New Roles and Responsibilities of Leaders that Empower Workers

Last month I was reading Taiichi Ohno's 1988 book describing how the Toyota Production System evolved and was quite taken with how much inspiration he took from Henry Ford. As he noted of our founder "I believe Ford was a rationalist- and I feel more so every time I read his writings. He had a deliberate and scientific way of thinking about industry in America. For example, on the issues of standardization and the nature of waste in business, Ford's perception of things was orthodox and universal."

"My theory of waste goes back of the thing itself into the labour of producing it." -Henry Ford

Ohno goes on to observe- "We see in Ford's thinking his strong belief that a standard is something not to be directed from above. Whether it be the federal government, top management, or a plant manager, the person who establishes the standard should be someone who works in production."

This one of the differentiating bases for the success of what has become popularly known as a Lean management culture, namely 1) Employees in charge of their own jobs, and 2) Employees design their own standardized work.

Role of the Leader

How and what would you as leaders and managers need to change to foster and sustain this management system of empowered workers? In the previous 3 parts of this series we addressed the philosophy and behaviors of a self-sustaining continuous improvement culture, the business case and methodology of change and then creation of organizational structure and teams that promote that culture of continuous improvement.

Your new leader role is that of cultural transformer

To achieve that cultural transformation will require a transformation in how you lead, that is, to move from the typical Western manager to the Japanese or Deming-style manager as described in the management systems below.

Deming's philosophy of work and leadership can be summarized as:

"Management's job is to 'work on the system' to achieve continual product and process improvement." -W E Deming

Specifically, the Deming redefinition of management leading to cultural transformation has been described by Andrea Gabor in her book The Man Who Discovered Quality: How W. Edwards Deming Brought the Quality Revolution to America as follows:

Recognize that Lean quality cultural transformation:

  • Is leadership driven. Without that it doesn't happen.
  • Is based on the organizational structure you create & values you espouse
  • Has redefined roles of middle management and workers
  • Values, respects, empowers & protects the workers
  • Aligns incentives
  • Recognizes & rewards, continually, the new behaviors
  • Educates & develops the workforce & next leaders, continually

Your leadership and management goals now include:

  • Adopting Deming's philosophy of work and leadership
  • Managing through a focus on quality- your constancy of purpose
  • Creating a learning organization & culture
  • Developing people, with active participation of all staff
  • Creating ownership for problems and resolution
  • Operating according to defined structure, work rules, using manufacturing based tools, in empowered teams
  • Continually improving quality, not just to meet, but to exceed customer needs
  • Moving incrementally to the ideal target condition, continuously
  • Or in other words, relentlessly pursuing perfection

Other roles of the Leader and Manager are now to:

Develop and communicate

  • Vision, Goals, Priorities, Resource
  • Strategies for leaders, team members, ownership


  • Remover barriers and roadblock
  • Communications, connections outside department
  • Accountability for progres
  • Require follow up, monitoring, documentation of changes


  • Celebration and recognition of contributions

Spread enthusiasm

In this manner, leaders can continually promote the goals of 1) zero defects, 2) teamwork, 3) team problem solving and group learning, 4) unleashed creativity and innovation. By creating a culture that allows change from the level of the workers, you enable the continual redesign of work systems that consistently attain excellence. This is the essence of 'kaizen', hundreds of process improvements contributed by expert workers at your bequest. Did someone say Gallup again?

  • Ford H. Today and Tomorrow. New York, NY: Doubleday; 1926.
  • Gabor A. The Man Who Discovered Quality. How W. Edwards Deming Brought the Quality Revolution to America--The Stories of FORD, XEROX, and GM. New York, NY: Penguin Books; 1990.
  • Ohno T. Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production. Portland, OR: Productivity Press; 1988.

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