As line managers from the 1980’s onwards, many , if not most of us of us have been attracted by the compelling idea that an organisation is most productive, and happiest, when all its employees are empowered to make and take decisions on their own and when authority is devolved down to all levels of the organisation.
Hopefully you’ve had the pleasure of being able to translate such thinking into successful practical initiatives in the workplace and see your teams grow. However a considerable volume of literature and regular remarks/questions on the subject here on Linkedin suggest that many organisations still struggle to find the right balance between creating more space for individual/team initiatives and maintaining control ie. insuring that individual/team initiatives are aligned with the organisation’s overall objectives.
This article will briefly review the history of empowerment and terminate with some practical suggestions on the type of initiative that is most likely to provide long term results ie. initiatives where there is an excellent alignment between what issues people are working on and what issues need to be worked on.
Empowerment first emerged as a major management concept in 1977 with the publication of the book “Men and Women of the Corporation” by Rossbeth Moss Kanter and gained further traction with her follow up books the “Change Masters” published in 1983, and “When Giants Learn to Dance” , published in 1989, in which she argued that to be able to “dance” to the music of the flexible, fast changing future they were now confronted with, large companies needed to liberate their employees from their existing, stultifying hierarchies. In today’s, ever more globalized and fast moving world, it would be hard to argue that much has changed since then, bien au contraire…
At that particular time, American and Western companies in general were struggling to meet the challenge posed by all-conquering Japanese companies in the semi-conductor, consumer electronics and automobile industries. Japanese success was explained in part by highly astute industrial planning by the all-powerful MITI, but most of all by the way Japanese companies had succeeded in involving employees at all levels of their organisations in highly structured continuous improvement activities.
As engineering students in the early 1980’s we were already exposed to these ideas which were in stark contrast to the very rigid, top-down management models that had prevailed until then in the West. Given that we were still riding on the wave of the 1960’s and 1970’s “liberal” revolution, the concept of empowerment also had a very strong humanistic and emotional appeal that went well beyond its utilitarian dimension. From that point of view it was a very easy sell.
Hired by Eastman Kodak when I graduated in 1987 at a time when it too was facing a major challenge to its dominant position in silver halide photography from a Japanese competitor, Fuji Photo, we were among the relatively early adopters of these new management concepts. Like many other companies at the time, our first venture into empowerment started with Quality Circles which began to take off in the early 1980’s.
According to the Quality Circles Handbook:
“A quality circle is a small group of between three and 12 people who do the same or similar work, voluntarily meeting together regularly for about one hour per week in paid time, usually under the leadership of their own supervisor, and trained to identify, analyse and solve some of the problems in their work, presenting solutions to management and, where possible, implementing solutions themselves”.
However, after a very promising start, they quickly fell from grace. It was thus that in this article: https://hbr.org/1985/01/quality-circles-after-the-fad published in Jan 1985 by the Harvard Business Review, the following phases were described:
”In summary, then, quality circles encounter many threats to their continued existence. Because of these threats, it is not likely that managers will institutionalize and sustain programs over a long time. Ironically, circles contain in their initial design many of the elements that lead to their elimination and destruction. This raises the issue of how, if at all, executives can effectively use quality circles”
The authors were absolutely correct, by the late 1980’s Quality Circles had already been abandoned by 80% of the large companies that had introduced them earlier in the decade;
It’s also interesting to note regarding many, if not most, shop-floor driven improvement initiatives, that the destructive forces listed in the right hand column above still remain very pertinent to this day.
To understand why developing and maintaining an “empowered” bottom-up continuous improvement culture is generally so difficult, it is worth reading another HBR article published more than 10 years later, in 1998 : https://hbr.org/1998/05/empowerment-the-emperors-new-clothes.
In this article, the author, Chris Argyris, opens with the following statements:
“Considering its much touted potential, it’s no wonder that empowerment receives all the attention it does. Who wouldn’t want more highly motivated employees to help scale the twenty-first century? As one CEO has said, “No vision, no strategy can be achieved without able and empowered employees.
Top-level executives accept their responsibilities to try to develop empowered employees. Human resource professionals devise impressive theories of internal motivation. Experts teach change management. Executives themselves launch any number of programs from reengineering to continuous improvement to TQM. But little of it works.”
He said that there are two types of commitment:
- External commitment, or contractual compliance. This is the sort of commitment that employees display under the command-and-control type of structure, when they have little control over their own destiny and little idea of how to change things.
- Internal commitment, or self-motivation . This is something that occurs when employees are committed to a particular project or person for their own individual reasons.
Argyris argued that the problem with many corporate programmes designed to encourage empowerment was that they created more external than internal commitment. One reason was that the programmes were riddled with contradictions and sent out mixed messages, such as “do your own thing—but do it the way we tell you”. The result was that employees felt little responsibility for the programme, and people throughout the organisation felt less empowered.
He therefore suggested that companies should recognise that empowerment has its limits and that most of all they needed to be clear about who has the right to change things ie. specify the likely limits of permissible change.
Based on my own experience over many years which includes many (mostly successful) initiatives in the areas of TPM, closely associated with the development of “self-managed” work-teams and highly devolved suggestion schemes , being clear about the limits is indeed one of the keys to any successful empowerment initiative.
Actually, later in my career, when working for a consultancy firm specialized in complex change management, getting management to establish the limits for any change management team was one of the most important aspects of our approach. Without such limits there was a very high risk that the teams who were supposed to develop solutions would go off in directions that would later be rejected by the project sponsors because they were unaware of unspoken limits/constraints that were there all along. Having experienced that first hand , I can confirm that nothing is better designed to completely demotivate a team which has invested its time, energy and creativity in finding solutions to an issue than to discover towards the end of their journey that they had been travelling on the « wrong path » almost from the outset…
The others keys to successful empowerment that come most immediately to my mind are insuring that employees constantly have the opportunity to increase their knowledge base (knowledge = power = empowerment) and that they have ready access to information that allows them to understand the relative importance of the issues they work on. In today’s world, with so much data available to those who need it, these issues are much easier to resolve than they were thirty years ago when many organisations were taking their first steps with methods like the Quality Circles described above.
When you stand back from all of that, it is hard to see any area that provides more scope for successful empowerment initiatives than formal, cross-functional problem solving activities. Interestingly, this is also the conclusion that a perennially successful company like Toyota has come to with its 4P management model.
With this model, when an issue which requires resolution is identified, the problem solving activities start with an initial phase to “Grasp the Situation” and identify the “Real Problem” . With this up front agreement between all concerned parties on what the real problem is, it is relatively straightforward to establish limits and move on to next steps as illustrated below.
Regarding the « Cause Investigation » phase, it should be noted that complex problems will generally have multiple cause-effect chains and that different analytical tools may be used, both qualitative tools like the « 5 Why » approach shown in the illustration and more analytical tools when the « 5 Why » approach leads to an unknown cause.
In this manner, many of the issues encountered with Quality Circles and other similarly devolved approaches, where poor initial problem analysis leads to poor problem resolution activities, are mostly avoided -> “make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly consider all the options, implement rapidly.”
As it happens, this is almost exactly the approach taken by Cothink with its RATIO methodology, where a tool called Event Mapping is used to structure the initial “Grasp the Situation” step, for 1st level cause investigation, for highlighting potential countermeasures and finally for monitoring implementation and evaluation of the solutions that were implemented.
Beyond the fact that this initial “Grasp the Situation” step insures that a problem situation is fully understood before deciding what directions the cause investigations need to take, it is a fantastic learning opportunity for all participants. To build an Event Map, participants go through an open but very structured discussion which progressively takes them through the consequences of the problem and all the factors that contribute to its occurrence: direct causes, defective preventive measures and “normal” conditions which amplified the causes or the effects. Furthermore, it is an approach which is just as pertinent for addressing new challenges, such as improving the performance of an existing process, as it is for addressing deviations from established levels of performance.