We’ve all heard about “empowerment” as a management strategy. But given the nature of the maintenance profession, it’s possible many of us may not have taken the time to analyze if or how empowerment may apply to our activities. Those who discount empowerment’s potential, however, could be overlooking its strengths, including the ability to help address the skills crisis. The scarcity of qualified technicians is, in fact, a challenge only for those who expect technicians to arrive “ready-made.” Through training and empowerment, existing staff can very often become the skilled workers you need.
Empowerment as a way to grow a workforce isn’t a new concept. GE’s Jack Welch, one of the most effective leaders in modern business, had a clear vision of success. His continuous message was simple: “Increase the capability of your team.” Put another way, Welch was saying, “Train and empower!” He also used the phrase “Grow people to grow the business” to encourage GE team members to help each other continuously improve their knowledge and capabilities. Among his many brilliant strategies, this one played a key role in helping turn GE into one of the most powerful enterprises the world has ever known.
Welch and others have long understood that the right levels of training and empowerment develop trust and commitment within a workforce. This, in turn, inspires greater levels of cooperation—which is vital to operational success. Indeed, cooperation comes more naturally when team members have both the knowledge and authority to do their tasks.
Empowerment, though, doesn’t always come naturally. There are those who hoard knowledge to make others depend on them. Unfortunately, by doing so, they not only add to their own burden, they prevent their team(s) from reaching higher levels of excellence. Hoarding knowledge usually develops from the mistaken belief that “subordinates” are incapable of assimilating knowledge, either because they won’t understand it or they lack the ambition to learn. Modern leaders understand the folly of this approach and see empowerment as an opportunity to continuously create higher performance among their “associates”—the new term that replaces “subordinates.” The more powerful team members become, the higher their performance.
Happy people perform better
It’s crucial for leaders to understand that the training and empowerment game is an ongoing marathon, not an isolated 100-yard dash. Regular, useful training builds self-esteem. Positive self-esteem, in turn, is the foundation for happiness—which we know is an important factor in high performance.
If training and the self-esteem/happiness within people that it generates leads to higher performance, doesn’t it make sense to champion training across your organization? Keep in mind that you don’t need long periods of formal classes to make an impact. A zeal for continuous learning should just become part of the culture, and everyone in the organization must understand its value and importance.
Fig. 1. As shown in this example, a skills matrix should be available to all team members. Some will be surprised when they realize their need for additional or different training in skills
that are critical to their particular roles.
Note: Learning is so pleasurable that people will discover it spontaneously as soon as they get the opportunity. An easy way to create a natural desire among team members to learn more is with a skills matrix (Fig. 1). This is a document listing the current skills of team members and the number of development opportunities they have to become more skilled and versatile. This matrix should be available to all team members—some of whom will be surprised when they realize they need additional (or different) training in skills that are critical to their particular roles.
The effectiveness of the matrix will improve if, each time someone achieves an advanced skill, he/she is congratulated in front of other team members. Recognition—one of the strongest tools a leader can develop, by the way—will help consolidate the cooperation of team members. It’s an always-welcome stimulus that goes a long way. Even if an associate happens to do only one thing right among all the tasks he/she does in a day, make a big deal of it! And be specific, as in “What a great job you did cleaning up the area after you finished that repair!” or “I’ve been watching you work on this pump and commend you for your knowledgeable use of the tools!”
As a result of such recognition, not only will most people continue trying to do the referenced task well in the future, they’ll find ways to improve their other daily actions in the hopes of getting recognized again. This can lead to them gaining a reputation for doing things better all the time. Alas, the converse is also true: Public reprimands can be damaging to a person’s reputation. Remember the following:
The tandem approach of a skills matrix and regular recognition of accomplishments is a good way to help develop multi-skilled technicians in any working environment—including those that are heavily unionized.
The single-point lesson
Sharing the simplest pieces of information will gradually create an accumulative knowledge base. This common-sense technique can be accomplished with the single- or one-point lesson, which is based on a person’s ability to teach one simple skill.
Fig. 2. A one-page, single-point lesson that combines pictures and short explanations from an experienced person can be an effective way to train less experienced associates.
To put the single-point lesson into action, enlist a team member with expertise in one operation. Then encourage that person to develop a one-page, five- to 10-minute lesson to share the details of that operation with his or her peers (Fig. 2). The idea is to create one page that combines pictures and short explanations that will not only help the experienced person express the idea quickly, but will make it memorable to others. Establish a time and place for one single-point lesson per day—and expect three or four people to attend. This should be easy to do. If the lessons are about topics of permanent interest, such as instructions, post them on billboards to help others see and understand them.
The single-point lesson was first created to help maintenance crews and operators working toward autonomous maintenance acquire technical knowledge and achieve good practices. An excellent example of how anyone can teach something in a few minutes of friendly conversation, it is now applied universally.
Train, then empower (not the reverse)
Empowerment can only come after good training. Remember that you are responsible for equipping the people you empower. Empowerment is not about passing the buck. It is about bestowing a higher level of authority on a team member because they have the knowledge and authority required to do the job right. Many defects in processes and even accidents happen every day because someone was empowered without the necessary training.
Any organization that seeks to achieve world-class status must increase, formalize and strengthen its training programs. Without training, no progress or growth can be expected. Training requires focus, commitment and a culture that supports it. Although it can also be costly and time-consuming, it is the most rewarding task for a leader. Moreover, while empowerment can make you feel that you are losing control over some things—which you are—the rewards can be significant: While empowerment gives power to others, it expands the power of the team.
As with most skills, empowerment gets stronger with practice. Teams are always better performers when mutual trust flows among all members. Begin by empowering your people in simple things, then regularly increase the importance of their tasks. Don’t micromanage—and don’t be afraid to let your team assume the weight and responsibility of the power you give them. You don’t want empowerment’s magic to vanish. LMT
The head of Mora Global Consultants, Enrique Mora Enrique is an expert in Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma. A popular presenter at MARTS and frequent contributor to LMT, he’s spent more than 55 years working as a practitioner and consultant in industry. His specialties include a range of technical training, as services in the areas of human relations, motivation and leadership, with an emphasis on teamwork and labor synergy. Based in Green Bay, WI, Mora has worked with hundreds of companies and their diverse operations in the U.S., Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia and other countries around the world. Telephone: (920) 569-9060; or visit: www.enriquemora.com.