A number of years ago, I visited a Far Eastern technology partner who arranged to take me through an automotive manufacturing plant of their oldest and largest customer. The plant was huge, almost longer than the eye could see. There was an abundance of robotic equipment and the flow of component assemblies (and cars) was continuous. In this highly automated plant I noticed a cable type rope running throughout the plant, maybe six feet above the floor. I asked my hosts its purpose and they replied that any worker was empowered to stop production in the plant by pulling the rope nearest them if they spotted a quality issue. Wow!
After we left, I asked my hosts if they had ever been in that plant when the line was shut down by an employee. My question was greeted with slight smiles and then a candid explanation—to their knowledge, no one had ever pulled the rope; it was symbolic. Like any other factory, this one was not without intermittent quality problems, but the personal consequences of stopping the line were greater than the good intent in doing so.
For me, the beginning of empowerment is setting an achievable goal, preferably jointly, and then supporting the person charged with its accomplishment by providing the tools, the authority, the encouragement and the backing to do so. Here are a few of the empowerment experiences I’ve had along the way:
• Safety: A manufacturing plant still permitted smoking on the floor but not in the adjacent finishing department where flammable solvent-based paints were used. A board member was touring the plant with the company’s outside attorney; the latter was smoking a cigar. When they entered the finishing department they were greeted by the foreman who held up a spray gun and asked, “Do you want to put out that cigar or should I?” The foreman was empowered and knew he would be supported in his action. The cigar was quickly extinguished.
• Policy: A personal favorite when I was CEO—I was on the phone with my back to the office door and turned when I heard a knock. It was the HR director and she signaled that I should hang up. I can’t say that I remember whether it was a critical call, but she persisted. I covered the mouthpiece and asked her what was so urgent. Her response? My name had come up for a random drug check and the van was waiting outside for me to join the seven other employees who had already boarded. I ended the call and got on the van. Her empowerment regarding the drug policy had no exceptions.
• Exceeding customer expectations: A customer’s delivery requirements had been pulled in as they reported they would go “line down” if they didn’t have parts by 7AM the next morning. The shipping supervisor didn’t need guidance, permission or forgiveness; he rented a van, loaded the parts and drove more than 150 miles each way to make sure the customer kept their line running. Empowerment!
• Quality: When final inspection rejected a finished assembly it often was due to an error that had occurred in one of the early operations in a sequence of 12 or more. That meant that each operation after that was wasted. The employees were taught that they were each other’s “customers” and were now empowered to accept or reject the work in process that came to them just as they were responsible if their own value-added work was rejected by the next work station. At first this empowerment caused friction but in short order it instilled a greater feeling of pride—and accomplishment.
• Profit: I preached “question everything.” One day a production supervisor stood at my door and said, “Did you mean it when you said question everything?” “Yup,” I said. He then showed me a job that had just hit the floor, explained that we had never produced it in the time allowed and we had to be losing money on it. Accounting proved his point and the customer was told we needed a 40% price increase or they would have to find a new supplier. They accepted the price increase. Empowerment reinforced!
The auto plant with the “rope” was intended as empowerment, but was of such a scale that few if any would accept the charge. Most folks, regardless of their role in the enterprise, prefer to be trusted to do the right thing instead of being told what to do in every detail. Empower them—provide the tools that will make them successful, encourage them and back them in moments of controversy.