The caption above was the reward for the author’s membership as a Lean Team leader for a Lean Event. Lean training was held at Old Dominion University and then those of us trained were expected to take an issue and solve it using the training in Lean Manufacturing that we had practiced.
Individual employee empowerment was a concept sweeping the manufacturing and service industries with quality programs such as Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma. As global competition forces many business to find ways to become more efficient, many companies have decided to adopt business models which more successful businesses have already created.
Quality History review with regards to empowered workers, short version.
Quality history is credited with starting in America with Dr. W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993). He was influential in assisting American War Manufacturing during WWII with his statistical concepts as applied to production. After WWII, he tried unsuccessfully to bring the benefits of his statistical quality applications to American manufacturers.
When this effort failed in America, he was asked to bring the concepts to the aid of the war-defeated country of Japan by Douglas MacArthur in 1950. The Japanese had already employed many of the production inspirations from Henry Ford, who unknowingly had innovative elements in his production line, which later became the first stirrings of Lean Manufacturing.
Dr. Deming was asked by his friend General MacArthur to teach the Japanese his statistical quality methods. Deming was inspired during his lecturing to the heads of Japanese businesses in 1950, and he made this now-famous prediction: If the Japanese learned and adopted his quality systems, they would become an exporting nation within five years, and be well on the way to producing the world’s highest quality and most in-demand products.
America did not “rediscover” Dr. Deming’s methods until the 1980’s, when Dr. Deming was also in his eighties. This gap in management decision making to address quality gave the Japanese manufacturers about 30 years of quality culture and learning over the less efficient American manufacturing methods. For the automotive competitors outside of America this was a tremendous advantage.
As a testament to how influential Dr. Deming was a US News & World Report cover story named Deming’s contribution to the world as one of only nine “Hidden Turning Points in World History,” along with events like Columbus’ discovery of America, and Napoleon’s conquest of Europe.
Dr. Deming eventually created his famous 14 principles of management. Principle number 14 is to “involve everybody” in the process of manufacturing. This point was eventually modified with some others and became the empowered employee principle. The idea was to push down the level of responsibility for decisions to the very lowest rank of workers possible.
In the military while I was in during the 1990′s, Total Quality Leadership (TQL), a version of the famous quality program Total Quality Management making the rounds in the civilian world was introduced onto ships and other commands in the US Navy. The program was very popular with enlisted personnel, including yours truly who was trained in the new methods and procedures. However, the program were a complete failure. Unfortunately, senior Naval Officers saw the empowerment of enlisted as a threat to their authority, which was simply not true.
On my ship the whole program never got serious consideration and we were never allowed to make our recommendations to the chain of command. It is my understanding from talking to other enlisted personnel that other commanders felt the same way. I never heard of a successful TQL project, but their may have been an isolated case that actually produced results.
Updated news, today’s US Navy has embraced Six Sigma and has been training Black Belts for a few years now. This is due to forced budget cuts and other economic factors. This progressive attitude was only possible by the complete change of attitude by the senior management that previously failed to sell the concept properly.
Empowered employees in Lean Manufacturing environment for instance like at the old Saturn Plant, a division of General Motors was given the rare (for GM) authority to stop the production line if they found a defect, authority that was preceded in Japan by many years for empowered employees. American manufacturing had some catching up to do if they wanted to be competitive. GM has not been able to keep the company and Saturn was dismantled as a company when GM entered into corporate restructuring when it accepted a US Government financial investment. Other GM divisions were also dismantled.
Toyota Motor Company has been the leader in Lean Manufacturing for many years now. The techniques, which have employee empowerment at the forefront and evolved into Lean Manufacturing were in the past called The Toyota Way and have been part of the car company culture for over 50 years now.
According to many business publications Toyota is poised to take over as the world sales leader from GM. This is an incredible achievement for a car company physically located outside its main markets of North America and Europe. The Toyota Method in quality, which evolved into Lean Manufacturing was truly ahead of its time.
From a quality perspective Toyota is one of the leaders in the field and continues to use Lean Manufacturing continuous process improvement techniques. US car companies have demonstrated a dedication to quality in the last two decades or so but they seem to be reluctant to fully engage the total package of quality techniques like Toyota has.
Toyota has empowered employees, source suppliers, and many other stakeholders within the support structure needed to produce their products. This one act of empowerment is so powerful that it is still considered a vital portion of the continuous process improvement program, even after so many years.
Just-in-time is a concept which has resulted from partnerships with suppliers and is supported by empowered employees of both groups, suppliers and production workers. The idea is that very little inventory is held on the plant site, rather the supplier takes on the burden of keeping the supply bins or areas properly stocked with just the right amount of product and at just the right time for production needs. Obviously this concept needs a supplier who is highly involved in the production and forecasting of the plants needs and supplies. Suppliers become partners in this procedure, with supplier employees taking on even more responsibility for the product distribution, in essence they become empowered employees for the production plant even though they work for the supplier.
The bottom line is that Lean Manufacturing works very efficiently. Employee empowerment is one core concept of this quality method, which was first articulated by a small town boy from Sioux City, Iowa named W. Edwards Deming and then recognized by his friend who had a serious need for experts to help rebuild Japan, General Douglas MacArthur. Just in time and other associated business concepts will not be needed by the empowered volunteer. It is only mentioned to show how revolutionary this concept of Lean Manufacturing really is. So is the empowered volunteer within volunteer groups.
As a side note, General MacArthur was a Freemason, as was Henry Ford. Dr. Deming belonged to the American Society of Quality (ASQ). However, all of these people understood the value of the empowered employee, and a volunteer is an unpaid employee who can also become empowered.