The answer always seems to be…

images…empowerment! But what does that even mean?

As usual, I thought I’d better get myself on firm ground by looking the word up in the dictionary. Here’s what I get:

Empower: Give (someone) the authority or power to do something.” (Oxford Dictionary)

And why aren’t ‘they’ (or, depending on your viewpoint, ‘we’) empowered in the first place? Here’s an eye-opening quote from John Seddon:

“Empowerment is a pre-occupation of command-and-control managers, who:

  • design systems that dis-empower people…;
  • …notice the problem and send people on ’empowerment’ programmes;
  • …and then put them back in a system that…”

i.e. it is a merry-go-round in which people’s hopes are raised (often offsite by a cool and groovy external training company) about the wonders of empowerment…and then they get plugged back into their old reality!

The instruments of a ‘command and control’ system dis-empower people. Leaders can ‘happy talk’* about empowerment and even provide training, tools and (worse) incentives to encourage empowerment….but, if the underlying management system remains the same, they are mostly wasting their time. (* if you’ve not heard this ‘happy talk’ phrase before I provide an explanation at the bottom of this post).

Saying ‘you are empowered’ and meaning it are two very different things:

Here’s a lovely quote I came across recently on a Lean Thinking blog that I follow:

Leader:     “I want my employees to feel empowered.”

Counsel:     “You realise empowerment means your employees start making decisions, right?”

Leader:     “Oh… I want them to feel empowered. I didn’t say I wanted them to be empowered.”

(Mardig Sheridan)

The main reason why people aren’t empowered is because of the environment they work within, not because they don’t want to be!

You can’t simply move to an empowered culture:

It’s easy (and usual) to want the result…but simply wanting it (as in ‘Stating the obvious’) doesn’t magically deliver it.

There are two risks for ‘leaders’ who have always told ‘their’ people what to do (via the likes of transformation programmes, change projects and cascaded personal objectives) when they tell everyone that they should feel empowered:

  • The leader stands back completely: this will create a void in which people won’t know what to do…which will end up with those same ‘leaders’ saying “well that didn’t work, I’d better take control again.”


  • The leader continues to tell them what to do: creating a battle between leader and worker and much resentment and disbelief. And just to spell it out, you are telling them what to do by default if you simply say ‘no’ to everything they suggest or request permission to experiment with.

You can’t just say ‘you are empowered’ – you have to create the environment to make it happen! So how do we go about truly creating an environment in which people are genuinely empowered?

There’s a great book by David Marquet on this called ‘Turn your ship around’. It relates to his time as Captain of a US Navy Nuclear submarine. There’s also a really nice 10 min. animated version enabling you to quickly watch and get the gist. I recommend you watch it right now.

…so, what is needed is:

  • clarity of purpose (of the system in which the people operate), which
    • must be from the customers point of view; and
    • is NOT anything like ‘to implement xyz’ – that’s a dictated solution;
  • the building of your people’s competence;
    • which means far more than just knowing their basic job…it includes them understanding the system in which they operate and the likely effects of their decisions towards it purpose
  • the definition of capability measures (against purpose), and the ongoing transparency of this critical information to those operating the system; and
  • the removal of the barriers that define ‘the old way’ (most of my other posts explain what these are so I won’t repeat myself)

Leadership and empowerment

A reminder of three types of leaders:

“There are three kinds of leaders. Those that tell you what to do. Those that allow you to do what you want. And ‘Lean’ [Systems Thinking] leaders that come down to the work and help you figure it out.” (John Shook)

I hope you can see the cause and effect relationship between leadership and empowerment…it is only the 3rd style of leadership that is meaningful. This is true coaching through an ongoing back-and-forth dialogue between mentor and mentee.

It is only through true leadership (which includes trust, support and humility) that an organisation’s people can become empowered.

But isn’t it simply about hiring the right people?

A quote to finish on:

“Don’t bother trying to hire positive people only to give them crappy jobs and a line of bullshit about empowerment. If you are serious about reaping the benefits of an empowered workforce, make sure you are committed to providing good jobs, fair policies, and remarkable leadership, then go hire good folks and invite them to partner with you to continuously improve your workplace. (Bret L Simmons)


‘Happy Talk’ (Pascal Dennis):

“I remember the first time I attended a leadership conference at [my organisation] about three years ago. I walked away from the event really frustrated with leadership because the messages they shared seemed so disconnected from the reality of the work I was doing each day.

You know the type of event: leaders standing up confidently in front of their peers throwing around buzz words and all the ‘right answers’. What Pascal Dennis refers to as ‘the happy talk’.

Basically we got told what we wanted to hear as opposed to what we really needed to hear. It’s a lot harder to talk about problems and deliver disturbing news than to talk about everything that is going great.” (

Benchmarking – worse than cheating

CheatingDo you remember back to your school days, and the scandalous crime of cheating by copying someone else’s work?

Why was school-boy (& girl) copying seen as such a sin?

  1. The most obvious reason in traditional education is that you are cheating the ‘grading’ system such that people will think you are ‘better’ than you (currently) are;
  2. But, what’s far worse is that you haven’t actually gone through the learning and development process, for yourself…which is what education should be about.

So why am I comparing and contrasting ‘benchmarking’ with school-boy copying? Let’s first look at a definition:

“Benchmarking: Managers compare the performance of their products or processes externally with those of competitors and best-in-class companies and internally with other operations within their own firms that perform similar activities.

The objective of Benchmarking is to find examples of superior performance and to understand the processes and practices driving that performance.

Companies then improve their performance by tailoring and incorporating these best practices into their own operations.” (from Bain & Co. website – a well regarded Management Consulting organisation selling its benchmarking services)

So, essentially Benchmarking is akin to deliberately (and usually openly) finding out who the best kids in the class are and then trying to copy them…with this being seen as a logical and acceptable thing to do. Business is clearly different to Education (right?)

A number of things strike me about this ‘benchmarking’ definition:

  • It assumes that, if I find someone with excellent ‘result metrics’ (in respect of what I chose to look for) then:
    • the metrics I see are true (undistorted) and tell the whole picture (e.g. cope with differing purposes, explain variation,…); and consequently that
    • I should be doing what they are doing…which implies that I can easily, correctly and completely unpick how they arrived at these results;
  • It is about managers looking for answers externally and, essentially, telling the workers which areas will change, and to what degree (commanding and controlling);
  • It is looking at what other organisations are doing rather than what the customer requires (wrong focus)…and likely constrains true innovation;
  • It focuses on component parts of the system, rather than the system as a whole (which will likely destroy value in the system);
  • It incorporates the related, and equally flawed, idea of ‘best practise’ (rather than understanding that, setting aside the above criticisms, there may be better practises but no such thing as perfection);

Sure, we should be aware of what other organisations, including our competitors, are doing for the good of their customers but attempting to copy them is far too simplistic (see my very first post re. ‘perspective’ ).

It is interesting to read what Jim Womack (et al at MIT) had to say about benchmarking after they spent many years studying the global car industry.

“…we now feel that benchmarking is a waste of time for managers that understand lean thinking. Benchmarkers who discover their ‘performance’ is superior to their competitors have a natural tendency to relax, whilst [those] discovering that their ‘performance’ is inferior often have a hard time understanding exactly why. They tend to get distracted by easy-to-measure or impossible-to-emulate differences in costs, scale or ‘culture’…

…our earnest advice…is simple: To hell with your competitors; compete against perfection…this is an absolute rather than a relative standard which can provide the essential North Star for any organisation. In its most spectacular application, it has kept the Toyota organisation in the lead for forty years.”

And to compete against perfection, you must first truly understand your own system:

“Comparing your organisation with anything is not the right place to start change. It will lead to unreliable conclusions and inappropriate or irrelevant actions. The right place to start change, if you want to improve, is to understand the ‘what and why’ of your current performance as a system.” (John Seddon)

Each organisation should have its own purpose, which attracts its own set of customers, who have their specific needs (which we need to constantly listen to)…, which then determine the absolute perfection we need to be continually aiming for.

You can see that, if we use benchmark metrics, we usually end up back with the Target/ Incentive game. We can expect distorted results and ‘wrong’ behaviours.

The real point – Experimentation and learning: Now you might respond “okay, so we won’t benchmark on result metrics…but surely we should be benchmarking on the methods being used by others?”

The trouble with this goes back to the 2nd, and most consequential, ‘sin’ of school boy copying – if you copy another’s method, you won’t learn and you won’t develop.

“We should not spend too much time benchmarking what others – including Toyota – are doing. You yourself are the benchmark:

  • Where are you now?
  • Where do you want to be next?
  • What obstacles are preventing you from getting there?

…the ability of your company to be competitive and survive lies not so much in solutions themselves, but in the capability of the people in your organisation to understand a situation and develop solutions. (Mike Rother)

When you ‘benchmark’ against another organisation’s methods you see their results and you (perhaps) can adequately describe what you see, but:

  • you don’t understand how they got to where they are currently at, nor where they will be able to get to next;
  • you are not utilising the brains and passion of your workers, to take you where they undeniably can if you provide the environment to allow them to do so.

…and, as a result, you will remain relatively static (and stale) despite what changes in method you copy.

“When you give an employee an answer, you rob them of the opportunity to figure it out themselves and the opportunity to grow and develop.” (John Shook)