Workcell Empowerment

January 1, 2011

Lean, which is adapted from the Toyota Production System (TPS), embodies much of the Toyota cultural and operational philosophies. One of the overriding philosophies of TPS is “worker empowerment”. Lean creates an environment that empowers workers, especially at the workcell, level, to act in favor of quality and productivity. This concept is in sharp contrast with the traditional western management philosophy, which believes those decisions are better left to the supervisor.

To illustrate this how empowerment works, the author tells the true story of Fred (not his real name) who identified and helped stem a serious quality problem without any interruption in production, simply because he felt empowered to make decisions with out fear of failure or fear of repercussions.

A primary tenant of the TPS is that each and every worker is accountable for quality. This is reinforced by the lean pledge “I will not accept bad parts. I will not create bad parts. I will not pass bad parts on to the next step.” This is the ultimate in personal accountability, and it is hugely empowering to the workers on the production floor. Toyota managers not only make their expectations of the workers crystal clear, but also openly accept their own responsibility for creating systems that foster a lively learning environment where process-oriented problem solving is a way of life.

Accountability without authority is worthless. So what authority is given to the workers? In the Lean factory, workers are expected to act in favor of increased quality and increased productivity. At Toyota, any worker can stop the production line when they find a defect that cannot be immediately remedied through their own actions. This is empowerment. It is also a huge responsibility, not to be taken lightly. The workers “get it” and behave accordingly.

In the Lean environment, the worker has a reasonable expectation of an appropriate management response when they stop the line. Lean management views the failure as a problem with the process and not a problem with the worker. The identification of a problem is celebrated, because now it can be solved.

In the non-Lean environment, the worker would expect to be chastised or reprimanded for stopping the line. Because management has not accepted their accountability for creating the systems and processes that increase quality and productivity, stopping the line is seen as the worker’s fault. Laying the blame on workers accomplishes nothing, except to cultivate bad attitudes.

A few years ago, I worked with a Lean client to perform a dock-to-dock Lean Transformation, where workcells and flow were clearly defined. All of the workcells were set-up with Kanban, 2-bin, flow-racks and simple rules for flow. The managers and the workers were taught the basics of Lean, and participated in the transformation projects. One of the workcells was an in-house parts manufacturing operation, where steel bar stock and angle-iron were sawed and punched and shaped into components. The bar stock raw material could be ordered daily from the supplier, with next day delivery. Not long after Lean was implemented, a worker in this workcell, let’s call him Fred, acted in favor of quality by rejecting a shipment of crooked angle iron. His rational was very simple: 1) The crooked material meant more work for Fred, since he was accountable for producing straight parts, 2) because he could look at the 2-bin system and instantly know his raw material status, Fred knew he had plenty of raw material, and 3) Fred also knew there could be another shipment the next day. Over the years, Fred had seen good material and bad, so he knew that straight angle iron was readily obtainable. In short, Fred was empowered because he had all the information necessary to support his decision. There was no uncertainty. Afterward, he told the plant manager about the problem and his decision, earning praise for his action. The next day, the replacement delivery was once again rejected by Fred for the same reasons. The plant manager was notified, and this time he summoned the buyer, who launched an investigation. It turned out that the steel supply company had purchased an entire mill run of 10,000 feet of angle iron and it was all crooked. Such material was useless to my Lean client, so they went to a secondary source to obtain straight material. In the meantime, production continued, and no time was lost because there were no stock-outs.

In the above scenario, Fred was not explicitly empowered, because he was never actually told what he could and could not do. Rather, Fred had a clear accountability to produce good parts, and had a very clearly delineated domain of authority. Fred was empowered by removal of the uncertainty stemming from incomplete information. The Visual Factory indicators of the Lean system informed Fred’s decision, which could be made with high confidence. Fred was empowered because he had authority within his domain. He acted in favor of quality, knowing that he was not delaying the manufacturing process. That is empowerment.

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