Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Problem Solving that Leverages Worker Empowerment

In a Lean management system, continuous problem resolution is dependent on a worker-driven 'bottom up' approach rather than the conventional management driven 'top down' approach to problem solving.

This principle is at the core of Demingism but can only be effective if leaders create a blameless culture for workers to identify defective work and a structure that enables and incentivizes their participation and collaboration in continuous improvement. The irony here is that to empower workers to be accountable in solving their own problems through PDCA requires more work for leaders, not less.

In other words, the main role of leaders and managers is to ever improve the system of work itself. We do this by leveraging the quality improvement organizational structure illustrated below in this Henry Ford Production System adaptation of Toyota.


This quality reporting structure aligns team members with their team leader by work stations into small teams that foster worker identification of the nature and scope of daily defects, and stimulate and guide the discussion of possible solutions that can be tested. This cooperative approach is predicated on a 'no blame but all accountable' sense of process ownership by teams.

Workers more readily assimilate the mantra- "never pass a defect" through this empowering structure that continually informs the workforce about the quality of their work product and charges them with improving it. 

Roles of Leadership

The roles of leadership are to establish the shift in work expectations, structures and realignment of incentives so that workers can relate to and interact with each other horizontally across the path of workflow and contribute collaboratively toward work process redesign across historical silos of control. To be effective in fostering change from the bottom-up, so to speak, the people-focused strengths of Toyota's culture must be reproduced- namely:

·         Employees in charge of their own jobs
·         Employees designing standardized work
·   Employees working to continually improve the work, changes made and effectiveness assessed by the customer focused PDCA cycle

Roles of Team Members

In this new Lean culture of work, the consistently engaged, learning, communicating and contributing team member is expected to fulfill the following empowered roles so that effective process improvements can be continually designed and tested by scientific method (PDCA) in the workplace:

·         Understand the work rules, principles and tools of process improvement
·         Identify defects, daily, on whiteboards
·         Meet in teams regularly to share and brainstorm problems in the workplace
·         Join teams charged with addressing interventions
·         Assist in design of measurement tools
·         Collect data
·         Assist in root cause analysis
·         Communicate to other teams, customers-suppliers
·         Communicate to managers/leaders
·         Keep track of process improvements
·         Continually seek better ways of performing the work
·         Present results of successes
·         Learn from previously proposed interventions that did not work (the failures)

Teamwork is the Cure

Teamwork is the foundation of Lean process improvement, and it has been proven that individuals will extend themselves to make the company successful if they are engaged early on in the decision-making process. In Toyota’s culture, learning often is by experience in which an early ongoing effort is demonstrated to teach teams how to work together to reach common goals. The problem-solving approach is “Go and See” in which subject matter experts observe the problem to deeply understand the current condition before suggesting process improvements. This includes analysis of workflow, standardized work procedures, and further evaluation to analyze and detect the root cause of defects. In comparison, other quality improvement methods often are limited to the review of data from reports created by individuals external to the work itself. This has limited value and changes made without participation of those invested in the work seldom sustain.

Transforming the culture of work, or more correctly the employees' incentives to relate to each other and work differently, must occur to obtain success in a Lean enterprise.  

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