Monday, September 20, 2010

Empowerment Squares

One of the pillars of the TPS (Toyota Production System) is “respect for people.” By not challenging all employees to continually grow leaders are being disrespectful for they are allowing individuals to leave work feeling unfulfilled. Unless people feel like they are truly making a difference (engaged) at work your operation will be on the continuously coping, versus the continually improving, track.
Hourly employees, when they initially hear the word “empowered” often think more work is going to be dumped on them, for example, they are going to be asked to take on the tasks that were once supervisions. If they have spent most of their work careers working in a top down directive environment their feelings are understandable. If they have only contributed to the business by using their hands to do the physical work then discussions about empowerment can seen unclear and threatening. Yet a simple visual tool, when used to demonstrate the concept of empowerment, will move the conversation forward.
Simply draw three squares starting with one and the other two progressively larger around the initial square. The inner square represents the work an individual performs when they are working. They do not have to consult any member of management or the support staff to complete these tasks. The decisions required for these tasks are made by the individual doing the work. The second, or center square, represents times when they may vary from standard work and they feel the need to inform someone, most often supervision, that they made a change. The outer and final square represents times when the worker seeks supervisions approval before making a change or an improvement to a work process. The goal, if you want to empower individuals, is to continually expand the inner square so that they can make more customer-focused business decisions. Explained this way it is easy to understand that empowerment is really about decision making, or more specifically, about who makes the decisions.
The ability to make decisions requires information. Therefore empowerment requires the downward flow of information in an organization. Those who have traditionally been the least empowered in any organization, those performing the hands-on work, can easily make decisions on work scheduling and component replenishment if given the signals, or information, to do so. They can also suggest and implement cycle time improvement changes to their work processes when allowed to do so. By allowing decision making to be driven down in an organization management broadens the scope of the work performed which makes work more interesting and fulfilling. Employees are more likely to feel like they are “making a difference” for their new actions forge a stronger connection to the customer. Empowerment really is a simple concept but it takes courage for management to let go of some of the decision making for it to happen? What is your experience? Do the squares still represent firm boundaries that hourly employees dare not cross or are you allowing individuals to leave work feeling like they made a difference?

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