With unemployment being at an all-time low, and maintaining employees continuing to get harder, many organizations want to be more efficient and make investments in continuous improvement. They immediately think if they hire a new operations manager or Six Sigma/Continuous Improvement/Lean consultant, they will reap the rewards of productivity gains. This MAY work IF you have a culture that is already actively involved with the basics of continuous improvement–6s, VFM (Visual Factory Management) and Standard work. These are all foundational items for effective data collection and problem-solving activities. Without these foundational items, it will never work. So where do we start? Your associates!

Think of your associates as pencils. If you look at the image on the right what do you see? You have one associate/consultant that sticks out, has a lot of great ideas and is vocal about making things better. But, they are usually isolated, especially without the encouragement and nurturing of leadership. What about the rest of your associates? If they are not sharpened, they will subconsciously erase the positive work of the few attempting to make things better to no fault of their own. The other associates spend their entire workday in this environment too. They have probably thought about what bothers them, what is broken, what they must deal with, where their struggles are and what makes work difficult. And why do they not say anything? It falls on deaf ears, leaders listen but don’t act, or no one has time to fix anything anyway. Why not give them a voice and be part of the solution. Instead of erasing, wouldn’t we prefer these pencils to figuratively create stories, drawings and magnificent works of art? So, why do we not give our associate the creativity and empowerment they crave?

This reminds me of a story I have heard that has always stuck with me. A man was asked to give a speech at his retirement party. During his speech he shared the value of Associate Empowerment: “I have worked here for 40 years, you have always had my heart as I was a dedicated employee. You asked for my hands and every day I put in a hard day’s work. For the benefit of other employees, I want you to know that you could have gotten so much more. It is a shame that you never asked for me to use my mind.” 

In the 8 wastes of lean, the one waste I see so often ignored is “Non-Utilized talent.” This is exactly what the guy in the story was talking about at his retirement party. He could have given so much more because they only asked him to work, not to think. Tapping into this side of an employee and empowering them to do more every day is where growth and productivity come from.

So, what does Associate empowerment look like?


Associate Empowerment isn’t:

Associate Empowerment is:

Telling them: I need you to work harder or faster.

Asking them: What are the things that prevented you from doing your job? What is needed to allow you to be successful?

Listening to issues they have and not doing anything to resolve.

Addressing or giving them time to address the issues they share with you.

Investing in your business at the expense of your associate.

Investing in your people and they invest in your business.

Focus on perceived people issues.

Focusing on process / environmental issues

Chastising associates for business issues they must deal with.

Giving them the authority to speak their mind if something isn’t right.


CFO asks CEO, “What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave us?”
CEO: “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?” ~Peter Baeklund

By Todd Kippel, Senior Manager, Technical Sales & Customer Engagement, Therma-Tru Doors

Dealers Edge in Better Business | June 01, 2019