taken to educate and transition those involved.

Changing to a mode of operating that truly empowers the members of an organization is a difficult transition to make but is one that can be accomplished. It does take time and having a coach can be a real help. Everyone involved should be patient and realize that the organization is learning a new way to operate, but once it is successful with this transition, the organization will have taken a major step towards to Being Lean and not just Doing Lean.

What are ways that you have empowered people?