WCM Associates LLC Newsletter

Edition 50

September 2012

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The Challenge of Empowerment 

by Mattie Watson
One of the most critical components of a successful World Class/Lean organization is an empowered workforce. Yet ask anyone the definition of empowerment and you are likely to get as many definitions as the number of folks you asked. While most people say they would like to be empowered, they also believe they are not empowered much in their current positions.

There appear to be two clear sides to the empowerment issue. Leaders are frustrated by followers who, despite being told repeatedly, do not act empowered. Followers, on the other hand, are frustrated by bosses who say the workforce is empowered but do not provide the resources (information, time, budgets) for empowered activity. If leaders want their followers to be empowered, and followers want to be empowered, what is the problem? Clearly, the missing element is trust.

A major myth of empowerment is that one individual can empower another. Empowerment is not something that can be bestowed. True empowerment only occurs in an environment where individuals feel free to empower themselves - where people feel trusted to make decisions, support each other, take initiative, and do the right things.

Leaders must ask themselves what level of empowered behavior they want in their workforce. This must be followed by asking, "What is standing in the way of that behavior occurring?" This is a difficult question to ask and to get answered. Associates may not be able to articulate the obstacles that exist.

An excellent resource for clarifying the possible obstacles is A Company of Leaders, by Gretchen Spreitzer and Robert Quinn. The authors do an excellent job of identifying the five key reasons why empowerment fails and what must be done to eliminate these issues. Of particular value is an assessment that allows individuals to determine their own level of perceived empowerment in four key areas. With this information, specific actions can be taken to improve conditions.

Empowerment is not optional in a World Class organization, it is an absolute requirement. Until an environment is created where empowerment can flourish, the entire business improvement/Lean initiative will produce only modest improvements. The power of Lean comes from unleashing the talent and enthusiasm of every single person in your workforce. Empowerment will make this happen.  
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The Prerequisites for any Type of Organizational Change


by Larry Rubrich


In the book, Leading Change, noted organizational change expert, John Kotter notes that there are five prerequisites required to achieve any type of organizational change: 


1. Establishing a Sense of Urgency

  • Individuals or organizations do not change without a sense of urgency to do so.

2. Creating the Guiding Coalition 

  • Put together a group with enough power to lead and guide the organization through the change. This group should represent a cross-section of the organization. 

3. Developing a Vision and Strategy 

  • A vision is a broad description or picture of the future state of the organization. Create a vision to help direct the change effort (this is completed in Policy Deployment).
  • Develop strategies for achieving that vision that include both marketing and operational activities (this is completed in Policy Deployment). 

4. Communicating the Change Vision 

  • Use every verbal and visual vehicle possible to constantly communicate the new vision and strategies (this is completed in Policy Deployment).

5. Empowering all associates 

  • Get rid of obstacles that prevent associates from participating.
  • Change systems or structures that prevent associates from creating the change vision.
  • Encourage risk taking and nontraditional ideas, activities, and actions. 

Experience has shown that adopting Lean requires, right from the beginning, a strong "sense of urgency" and commitment from the Leadership Team to the organizational change requiredto successfully implement Lean. This commitment to change must include the area where generally the greatest change must occur - the Leadership Team. Without that sense of urgency, and the commitment of the Leadership Team to modeling the required change, the the Lean implementation is headed for a poor results or even failure.     


A question often asked by managers in organizations is: "As middle managers we see the value of Lean, but top management has limited interest. What do we do?" Experience and John Kotter's book indicate how this limited interest can occur:

  • Explanations of Lean's organizational impact did not tie into the organization's goals
    • Why would we want to do this?
  • Leadership Team complacency and arrogance (think GM, Chrysler)
    • Lack of a visible crisis
  • Always been profitable, organization screams success. Why change our success formula?
  • Too much "happy talk" from the Leadership Team
  • Lack of sufficient feedback from external sources
  • Little tolerance for bad news - a "shoot the messenger" mentality
  • Ingrained strategies and culture that developed over tens of years are highly resistant to change without a near-death organizational experience (again, think GM, Chrysler)  

Unfortunately, all successful Lean implementations only occur when they are "top down." There must be a sense of urgency and compelling business reasons to make these changes throughout the organization. While there have been many attempts at "middle out" and some attempts at "bottom up" Lean implementations, these attempts are more likely to end in the frustration of the attempters versus meaningful organizational change.    


Industry Week (IW) magazine has published, for 21 years, an annual listing of their "Best Plants" in North America. This IW annual award is designed to recognize organizations that are models of improving competitiveness, increasing customer satisfaction, and creating great places to work. Several years ago, the editor of IW was asked if all these Best Plants had anything in common. His answer? Yes, they all had near-death experiences.    


There must be a better way. However, experience shows there is little hope when the barrier to change and Lean is a "brickwall" disguised as most of the members of the Leadership Team.

This newsletter and its content is copyright of WCM Associates LLC. 
  WCM Associates LLC, 2012. All rights reserved.