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John Civerolo

These days, nearly everyone knows about "empowerment." The idea of getting improved business results by empowering people isn’t novel, or even controversial, anymore. And why should it be? There are lots of examples of successful companies and improvement programs that would have only worked with an empowered workforce. People Empowerment is one of the best ways to involve employees in any improvement program. To be successful, a People Empowerment process must recognize, congratulate, and reward employees for their commitment to a "problem solving and corrective action" way of doing business.

However, too often many companies are very unsuccessful in implementing a People Empowerment program.

Why? A variety of reasons:

  • Everyone "thinks" they know about People Empowerment. However, do they truly understand the definition of People Empowerment and the subsequent actions required to implement it? Very simply, People Empowerment is the delegation of authority, accountability, and responsibility to employees for improving the business processes under their control without obtaining permission from management. Without internalizing this definition, empowerment is bound to fail.
  • Sometimes management really doesn’t understand what it is getting into when starting the program. Then, they can’t operate without a "command & control" structure. People are hindered or prevented from doing anything without getting permission or asking a higher authority.
  • Expectations are so broad that people assume they have a "blank check" and can address and attack any issue and problem and run around like "loose cannons" trying to solve every business problem. Often, specific business improvement goals are lacking.
  • Teams get bogged down in a "paralysis by analysis" mode without taking any actions or getting results. The problem is usually a lack of direction and leadership. Management sees no results and they equate this to a waste of time, and People Empowerment is deemed a failure.
  • People and teams lack problem solving and interpersonal skills. They don’t practice teamwork, can’t get to the root causes of problems, and can’t achieve consensus. The net result is they don’t work together and don’t solve problems.

The purpose of this article is to show how to prevent the above problems and answer 4 specific questions. They are:

  1. What are the key elements & prerequisites required to empower people?
  2. Once empowered, what should the people do?
  3. What authority do they have?
  4. Are their actions directly linked to the business objectives?

Your company’s People Empowerment efforts don’t have to turn sour, and your people don’t have to be disappointed, frustrated, angry, or turned off. The keys to success are in some practical prerequisites listed below. Build them into the planning for your next improvement initiative. They will help guarantee success.

  • Communicate your vision. Clear communication of the company vision, business objectives, direction, and expected benefits (to the customer, the company, and to the individual employees) is required. Telling people what to do without communicating "why" seldom generates significant results.
  • Lead with the feet and not with the lips. Executive management must provide leadership, focus, and direction. Their commitment is to ensure resources (time, money, and energy) are available & allocated properly. And they must create a sense of urgency and high priority.
  • But, in the end, management must allow people to solve the business problems themselves. People empower themselves; i.e. they take ownership of their processes and don’t have to get permission to implement every incremental improvement idea. Management’s role is to break the red tape, remove obstacles, and help avoid bureaucracy. Then they get out of the way!
  • Establish a new mindset. A new attitude that "everyone is a problem solver" must replace the traditional one of "workers work and managers think." This requires a change in everyone’s attitude toward honesty, openness, communication, and treating workers as adults. People need to be viewed as a talented resource for solving problems and making improvements.
  • Build interpersonal skills early. Listening, communication, and team building skills must be taught to all the members of any action team. This needs to be done before discussing problems, attempting solutions, or leaping into actions.
  • An objective and non-judgmental climate must be created. Team leaders must prepare members to discuss sensitive issues without personal attacks. There needs to be a minimal amount of rationalization, emotionalism, egos, anger, fear, politics, fingerpointing, and defensiveness. Team members must learn to respect and listen to each other’s ideas and opinions. The old brainstorming rule is particularly true. No idea is without some merit. People Empowerment without interpersonal skills is a waste of time.
  • Provide problem solving tools. Problem solving tools must also be fully understood by all members of the action team. These include flowcharts, cause and effect diagrams, Pareto charts, control charts, run charts, brainstorming techniques, etc. Without these tools, the action teams will be unable to separate the symptoms from the root causes of the company’s problems. Time must be allocated so the problem solving tools can be properly used to define the root causes of problems so that the same problems will not appear again and again and again. People Empowerment without problem solving skills is an impossibility.
  • Form focused teams with effective leaders. Form teams only after the potential leaders are educated and trained in facilitation skills. Picking a strong leader/facilitator will help guarantee action team success.
  • Staff appropriately. Make sure the action teams include people that can actually solve the specific problem or identify opportunities for improvement. Whether crossfunctional or functional, the action teams must include people with a vested interest in solving the problem and improving the process. They should not include people who lack interest in improvement.
  • Focus on specific problems. Avoid truisms, generalities, broad statements of intent as goals for individual teams. "Making this a better company" may well be a fine goal, but is so non-specific that it cannot be engaged by an action team. If you want improvement, clear communication of where, what, why, and how is required. If you want inventory reduction, then state where and to what level. If you want reduced setup time, which machines and how much? And if you want synchronous production, which line or area? The leader/facilitator and/or management need to provide direction to help narrow the focus. Action team expectations, goals, objectives, and results should be clearly defined from the start.
  • Establish clear performance measurements. This is management’s handle on the process. Performance measurements motivate behavior. Saying you want one thing, and measuring another sends mixed messages to the organization. "We want this, but your accountable for (i.e. measure on) that" is a sure way to guarantee no change or improvement.
  • Avoid "paralysis by analysis." Once the root causes are discovered, there should be a sense of urgency to attack them with a vengeance and eliminate them. It is important to get into an actions and results mode to achieve measurable and tangible results in a maximum of 90 days.
  • Define the limits of the problem solving authority. Can your teams make changes and spend money (up to a set amount) without management approval? If the limits of team authority are clearly defined up front, they should be able to solve most basic problems or make basic improvements without involving executive management.
  • Don't form a team to attack every problem. The key is to get problems solved, make improvements, and achieve measurable operational results, not to have lot of action teams. Often, empowering and delegating authority to individuals will also achieve excellent results.
  • Keep the action teams small - eight to ten people maximum. Small teams allow good participation, involvement, interaction, and communication.
  • Recognition is the cornerstone of People Empowerment. Recognize, congratulate, promote people's efforts, and reward people for a job well done. Highlight specific accomplishments so that everyone throughout the company can see the business results. This process must be in place before you set up your action teams. Without recognition, people lose their motivation, enthusiasm, or commitment to solve problems and make improvements.

Build these prerequisites into your improvement and empowerment programs. To ensure your foundation remains strong, go back periodically and review them. "We've done it once" isn’t enough to ensure ongoing improvement.

We’ve helped implement many successful People Empowerment processes. If you really want an empowered work force that can contribute to your company’s World Class, Supply Chain Management, Manufacturing Excellence, Synchronous Flow, Continuous Improvement, and/or Class A MRP II objectives, don't even think about starting without honoring these principles.

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If you have specific questions about this article or want to discuss it, call Chris Gray at 603 778-9211.   

The Partners for Excellence specialize in helping companies set up comprehensive measurement programs and improving overall resource management performance.  Contact us at 1 603 528-0840 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..