Tell me, does it make a difference in how you treat your car depending upon whether it is a company car or your own? And what about homes: is there a difference in maintenance between rented homes and owned ones? A 2013 study, conducted in the Netherlands by Platform31 based upon the national registration of the quality of the Dutch housing stock (the KWR), concluded that only 8% of owner-occupied properties could be said to be in a poor state of maintenance whereas this number was 21% in the case of rental properties. Ownership seems to be an important factor in how much we care and invest in our work. So how do I create ownership in my organization? And how can the concept of autonomy in Lean help?
In continual improvement, ownership of problems is a basic requirement. We try to strive for this ownership by creating and developing a sufficient level of autonomy at each level of the organization. Autonomy to take responsibility for results and for the performance in the eyes of the customer. Without such autonomy, any effort toward continual improvement can become rather frustrating. For employees, because they will feel inconvenienced. For leaders, because they won’t understand why continual improvement isn’t flying in their organization. And for middle managers, as they will be caught in the middle. As mentioned in a previous blog post, autonomy is an important element of Lean’s Respect-for-People system.
But how do you create and develop autonomy? It’s not a matter of communicating that, from now on, you will “empower” your employees. And it also isn’t just a matter of culture. No, Lean organizations are very deliberate about how they create and develop autonomy to increase ownership in their organization.
1. Autonomy in Balanced Objectives
Teams in a Lean organization should be able to take responsibility for all aspects of her activities. So not only for safety, productivity or efficiency, but also for the quality, timeliness and lead time of the products it produces. Without this autonomy, there will always be busy-bodies with conflicting priorities and methods that will, in fact, relieve the team of its proper responsibility.
2. Autonomy in Performance Evaluation
Directly related to the first form of autonomy, is autonomy in performance evaluation. A team should not only be responsible for a balanced set of objectives, it should also be able to measure and evaluate its own performance on these criteria. A team should measure and analyze its own performance in terms of quality, timeliness, productivity and so on. It should not be dependent upon an external support function to provide and interpret performance data for them.
3. Autonomy in Value creation
The third form of autonomy is related to the execution of the process. A team in a Lean organization should be organized according to the value stream (the material flow) and preferably have the full material flow between supplier and customer under its responsibility. This has important implications for the means and competencies required within a team. Subcontracting in the middle of the material flow, so-called “monuments” (a Lean concept referring to specialist, shared resources that appear in several routings and that are typically run using large batches) and poor organizational design can thereby be seriously in the way of developing more ownership. Developing autonomy therefore sometimes requires tough decisions.
4. Autonomy in Maintenance
When you want teams to take ownership towards their customers, they should also be able to maintain their own means up to a certain extent. When teams rely upon external support functions like centralized maintenance departments, it is easy to blame poor performance on others and externalize problems. It is therefore key to develop autonomous maintenance (and the required competencies) as part of developing ownership in your organization.
5. Autonomy in Scheduling
The fifth form of autonomy concerns the team’s autonomy to schedule their own work in terms of what, how many and when. When this production control or scheduling function is external (which it typically is), you cannot expect a team to take ownership for delivery reliability and inventory. After all, it’s not them deciding what to make when. So decentralization (under guidance of standards) of the scheduling function is required in order to take this responsibility. The “just-in-time” system, with kanban as a part of such a system, enables the team’s autonomy in scheduling their work.
6. Autonomy in Improvement
The last and sixth form of autonomy is the autonomy in improving one’s work. A team should have the authority, the time and the competencies required to solve their own problems up to a certain extent. It should not be dependent upon external support functions for all of its problems. And solving problems thereby involves more than just taking corrective measures. It also involves being able to eliminate root causes of problems and standardizing the related countermeasures.
Autonomy is a relative concept. No organizational entity (not even at the level of the corporation) can be fully autonomous. However, the more autonomy we can develop in a team, the more a team will take ownership for results.
So when confronted with questions concerning the structure of the organization in terms of roles and responsibilities, the scope of responsibilities at various levels and the related competencies that are required, it is key to think about the above six forms of autonomy. Then when not done properly, you shouldn’t be surprised that the leadership will be overburdened with operational problems. Apparently, because these problems cannot be eliminated at the level they were detected. So help yourself, I’d like to say, by developing autonomy!