Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Requirement of Worker Empowerment

It is safe to conclude that anyone who attempts to adopt Lean management is not satisfied with the status quo and desires to change work outcomes. Lean success is highly dependent on management’s understanding, as Steven Spear put it, that-
“The real challenge is to expand beyond understanding Lean as a set of tools, and more aggressively pursuing an understanding of the comprehensive approach to managing organizations so they are capable of self-diagnosis, learning, and relentless internally generated improvement and innovation." 
 But how is this done?

To cut to the chase, Toyota’s success is the result of leadership and employee involvement.

Worker Empowerment

Probably the most significant attribute of the Toyota approach is the establishment of a system culture composed of an empowered workforce that is expected to drive continuous improvements. This results in a basic expectation of continuous attention to opportunities for improvement by all staff. This also defines the foundation of work. The need to continually improve is woven into the fabric of the people and not viewed as a time-consuming inconvenience, option, potential reward, or incentive, as often is the perception in the usual American workforce.

Your success in adapting Lean to your own work environment can be judged when you can walk away and the employee culture can sustain itself in the implementation of continual process improvements. This requires a critical philosophical difference in the expected roles of the workers or as we refer to them, team members.  Every worker is a potential team member. If they don't understand that they are part of a team and who their team leader is, then that is a management failure. If they haven't been instructed in the expectation of zero-defect work, the structure for contributing to change, the opportunity to communicate in effective customer-supplier relationships to solve their own problems, and the principles of waste-free, efficient work, then that is a management failure.

Unlike many businesses, in the Toyota culture on-the-job employee training is built into the system such that the expectation embraced by all is that of “learning by doing” first, with more formal training second. In this approach, staff are placed in an everyday difficult circumstance and then allowed to problem solve by doing. Lean processes are designed to highlight problems in real time where the work is performed by getting to the root cause and by the person doing the job at the time the problem occurs. In short, feedback loops making use of indicators and metrics are designed into the process to allow working staff to identify defects in real-time.

In comparison, the usual American approach to training is that of an undertaking that must be scheduled, presented by formal instruction, with a minimum of hands-on instruction. In this latter view, training time is viewed as a detractor of valuable production time. The Toyota approach to work has been described by Mike Rother as the 'improvement kata' (a method or routine of human behavior). Can we replicate it? We can certainly try. It is a fact (proven in industry) that proper training reduces the time associated with the learning curve and improves quality.

Applying Work Rule #4, Basis of the Improvement Kata

One of the opportunities that most impressed us as a means of moving toward the ideal condition is Toyota’s Work Rule #4 as defined by Steven Spear, which states that any improvement must be made in accordance with the scientific method, under the guidance of a teacher, at the lowest possible level in the organization. That is to say that changes or pilot “experiments” are suggested and carried out by those actually doing the work. This approach also facilitates worker buy-in (empowerment) to change and increases compliance with the new work standard.  From our own experiences in the HFPS, we know that when a worker contributes to the change, they are more likely to experience ownership. Change then, is not made by, but facilitated by the teacher who is defined as an internal expert, knowledgeable and experienced in the area taught. This also promotes worker accountability.

In comparison, the American business culture often employs external consultants to analyze and suggest change. Yet many times these ‘experts’ have only minimal knowledge of actual work processes and outputs and must be informed and taught of details by the workers themselves. Conversely, in the Toyota approach, empowered workers see their daily work in the context of continually making effective process improvement changes that are designed and tested by the scientific method. To convert to and foster this latter culture, it is important to acknowledge that your workers are the ‘experts’ and hold the knowledge that can result in continually improving the work toward whatever goals are desired by themselves and defined by their leaders/managers.

Rother M. Toyota Kata. Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010.
Spear SJ, Bowen HK. Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System. Harvard Bus Rev. September 1, 1999:96-106.


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