Oops! Are You Making This Mistake in Your Global Empowerment Strategy?
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Oops! Are You Making This Mistake in Your Global Empowerment Strategy?

Oops! Are You Making This Mistake in Your Global Empowerment Strategy?

This month, I’m turning my attention to one of the biggest challenges in implementing a large scale change in multiple locations. As long time readers know, I’ve been using empowerment as an example this past year because you can’t efficiently scale your business unless you constantly move decision-making further down, further out, and often further away from executives.

Yet you can’t let decision-making become chaotic, without adequate controls or accountability, which is what leaders often fear as their businesses grow. Talk about a big, scary change! It’s one of the great challenges of success.

Efforts to empower employees often succeed when the company is small and everyone is in one location, but it gets tricky when your company gets bigger and you are in multiple countries. Each site has its own unique local characteristics, business needs, and culture.

This is not a new struggle. Empowerment and other similar large-scale changes have succeeded and they have floundered at different locations — even within the same business unit — for years.

Where empowerment has taken hold and become the normal way of doing business at a site, I’ve found there were always at a minimum four enablers that at least one strong-willed local leader owned and made sure happened on an ongoing basis over months and often years.

Where it floundered, the executive team failed to ensure that all four enablers were in place before requiring the site to get aligned with an empowerment initiative. This led only to cynicism, fear, or confusion, since people at the site didn’t quite ever understand what they were supposed to do and why they were supposed to do it, or trust that it was the right thing for them and for the business.

These are the four enablers:

ONE: Direct alignment with site-specific business objectives. An empowerment objective must be used quite directly to help achieve at least one business objective — and it must be clear how empowering employees enables the site to achieve the objective easier, better, faster, or make it possible for the site to exceed the objective.

If empowerment is just another separate objective to accomplish on top of the business objectives without being directly aligned in supporting them, it sometimes takes hold at corporate headquarters, where employees feel executives are paying close attention to it, but it rarely takes hold at sites. Site employees want something more immediate and pragmatic, not just aspirational.

TWO: Alignment with the shared values of the employees at the site, and with what gives them a sense of meaning and purpose. “Share values” is another way of saying, “what is most important to people.”

Often issues that are categorized as cultural are more questions of shared values, meaning, and/or purpose because even within a culture, a particular site leadership team and business attract job candidates with a certain set of values, ultimately creating an even more specific culture and set of values.

For employees to truly choose to be empowered, the empowerment must happen in a manner which is aligned with their personal values.

THREE: Meaningful metrics for everyone – tracked for encouragement, not punishment, with achievement celebrated. For a machine operator, it might be freedom to learn to do a quality check so she can improve processes herself. For a particular customer advocacy team, it might be freedom to work directly with an operations team to clear holds that currently require escalation. Empowerment improves business outcomes, but it improves them through intensely personal transformations, so the metrics have to be personally meaningful – and everyone has to have them and be personally involved in setting them with their managers.

One of the most successful site managers I’m working with said his first big lesson was letting go of his own vision for empowerment at his fab and his own preconceived ideas for the metrics for his people. They came up with a vision and metrics that were just as good, but different, and they are working much more diligently to achieve the metrics because of their personal investment. It was hard for him to give up his personal vision, because he was emotionally attached to it, but it was the right thing to do to achieve the end goal of scaling the plant to meet demand.

Sometimes the individual metrics, when rolled up, turn out to be tidy and neatly aligned, and sometimes they look untidy and there are some real surprises. It’s o.k., as long as the means lead to the end you desire – scaling the site to meet rising demand.

FOUR: Attention to effective daily management and leadership by immediate supervisors at each level. The top site leaders can go to great lengths to ensure that the previous three enablers are in place but without training, development, coaching, and support of the other site managers to constantly improve their empowerment skills, the rest won’t matter. You must invest in leadership at all levels. The very best companies invest in all employees as well as managers, but every reasonably successful company invests on an ongoing basis in developing scalable management from the middle to the top.

Because the brain is hard-wired to remember a threatening experience far more than a supportive and positive one, employees will naturally revert back to escalations and passivity when their manager slips back into old habits, even if it’s only once in a while, saying to themselves, “Ah, yes, the tiger never changes his stripes. We can’t trust this supervisor when he talks the empowerment talk. He’s never really going to walk the empowerment walk.” This is why it’s not enough to just train them once, check off the box, and forget about it. Ongoing support for your managers is like food, water, and oxygen.

Take the time to put the framework in place for these four enablers to help sites succeed at empowerment, and give attention to improvement in each area on an ongoing basis so that each site can become a self-sustaining, growing organization that can scale to meet rising demand.