Lean and empowerment: Delegation vs Abdication
Some days ago I was at a meeting where we were discussing how to improve a process. The process team members and the team leader said that they felt ultimately responsible [sic] of the process performance and requested more authority to test their ideas and do changes. This proposal is very well aligned with Lean principles like:
- Involve front line in improving their work
- Promote learning through repeated practice in solving problems
So we scheduled a meeting to present the idea to the area director and define how to give the team more freedom to try things and learn. To our surprise (well, not really), the area director refused to do so. Her arguments were “I want to keep control because I’m ok with delegating, but not with abdicating”. Off with their heads!
This situation is easy to find. Not every manager is ready to move from the classic thinking trio: “command and control” + “experts own improvement” + “compliance at any cost” to Lean management principles. The presence of these ideas is a very good predictor of problems during a Lean transformation, so please beware if you hear things like “control”, “this is too risky”, “do whatever it takes” or anything similar.
However, the area director was right in some way. How? Managers have to delegate and stop telling people what to do. Telling people what to do takes away responsibility from the person. But managers still have a job in Lean:
- Ask questions that provoke the right thinking
- Understand problems by observing the process (at the gemba)
- Challenge, enable and remove obstacles for workers while they are solving problems
In other words, “abdicating” in the sense of disappearing from the gemba, asking nothing, hiring Lean experts and asking them to do the improvement work for you, ignoring the process, avoiding coaching, etc… IS NOT AN OPTION. If we use the classic RACI matrix, managers must move from Responsible (do everything, take all decisions) to Accountable (make sure things happen, help those doing the job). Follow this Wikipedia link to the RACI matrix for more information (link here).
And now, a very important final warning:
Middle managers are a common source of problems during Lean transformations. They are typically hard to convince and, when they try Lean, it is not unusual to see them go back to classic thinking after some days / weeks / months. Why? It’s a “delegation” problem.
Lean transformations usually start at the gemba: operators, analysts, technicians… those people whose boss is a middle manager. Middle managers learn how to empower their people and give them freedom to try and learn. But the boss of a middle manager is a director, who has never been exposed to Lean and still uses the classic “command and control” style. Long story short: the middle manager feels he has lost power/influence/capacity because decisions are taken either by his people or his boss. He might think he is not useful anymore and might be fired. This situation is extremely dangerous for the Lean transformation.
That’s why education and communication are so important in Lean. Directors must be trained in Lean and know what to expect. Managers must have the opportunity to explain the Lean transformation at their area to their bosses and the new way a great manager looks like with Lean. This is REALLY critical for Lean success.