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Making Empowerment Real:
Four Steps Managers Must Take

An Article From the Archives:

Empowering and enabling associates is key to the success of any continuous improvement initiative. In this article from our archives, Ray Floyd, retired Worldwide Manager of Exxon Mobil Manufacturing Services, author, and Industry Week Hall of Fame inductee, reveals four essential ingredients to making empowerment real. In the article, originally published in the December 1991 Productivity Newsletter, Floyd notes that communicating clear goals is the first step managers must take to assure that empowerment works. Managers must also provide the skills to achieve the goals, time to work on improvement, and resources with which people can make changes. Even 28 years later, Floyd’s advice still hits the mark!
 
 

Not long ago the US chemical industry was more than twice as productive as its Japanese counterpart. Today Japan’s chemical makers are more efficient. Yet Exxon Chemical’s customer guarantee which assures a refund or replacement of product within 48 hours if a customer is dissatisfied for any reason­ depends on reliable productive capacity. To establish and sustain that capacity, Floyd says, you have to empower people to help improve processes.

Executives are like astronauts,” he observes. ”To succeed. they need the intelligence and skill of those on the ground. It’s time to start managing as if we believed in empowerment.”

Floyd refutes Juran’s contention that people must empower themselves. Calling empowerment a “shared process,” he cautions, “Managers must deliver objective criteria to people to allow them to be securely empowered. People must know that their success will be valued by the company.”

According to Floyd, communicating clear goals is the first step managers must take to assure that empowerment works. Managers must also provide the skills to achieve the goals, time to work on improvement, and resources with which people can make changes.
 

Communicating Goals

Floyd says management must participate in the goal-translation process, so every single person knows the company’s strategic goals and how their individual or team initiative contributes to the larger objective.

For example, companies serving slow­-growth markets often strategically increase capacity for the 25% of the market that is growing most. But Floyd says that plant managers, department heads and shop-floor teams must establish their own local objectives to support that global, corporate goal. “If people are turned loose without goals. They may make improvements that are not additive or mutually compatible,” he says.

In 1990 Exxon Butyl Polymers operated at 20 improvements per employee per year, up from 0.3 improvements per employee per year in 1988 – the average for most North American companies. “If you read improvement as change, that’s something like 17 changes per day in an operation with about 300 people,” Floyd points out. ‘The only way you can live in an environment where 17 things change every day is to have an absolutely clear understanding of what the goals are.”

Clearly defined and translated goals give everyone the assurance that their improvement activities will be well-received, and it makes them feel part of the global vision, says Floyd. The worst-case scenario: management accuses a successful improvement team of doing “the wrong thing.” That kills empowerment.
 

Provide Skills

Floyd thinks US industry has a decent track record when it comes to training. “The problem,” he says, “is that we often get confused between education and sheep dip.”

He claims that it’s usually inappropriate to send all people to the same training. “People in different areas have different contributions to make and therefore have different training requirements,” he says. Because barriers to training are often time- rather than cost­ related, Floyd says it’s especially critical to give people skills that fit the improvement opportunities they can control.
 

Provide Time

“Managers without skill tell their people, ‘Fit this in,’” Floyd says. “But if a manager can’t provide the time, he can’t expect people to make improvements. Time is a management responsibility.”

A beneficial domino effect applies to the time problem, Floyd suggests. If initial improvements lead to streamlined, less time-consuming processes, people are freed up to make more improvements. Floyd cites one Exxon plant that used to require 24 hours to change over polymer production processes. Improvement teams slashed changeover time to four hours, leaving 20 hours of “free” time to be invested in other improvement activities.

At an Exxon facility in Baton Rouge, the plant manager increased the size of his Analyzer Quality Improvement Team by 20% to “advance them some time” so they could succeed in improvement activities. The result: a reduction in critical instrument malfunctions from 24% to less than 1% and 23 days of increased capacity.

“It makes sense to add people to help improve things,” says Floyd. “On the other hand, if you cut jobs as a result of improvement; improvement stops. When you add people to get improvement, your people are more eager to help.” From Floyd’s point of view, investing in people yields bigger benefits than investing in equipment: “When you make a capital investment. the investment is frozen,” he observes. “When you make a people investment. the investment grows.”
 

Provide Resources

‘There’s almost nothing you can do for free,” concedes Floyd. “But if you don’t provide resources – engineering time, capital resources, or technical resources – your people won’t give you improvement.”

One plant within the Exxon Butyl Polymers Group, winner of the 1991 Shingo Prize for Excellence in Manufacturing, reserved $500,000 of its capital budget for empowered work-group activities. ‘The empowered teams are giving back improvements worth more than $1 million,” Floyd says.

“When we went through capital reduction last year,” he continues, “a great many people took the money that should be reserved for small-event improvement and assigned it to do all the possible big-event improvements, and they starved resources from their folks. That’s the wrong thing to do.”

You can provide all four of these essential ingredients and still not succeed at empowerment-driven improvements. Management styles can undermine even the best efforts, suggests Floyd. “Sometimes managers so interfere that it’s better for them to go away,” he says. “On the other hand, empowerment is not a hiding place for timid managers.” Floyd says managers who empower because they are unable or afraid to make decisions are merely granting permission, not leading.

Interfering managers usually force their improvement ideas on people, another barrier to real empowerment. “If you as a manager have a good idea and you work on it yourself, that’s fine,” says Floyd. “But every time management gives an idea to the organization, the organization is not working on its own ideas. Take your ideas out of the plant so people can work on their own ideas. Let the people who know the details work to achieve management goals.”
 
 

Ray Floyd retired from Exxon Mobil in 1993 as Worldwide Manager of Exxon Mobil Manufacturing Services. During his tenure at Exxon Mobil, Ray was also the VP Exxon Chemical Trading and Site Manager of the Baytown Chemical Plant (the largest chemical refinery in North America). Recruited out-of-retirement, Ray joined Suncor Energy (Canada) where he retired (a second time) in 2012 as Senior VP Operations. Twice Ray received the Industry Week America’s Best Plant Award and twice he has been recognized with the Shingo Prize. Ray has authored two books, “A Culture of Rapid Improvement: Creating and Sustaining an Engaged Workforce” and the Shingo Prize-winning title, “Liquid Lean: Developing Lean Culture in the Process Industry.” In 2011 Ray was inducted into United States Manufacturing Hall of Fame. Today, Ray continues active as Director and board-member of several chemical industry joint-ventures.

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