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.


  1. Brian,

    I like the info about empowerment, especially the 4 elements. My leadership team donesn't quite get that yet. However, I don't agree that Empowerment Level One, where a team has no input at all, should never be used. Weve used Level One when we installed a new system and for buying big expensive equipment. I can't see the risk in not getting others involved when the projects are so big and/or expensive.

    1. David, I can understand that you might not see the need for input from other employees when designing and procuring large equipment, and maybe their input wouldn't be that valuable. However, with just a little bit of involvement in the project, you will give them a greater sense of inclusiveness and ownership. They will feel more respected, and will possibly be more motivated to go out of their way for the company in the future.