Magazine article Training & Development

The Empowerment Environment

Magazine article Training & Development

The Empowerment Environment

Article excerpt


I recently met a young, capable engineer during a visit to Coors Electronic Packaging in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The engineer's job was designing ceramic carriers for semiconductor chips, a complex operation. The engineer said one of the problems he faced was getting timely approvals on design changes from customers. To get approval, he had to mail overnight shipments of large, expensive drawings almost daily.

The engineer wanted to save time and cut costs by installing a linked computer terminal--at no expense to the customer--at a key customer's worksite. That way, the designer could simultaneously transmit and discuss design changes with the customer.

Did I mention that the engineer was also highly empowered? The engineer's employer, Coors Brewing Company, is committed to innovation, an essential condition for empowerment. One of Coors's strategic initiatives is a monitoring process that measures the rate at which innovation occurs in various parts of the company. Not surprisingly, Coors adopted the engineer's idea, greatly reducing the design-to-prototype cycle time.

The lesson is that an action by a single empowered employee can result in dramatic benefits for an organization. In Coors's case, the engineer's innovation enhanced the efficiency of new-product development and improved customer service.

In many organizations, empowerment has become a buzzword. Although the term is used often, it's not always understood. Empowerment is usually vaguely characterized as "something managers do to their employees." Despite the lack of a definitive definition, many organizations have recognized that empowerment is critical to the achievement of total quality, customer satisfaction, and continuous improvement.

Organizations--and managers--who are trying to empower people may be fighting an uphill battle. That's due, in part, to the economy. Every day, about 2,500 people are laid off in the United States. Managers may be more worried about keeping their jobs than about empowering employees. They may even worry that empowering subordinates might jeopardize their own jobs. Some managers may be asking, "If I empower my employees, who will empower me?"

Where does empowerment begin? What must organizations be like in order for empowerment to occur? People seem to agree about the way an empowered employee should behave. But they don't always agree about which conditions are necessary for fostering enough empowerment to change a traditionally hierarchical organization into a more participative one.

To complicate matters, people seem to desire and fear empowerment at the same time. In some organizations, it's as sought after as the Holy Grail; in others, it's avoided like the plague.

Conditions for empowerment

Understanding empowerment may be the first step to achieving it. In order for empowerment to take root and thrive, organizations must encourage these conditions:

* participation

* innovation

* access to information

* accountability.

Those factors produce an organizational feeling and tone that can have a dramatic, positive effect on employees.

Participation. People must be actively and willingly engaged in their jobs. They must care about improving their daily work processes and work relationships.

Such involvement doesn't happen just because managers ask for it. Willingness to participate can't be mandated. It has to come from each individual's desire to contribute and to make a difference.

The good news is that a 1991 survey, conducted by Brooks International, shows that 93 percent of U.S. workers do feel personally responsible for organizational quality and performance. But bureaucratic, highly controlled work environments can thwart employees' willingness to participate. …

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