Competing – Empowerment and Accountability


Empowerment and Accountability:  Opposites or equals?  Certainly when not handled appropriately, these important “people-related” concepts can make the “soft side” of continuous improvement into the “hard-side”.    In this podcast we will explore both Empowerment and Accountability from the Lean perspective.



Why empower?

  • Because management cannot see everything; they need help and lots of it.
  • Because even if management could see everything, they would not have enough time to fix everything on their own.
  • Because we are wasting valuable experience and intelligence if we don’t leverage the knowledge and creativity of our most important resource, our people.

Empowerment is defined as the process of enabling or authorizing an individual to think, behave, take action, and control work and decision-making in autonomous ways. It is the state of feeling self-empowered to take control of one’s own destiny.

In his wonderful book “Managing to Learn” John Shook speaks of his epiphany when his boss told him “Never tell your staff exactly what to do.  Whenever you do that, you take responsibility away from them.”  Empowerment’s aim is reassigning responsibility while growing the skills of our work allies, with the objective of achieving an “Everybody Everyday” type improvement environment.

So why is it that more of our people are not empowered to do things that, frankly, they can do much better than we can?

Sometimes Supervisors and Managers feel threatened by the thought of surrendering authority.  I frequently have heard “if I give away my authority (power), I will have nothing left.” You could add to that “and I won’t be needed”. Just because you think “command and control” is not the best systems, it does not mean you have a new management system to replace it.

Some who have dabbled in empowerment have not had much luck actually empowering people; I really mean luck because very often there is no associated process or system to empower.  Without a process or system, some people and circumstances may work out great, but, sadly, most people and circumstances are not so lucky. Allowing empowerment to exist without a process or system that includes expected outcomes and the coaching required to achieve those outcomes, can create an atmosphere of entitlement that can ruin our culture.



To successfully empower someone, we must also assign accountability.  Empowerment with no associated expectations, or no scoreboard, is confusing and ineffective.  As a culture we are used to and generally like to keep score, it is normal.

But assigning accountability to someone is often not so simple.  This circumstance requires immense doses of both courage (for both the empowerer and the empoweree) and commitment from leadership.  In addition, without trust and follow-through this can become nearly impossible.

For our purposes I define Accountability as– answerable for outcomes.  But within the lean context it is important to support this definition through the three principals of kaizen:

A defined process with results

A systems focus

And a non-blaming, non-judgmental atmosphere.

A primary function of lean leaders and managers is to recognize how to effectively blend lean principles together with the softer sides of lean.  When we do this we set the stage for success by teaching, coaching and developing people in a way that allows them to take charge of their work and become comfortable being held accountable.  This is the way to create the talented allies necessary for a long continuous improvement journey.

Empowerment and Accountability, in our context, are not at all opposites. Together, this pair of equally important concepts, coupled with the necessary training and coaching, is critical to the success of any continuous improvement program and shows a great deal of respect for our valuable employees.  To create an environment where Empowerment can be consistently successful, we must always connect it to accountability with high expectations, in a fair and supportive manner.

Competing Empowerment & Accountability

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