If your company embarked on the lean journey without establishing a good foundation or assessing how organizational change will be expected to parallel environmental change, don't proceed any further. Establish a sense of urgency, designate a champion for change, develop a vision for the desired transformation, communicate that vision and prepare your managers for engaging the staff to execute that vision.

Because this series is on leading in the new environment that will evolve as a result of executing the vision, I'm not going to devote any time to the initial steps that should have already been completed.

Team-based philosophy

As has been noted in previous columns, lean is a team-based philosophy. There is a connotation that accompanies that philosophy that needs to be understood in order to identify opportunities for improvement in the way managers and supervisors lead their staff. The basic difference between a team-based business and traditional manager/employee relationships is that in the former, results are achieved through collaboration rather than individual effort, which is the limited outcome of the latter. If that sounds a little biased, that's because it is.

Leadership in the traditional manager/employee relationship business is mainly autocratic, with the manager making most or all decisions on behalf of the organization, with little or no input from staff. Although there are times when decisions have to be made in a vacuum, the best results will be achieved through collaboration. Successful execution of a lean initiative requires long-term engagement of all the staff working together in a collaborative manner.

Part of the equation for building a formula for collaboration is empowerment. For some people, that word is grossly misused and overused. It's viewed as another one of those buzzwords that consultants use to get attention as they sell their process improvement wares. However, this article is not intended to be a sales pitch. It's intended to enlighten and inform so your lean initiative can become self-perpetuating.

Shared authority

Empowering means a certain amount of authority is being passed from one person to another or from one person to a group of people. Passing authority is difficult for some managers to get comfortable with. It's also difficult for some employees to get comfortable with being empowered because it implies they will have to accept some responsibility that they are currently insulated from. Getting comfortable with empowerment takes time and requires additional training, but will eventually normalize once barriers to empowerment have been overcome.

What are some of the barriers? John P. Kotter describes four such barriers in his 1996 Harvard Business School Press book, Leading Change. He states, "Employees understand the vision and want to make it a reality, but are boxed in." He observes that they are boxed in by four major obstacles formal structures, discouraging bosses, broken personnel and information systems, and lack of skills. Again, this series is not intended to be a study in business management, so I'll focus on the leadership-related barriers only.

Every executive I talk to is passionate about transferring more responsibility and accountability to all layers of the organization structure. Almost unanimously they believe that they have implemented a vision that speaks to that issue. In fact, if you read your company's mission and vision statements, you will likely find words relating to empowerment throughout the documents. Executives that I work with genuinely believe in those words. So why aren't the visions becoming reality?

The real decision-makers

Take a moment to reflect on who the real decision-makers are at your plant. How much daily direction comes from the president, general manager or even the plant manager? Granted, people in those positions may own the company car, but who's holding the keys? I think you will agree that middle managers and front-line leaders are the only bosses that most employees know or interact with. Middle managers are under a lot of stress to deliver results. How equipped are they to handle the stress of leadership?

In our industry it's common for middle managers to come up through the ranks. The selection criteria for a middle manager are based more on past performance on the line than on education and previous leadership experience. Middle managers know how to get the work done. But do they know how to actively engage and mobilize others to evaluate and improve the way that work gets done?

I recently worked with a group of supervisors who were tasked with developing a plan to improve a process that was common to each of them. In one of the brainstorming sessions a number of supervisors pointed out that overtime, stopping production for a period of time or bringing in temporary workers were not options that the boss would approve, so those recommendations couldn't be incorporated into their plans.

Unfounded assumptions

During a conversation with the president a few days later, he told me he was surprised no one had requested any additional resources for the project. When I shared the supervisors' comments with him, he stated that their assumptions were entirely unfounded. He hadn't stated any of the stipulations they perceived to be barriers. How did the supervisors arrive at their assumptions?

There is a theory called "phantom rules" that many of us plug into the decisions we make every day. Phantom rules are filtering criteria developed over time through various situations that we encounter. For instance, if the boss says "no" each time I ask for money to buy new tools, my phantom rule becomes, "Don't ask the boss for money because you won't get it." Or, "If we're in a slow period of the year when people are laid off due to lack of work, the boss won't approve overtime or extra help to do a special project."

Barriers to improvement

Phantom rules are barriers to improvement because they stymie the creativity and innovation necessary for out-of-the-box thinking. They can also perpetuate process waste that an empowered employee might want to eliminate.

This was the case in a recent conversation I had with an employee who was using the wrong tool to do a job. I knew the right tool was available, but she informed me that it was broken and there wasn't any money available to get it fixed. Again, when I asked the president about that perception he said the employee was misinformed. He reasoned that not to fix a broken piece of equipment that would allow a person to do the job to standard was just not good business practice.

Shifting from a culture where phantom rules "rule" will be covered in more detail in the next article.

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