Decentralise command! Five reasons frontline employees should own your company’s procedures

Sandy Reid
Sandy Reid
Jan 19, 2019

I recently spoke to a continuous improvement leader and VP of quality at a large manufacturer who said; “we’ve written standards and procedures, but we need more trainers to get our employees to follow them”.

The issue launched us into the long standing discussion over whether standardised procedures should be imposed from the top, or developed and owned from the bottom — by the frontline employees who actually do the work themselves.

Here’s 5 reasons why standard work procedures should be developed and owned by frontline teams:


1. Process improvement can't be based on fiction: Engineers and managers may know how things should be done in theory, but the people actually doing the work know how things are done in practice. We often hear these two views of the world diverging, which makes it really difficult for manufacturers to build a continuous improvement culture because people have different understandings of the status quo. If the standard work is designed by frontline teams based on the way things are actually done in practice, then there are solid and transparent foundations for continuous improvement. As Ethan Bernstein’s study on transparency in a Chinese production plant revealed, “what managers were seeing wasn’t real. It was a show being put on for an audience”. And of course in this case, as well as many others, “when the audience was gone, the real show went on, and that show was more productive.”


2. Continuous improvement relies on employee engagement: You don’t have to have a PhD in psychology to know that people feel more invested in the things they feel ownership for. No surprise then that Robson and Schroeder, authors of the “The Idea-driven Organisation” site a lack of frontline engagement in the development of standardised procedures as a reason why “so many organisational empowerment initiatives experience false starts and failures”. Not only is it easier to engage frontline teams in process improvement when they can identify with the procedures, but rates of idea generation and implementation are far higher.


3. Prevent rapid knowledge loss: With 10,000 baby boomers retiring from the industrial workforce every day, there’s a huge risk to production and organisational competitiveness in having all that operational knowledge walking out the door. Oftentimes the knowledge is documented in operators’ personal notebooks, but why not make this more usable for the rest of the organisation? When procedures are developed and updated by employees, they reflect the accumulated knowledge at any given point in time, and they can be constantly modified and tweaked as new knowledge emerges. Whilst it has previously been a big ask to get workers to document such volumes of information in a more formal way that the personalised notebook, the introduction of multimedia “snap and share” functionality of smart devices is introducing a new era in which the documentation of operational knowledge is becoming more and more seamless.


4. Faster standards certification: As Robinson and Schroeder point out, when the effort of documenting procedures for ISO 9001 certification purposes is decentralised, and management’s role is focused on approval and verification, the overall time and effort to certification is often reduced:


“This more inclusive approach might have taken a little extra time upfront, but it would also have gotten the company certified much more quickly".


5. More meaningful work for frontline employees: The business case for creating better jobs which, rather than treating workers like interchangeable parts, actually engage the skill and knowledge of frontline employees in process improvement has most famously been demonstrated by Toyota with its philosophies of “respect for people” and “kaizen” which are so core to the Toyota Production System. A more recent case has been put forward in Professor Zeynep Ton’s, “The Good Jobs Strategy”. Identifying the similarities between Toyota and ‘good jobs retailers’ such as Costco, Mercadona, QuikTrip, and Trader Vic’s, Professor Ton persuasively reveals the benefits of enrolling people in process improvement from the start; “if we enroll our people in process improvement, have them identify problems when they happen, and solve those problems… if we create a whole operating system, a human-centered system that really leverages capable, skilled, motivated employees, then we will do so much better.’


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