Employee Empowerment – The Key to Success in Lean Transformation

August 29, 2017

As an instructor of APICS Certification Courses in Operations and Supply Chain Management I am frequently reminded of how many companies are stuck in the same place with their Lean Trans-formation.  They seem to have done everything right, by the book, and still don’t see any real impact on processes and profitability as promised by Lean.

Many of these companies have done extensive Lean training, worked with Lean consultants, held Kaizen events, and gone through 5-S clean ups, and implemented Kanban’s.   They have set up work cells to simplify production control, reduce material handling, and floor space.  Yet they continue to operate with excessive WIP, intermittent production practices, shortages, and some still use “hot lists” to schedule daily production.  Why?

The first question I ask is:  Who was involved in the Lean training and Kaizen events?  The answer I normally get is: “all of the planners, manufacturing engineers and quality engineers, production supervisors, and some managers”.  Were any production workers involved?  I ask.  And the answer often is:  “oh there were a few in the beginning, for training, but not anymore, they don’t have the time.”  Who runs the Kaizen events?  Answer:  The ME’s, QE’s or, “Our “Lean expert.”

So what is missing?  Employee Involvement / Empowerment.

Employee Involvement: “The concept of using the experience, creative energy, and intelligence of all employees by treating them with respect, keeping them informed, and including them and their ideas in the decision making process.”  APICS Dictionary

Employee Empowerment:  “The practice of giving non-managerial employees the responsibility and power to make decisions regarding their jobs and tasks.  Empowerment is enabling employees to take on the responsibility for tasks normally associated with staff specialists, i.e. scheduling, quality, process design or purchasing decisions.”  APICS Dictionary

Employee Involvement / Empowerment – let’s just call it Employee Empowerment – requires real “top to bottom” organizational culture change starting with a top management who is willing to trust employees with decisions regarding their work.  And, many companies are just not ready or able to do that.  When it comes to production, many modern companies still operate as they did in the early 20th century, where the production employees, are merely “the workers”.  Typically less educated, “the workers” were not expected or allowed to think about the work they were doing; “just get the job done”, guided by staff specialists who were better educated and higher paid for their expertise.

Without a climate of Employee Empowerment, that is accepted and encouraged by management, production workers will seldom offer suggestions for process or quality improvement.  For decades production workers have been indoctrinated to call in the “experts” when they have a problem.  In this “trouble shooting” mode there is little, if any, time for process improvement; no time to determine the cause of a quality problem, so the defective part goes to scrap or rework.  The Lean concept of stopping production to fix a problem found in production is called “jidoka” which means “getting it right the first time” rather than passing it on to the customer (next work station).  Jidoka is a prime example of the Lean philosophy of “Quality at the Source” which emphasizes that every production worker (and supplier) is responsible for providing quality material to their customer.

Employee Empowerment is not easy, which is the reason that many companies tend to bypass this piece of the Lean puzzle.  It means that employees and management must learn to operate in an environment of trust and mutual interest, focused on the customer.  It means that staff specialists need to become role players in support of production.  And most importantly, it means that production workers need to gain the confidence to make critical decisions regarding their jobs or tasks, and at the same time know when to call for help from the experts.  Lean is a team activity with every team member understanding their role and executing their job to the best of their ability, training and expertise.

The only way to sustain the improvements afforded by Lean tools and techniques, is to fully embrace an environment of Employee Empowerment.  Lean is a continuous improvement process, so you may not see immediate change or improvement.  But, if you stick with it, with good intentions, and an eye on the goal, you will, eventually, realize a more productive and supportive work force and as a result you will begin to see the improvements in processes and profitability, as promised by Lean, and as realized by many of our global competitors.

Any inquires or comments regarding this article may be directed to Jim Strong, CPIM, CSCP, at JS@theacagroup.com  or to info@acagroup.com .

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