Employee empowerment: How it can change your organization

By Doyle Sumrall 
NTEA Managing Director

This article was published in the May 2016 edition of NTEA News.

Some business topics, such as employee empowerment, are timeless, with a broad range of opinions and potential solutions. Anecdotal evidence suggests empowerment levels can vary greatly from company to company. As a business leader, one of the most powerful things you can do is create a culture where everyone feels they have the duty and right to make decisions when needed.

David Marquet wrote an article on the topic in Harvard Business Review — 6 Myths About Empowering Employees. In this piece, he highlights his frustration with the concept of empowerment programs, stating, “So, what we are saying when we say we need an empowerment program is that the fundamental way we run our organization is dis-empowering, or is it de-empowering?” He asserts the solution isn’t a program, but a shift in the fundamental way an organization is designed and managed.

Marquet cautions against falling into the biggest empowerment myths.

  1. Myth 1: The route to empowerment is a program.
  2. Myth 2: You empower people.
  3. Myth 3: Empowerment is enough.
  4. Myth 4: Your picture of empowerment matches your team’s idea.
  5. Myth 5: During a crisis, it’s appropriate to revert to traditional top-down command and control.
  6. Myth 6: Blowing up your hierarchy will result in empowered people.

Marquet, who commanded the nuclear-powered submarine USS Santa Fe, has a structured mentality which is reflected in his business writings. In summarizing the article, he commented, “Remember, in highly effective organizations, there are leaders at every level, not just at the top.”

Two different stories

During a recent conversation with a friend who heads a company, I learned of a situation occurring last year where a key customer modified a standard agreement and sent it back for approval. The changes alone were problematic, but the bigger issue was that all other customers had already committed to the original document. If the agreement changed for one person, it would need to be modified for all. As a universal change was not feasible, the request was constructively denied, and the customer ultimately accepted the initial version.

A few weeks ago, the same customer made similar changes to a new agreement. Rather than saying the changes can’t be accepted based on previously expressed reasons, the employee (who helped handle the situation last year) brought the modified contract to leadership and asked if the modifications would be taken.

After discussing this situation, my friend and I agreed the solution involves increasing the employee’s trust in his own decision-making abilities. Shifting from top-down to bottom-up decision-making is a journey, and, as Marquet points out, teams must be ready to accept it.

At the other end of the spectrum, a recent visit to an NTEA member company revealed a solution-oriented culture, driving some inspiring results. The company not only embraced a lean approach on the shop floor, but throughout the organization as well. Productivity has skyrocketed as a result. In fact, 40 percent fewer people produce three times as much, with a 400-percent lead-time reduction. The business restructured into teams with three levels — shop production, middle management (group and support) and upper management. Organized meetings are a priority, including daily planning (5 to 15 minutes) and a weekly metrics review. In addition, each level meets formally once a month for an hour to evaluate activity, including opportunities and expectations. Meeting minutes are shared with all team members and upper management.

In this system, employees at all levels are responsible for making decisions. Each production cell has a weekly objective, and the teams are able to manage their own areas, adjusting the schedule, pulling days forward while pushing other production runs back, etc. Groups order their own materials and set work time. With individual cells making these decisions, management does not intervene unless objectives fall short. Company leadership is convinced the success and productivity improvements are equally attributable to letting front-line employees make 80 percent of the business decisions and implementing a lean approach to operations.


Run-Improve-Grow is a related concept, which was demonstrated during another member visit. The company put as much authority as possible at the production cell with line employees, transferring 80 percent of decisions on running the business to them. This frees up middle management (team leaders, manufacturing engineers, etc.) to spend at least 60 percent or more time on improvement opportunities. As upper management is only allowed to spend 5 percent of the time running the business, 70 percent can be focused on growth strategies.

Ray Attiyah’s book, Your Roadmap from Firefighting to Bold Business Growth, explores this approach. In the introduction, he explains, “Run-Improve-Grow can get you and your organization to fearless. It can show you how to embrace bold. By implementing Run-Improve-Grow, organizations finally arrive at consistent excellent performance, free of the dramatic ups and downs that often take place when external changes require new plans or procedures. The first part of this book, Run, describes how to use the principles of Run-Improve-Grow to build a solid — and simplified — foundation that focuses on excellence and empowers the front line to be fearless and take true ownership of essential day-to-day operations.”

In these cases, the behavior of leaders and their teams go hand in hand. If leaders no longer need to make all of the run decisions at the highest possible level and give employees training, guidance and trust — and if staff accept these responsibilities — then organizations can achieve better results.

For questions on any of the information included in this article, contact Doyle Sumrall at doyle@ntea.com.