Sunday, August 14, 2011

Beware the Open Door Policy

"I have an open door policy. Come on in any time the door's open." Is this enlightened leadership or another example of mediocre modern management philosophy? The problem with the majority of managers that have an "open door" policy is twofold. First, there's not just a physical door between the manager and her staff, but also a figurative one. Doors, even when they are open, create a separation and an isolation that is more perceived than seen. Often, the employee that wants to share an idea, complain or just talk to the manager won't go anywhere near the door to even see if it's open or not.

The second problem involves relationships and geography. The manager that doesn't spend time away from his office and the meeting room is like a king sitting in his throne room. He can't establish a relationship of open communication if he isn't making an effort himself. If a manager sits in his office most of the day, and nobody comes to visit, should he assume that no one has anything important to say to him?

The enlightened leader (EL) doesn't have an open door policy. ELs don't give their employees a reason to seek them out. The EL is seeking out opportunities to communicate with employees on a regular basis. The EL goes to the where the work is being done and interacting with the people that do the work. Without going to the places where the company's products and services are being produced, a manager cannot expect to have meaningful sharing of important information. By making an effort to understand what's happening outside the walls of her own office, the enlightened leader creates:

1. Improved trust
2. Higher morale
3. A better understanding of her business
4. Better follow-through on agreements
5. Higher productivity and quality
6. Faster problem resolution

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, the founders of HP, are credited with bringing the concept of Management by Walking Around to American management. In the Lean Enterprise world, we call the concept the Gemba Walk (gemba is a japanese word that means the real thing at the real place). Whatever you call it, it is important that it is done with the right intentions and methods; that the leader isn't wandering around, just to be seen, without any interaction with the people or the processes. By making an effort to seek knowledge in the right location, even if there are some early stumbles, a business leader can take their misguided open door policy and stick it where it belongs: in the past.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Trouble with Empowerment

The existence of empowered employees can be a tremendously powerful asset for any organization. It can also be a detriment. Empowerment becomes detrimental when the leadership has a poor understanding of what empowerment is. I recently witnessed an example of a misguided, but well-intentioned leader, trying to impart empowerment to his employees. The Operations Manager had an all-hands meeting in order to reinforce the management's support of the lean enterprise transformation they had recently begun. He recognized and complimented a few teams that had shown some marginal improvements in their work areas as the result of some kaizen workshops, and let the rest of the employees know that their time was coming. They would all be on a kaizen workshop team in the future. He then closed the meeting with the words that often make me cringe: "Remember, you don't have to wait to be on a workshop team. You are all empowered to make improvements in your areas. Now get back to work and make your production numbers."

He didn't actually say the last sentence, but that's what he was thinking. Unfortunately, he believed that simply by saying, "You're empowered", some sort of new world would be magically created. A world in which the employees know what empowerment means, have the knowledge and opportunity to make improvements, and somehow have a new authority they didn't have before. The result is normally a workforce that is more frustrated with management than before, and a diminished belief that the leaders actually mean what they say. Unfortunately, this company will continue only to see improvements as a result of formal kaizen workshops, with the improvements being nominal due to a lack of follow-up by the faux-empowered employees.

To help companies understand what empowerment is, here are the 4 elements of an empowered organization:

1. Ability: Employees need to have the knowledge and skills of the lean enterprise principles that apply to their business. They need training and experience in problem solving - identifying, analyzing and solutioning the problems they face in their areas every day.

2. Expectation: Is continuous improvement optional or required. Contributing to the efforts of improving one's own process should be a part of everyone's job. In fact, it should be written in their job requirements, discussed during new hire interviews, and included as a portion of the employee's performance evaluation.

3. Opportunity: Quite simply, people need to be given the time to solve problems and make changes. If you expect them to find "free time" to work on improvements, they won't.

4. Authority: It is important to define the level of authority the individual or the team has. There are 4 levels of authority you can impart to a team:

Level 1, Directed: The team must comply with whatever decision management makes
Level 2, Consultative: Management will decide what to do, but want ideas from the team.
Level 3, Participative: Employees need approval by management before making changes.
Level 4, Delegated: Employees are delegated to make decisions and act without approval.

As you go from Level 1 to Level 4, empowerment and trust increase, and the changes are more likely to stick. Ideally, you will never accept Level 1, use Level 2 in rare circumstances, and apply Levels 3 and 4 appropriately as the leadership matures and employees develop their abilities.

Creating an culture of empowerment doesn't need to be difficult. It takes time and a commitment from the company leadership. The first step is for the leadership to understand what they need to say and do to create all four elements of empowerment that will allow their team's creativity to flourish.