W&WP October 2004

Let Your Employees Handle the Trees!


Employee empowerment is a powerful management tool.


By Tom Dossenbach


It amazes me how many woodworking company executives, managers and even production supervisors are so bogged down with everyday problems that they often fail to see the big picture. It seems to me that many of them can't see (or manage) the forest for the trees. As a result, many serious issues go unresolved in their area of responsibility, only to manifest themselves as recurring nightmares.

Time management is one potential solution and a topic that would be worthy of an article itself. But, time management alone is not going to cut it. There are only 1,440 minutes in a day. To take care of your health and attend to personal needs (see last month's column), you must reserve sufficient time for non-work-related activities.

What about delegating more of your work to others? This option is closer to an acceptable solution, but depending on how you define and implement it, delegating may not free you up to take care of the really important "forest" issues that require your attention.

Employee Empowerment

More often than not, delegation simply involves giving someone a list of tasks that you do not have time to address. Delegating these responsibilities might free you up to a small degree, but more likely you will spend much of your freed-up time looking over someone's shoulder to make sure everything is going the way you want. You also will likely hold weekly staff meetings or have reports sent to you on a regular basis. You might even require your subordinates to check in regularly with you, taking up even more of your precious time.

So, what do you do?

If you ask me, I think employee empowerment, an alternative people-management strategy to delegation, is the way to go.

To successfully empower an employee requires transferring more responsibility to that person to reach clearly stated objectives. For the employee to be successful, he must be prepared to think on his feet and create solutions on the fly to meet the objectives set forth by his boss. This brings up an important point. Because all employees may not have the same level of intellect or insight, the end results among employees may differ. That said, empowerment should not be restricted by one's natural abilities. Everyone should be set free to tap his or her own unique talents to the maximum extent possible.

Ownership and Accountability

One of the most basic needs we humans have is to feel worthy and wanted - to feel that our efforts make a positive difference. Nowhere is this more important than in our work. If you empower an employee to make changes in her work area to save the company money, she is going to have a new sense of ownership in the company's welfare and in what she does. In addition, she will develop a higher sense of accountability for the quality of her work.

Employees want to do the best they can, and they will if you empower them and not just give them directives. There is a big difference between motivating someone to achieve and telling them how to perform a task to accomplish your goals. When you give an employee permission to use his (or her) creativity, he becomes more inspired and more effective. In addition, he will feel more accountable for his actions and the outcome of the challenge.

Team Building

What if you embraced the above idea and decided to get everyone in your department or area of responsibility involved? The obvious results would be a group of energized individuals who are empowered to excel. But there is another benefit that often is overlooked. When peers are given the same challenges, they begin to share ideas and work toward a common goal - the one you set.

For example, let's assume that you have empowered the employees in the assembly department to find ways to eliminate scratches that seem to constantly pop up on the tops of furniture cabinets as they leave your department. Some employees will jump to meet the challenge; others will be reluctant and sit back to wait and see what happens. However, after a few days of watching their fellow associates tackle the challenge, it is likely the skeptics will come around and join in the effort.

Joe may discover that scratches sometimes occur when he and others lay their pneumatic screwdrivers on the furniture tops during assembly. He mentions this to Sylvia and Cliff, who reluctantly agree they unknowingly have been contributing to the problem.

Then the magic begins to happen. Sylvia suggests they get some scrap cardboard and lay it on the tops to protect them as they move down the assembly line. Joe and Cliff think this is a good idea, so they begin immediately.

The next day, Cliff asks Sylvia an interesting question. "What if we didn't have to lay our tools down in the first place?" She asks the natural question, "How?" Cliff relates that he once saw a gadget in a tire shop that held air wrenches right above where the men needed them to install tires. "Why couldn't we do the same thing?" he asks.

Do you notice what is happening? The bonds of teamwork are taking root among workers without your help. Given a chance, teamwork will spread throughout your company like wild fire.

Employee Pride

As this and other ideas emerge from your department, the teamwork takes on a new dimension - pride. In my early years of involvement with Continuous Improvement, it was decided that a slogan was needed to convey the company's complete commitment to the program to everyone, including our customers. The slogan, "Our Pride Shows," was adopted. It proved to be a powerful statement that not only helped to jump-start the program, but also became more real as the program moved forward.

In our scratched-tops example, the members of your department developed a sense of pride as the damaged tops diminished in frequency and eventually disappeared. This pride will continue to show and manifest itself in many ways. For example, Sylvia might identify new cost savings opportunities in your department and ask why something can't be done about them.

Soon, these issues are solved, then another and another. Your employees begin to feel that they are an important part of the team and experience the deep pride that follows a job well done, especially if you openly recognize their accomplishments. Other department supervisors will notice and ask you about what is happening.

Somewhere down the road, top man- agement also will recognize what is happening and get involved with a greater commitment of resources to empower all employees and to make the needed continuous improvements - setting the stage for the company to go through an incredible transformation.

Competitive Advantage

There may be many deficiencies in your company keeping you from competing more successfully - certainly more than you can correct yourself.

I have stated before that one of the strongest competitive advantages you have is the employee under your charge. He knows the company, its products, the manufacturing processes and the strengths that can be leveraged for success, as well as the weaknesses that need to be addressed. He has the resources to help you produce your products at a lower cost, with higher quality and to deliver them to your customers on time and in a shorter period of time - with, I might add, superior service.

What more motivation do you need to begin letting your employees take care of the trees so you can see the forest and do your job?


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