Chasing Rabbits

Sometimes we do things we think are right, when in fact, we are really chasing a rabbit down an endless trail. Have you ever tried to catch a rabbit? It kind of brings out the kid in you. During our last family vacation in Orlando my sons were fascinated with the rabbits all over the resort property. Being boys and all, naturally, most of our time was spent trying to catch a rabbit and not waiting in endless lines at the theme parks. It was a lot of fun to watch at first, the rabbits rocketing through the bushes and darting in directions faster than the kids could comprehend. It’s a wonder nobody twisted an ankle. In the end though, the kids ended up with a good dose of frustration and dirty knees and elbows, since they don’t have the ability to change their direction ninety degrees at lightning speed. In short, the kids used up a lot of energy, had some fun doing it, but never came up with the prize. When it comes to leadership training we see much of the same thing.

Over the past few years, there has been a lot of buzz about empowerment and workforce training, with the idea that it is critical for a successful “lean transformation”. Many studies and surveys are available on the topic. What troubles me about all of the training that is occurring is that much of it is not related to the work we do. For example, a 2004 IW/MPI study found that “more than one in four plants in the U.S. have a majority of the workforce empowered”, with empowerment being “a cornerstone of North American H.R. best practices, ensuring employees’ ownership of day-to-day activities as well as the authority to improve their roles on a continuous basis and incrementally impact the bottom line.” My question is not about whether these people are truly “empowered” or not, but what skills did they learn in the training itself that they use on a daily basis that impacts the bottom line?

If you have been to “empowerment” seminars like I have, you have been likely told a couple of things:
1. You will have increased autonomy
2. You will be more fulfilled
3. You will be improving the business
4. You can make a difference

All of this is true, if you are taught the skills to do so and are supported everyday in practicing those skills. The problem with the myth of empowerment is that the training doesn’t show you how to be empowered; it just tells you that you need to start being empowered. The managers that still manage the old way don’t know how to be empowered, and certainly don’t know how to support empowered people. My guess is that those one in four companies have successfully completed some level of empowerment training, but have yet to see the results. In short, many companies chase empowerment down the rabbit trail, feel good while they are doing it, but come back a few years later empty handed.

If you study formal proposal systems such as Toyota’s Suggestion System, it embodies true empowerment, yet ironically, doesn’t advertise it as such. Study this system; you will find that by teaching people the three basic skills a leader needs: 1) how to teach, 2) how to improve methods and 3) how to lead people, supervisors and team leaders can achieve empowerment without being told to do so. Isn’t this what the empowerment proponents really wanted anyway? How do the survey respondents in the IW/MPI study quantify the success of empowerment training? Frankly, they don’t. They simply state that a certain number of people are trained. But with TWI, the success of your training is measured by the actual proposals generated through the Job Methods program. At Toyota, the JMT thinking is now taught through the kaizen/standard work training. The result, in a forty year period, Toyota’s employees generated 20 MILLION documented, well thought-out, implemented ideas. The fact that they can report this is amazing in itself, yet proof that management supports this form of empowerment by encouraging people to use the simple skills they have learned, not by just telling alone. That my friends, is how you catch a rabbit…oops, uh, twenty million rabbits.

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