Quite often, whether on the shop floor or in the office, a process grinds to a halt when frontline employees have to go seek manager approval for something. Whether it is for spending that exceeds a prescribed threshold, when two employees want to swap work stations to stay fresh, or to sign off on a repaired product after a defect is corrected, if a manager is not immediately available, work flow is disrupted.
In some cases, the manager even intentionally develops a batch process to avoid interruptions. Perhaps she reviews all new spending requests on Thursday morning. Great if you come up with an idea on Wednesday afternoon, but not so good if you have your flash of brilliance at the start of the shift on Friday.
So, to combat the review processes in your company, I recommend you look at every manager approval your organization requires. The goal is to determine the underlying reason that the check is in place. Then, see if any of the assumptions that drive the review process are valid, or if they are obstacles that can be removed.
Why go through this drill? For two main reasons. The first, as mentioned in the opening paragraph, is that approval processes disrupt flow. They also add copious amounts of waste. The manager is interrupted and has to figure out what is going on, which takes their time. And, of course, there is also the time the employee spends explaining what is happening, or gathering and documenting information. Plus, and perhaps most problematic, when a file is sitting in a stack waiting to be looked at, a customer is frequently not being served.
The second, and far more important reason, though, is that approvals send the wrong message to employees. If you want a continuous improvement culture with an empowered workforce making decisions that strengthen the company, leaders have to actually give authority to their teams. Requiring sign-offs, especially for minor things, doesn’t scream empowerment.
Some common reasons approval processes exist include:
- Lack of a Process: Some managers use ‘gut feel’ decision making. For example, when deciding whether to let someone have a day off of work, a manager probably considers several factors, but likely doesn’t use the same criteria each and every time. By defining a process, a team could easily develop its own vacation process and manage it themselves.
- Lack of Training: When a process is in place, but is not known by teams, it is the same as having no process. Teach teams how to think the same way that a manager does, and they will get the same results.
- Access to Information: Managers generally have access to more information than employees do. A prime example is the budget. An employee making a decision about a purchase may not know where the team is in terms of expenses. Give your teams more information, and they will make better decisions. When they are thinking in terms of actual dollars, they will also be more likely to weigh the costs and benefits of the decision, and will even filter out some of their requests on their own.
- Risk: Asking someone to take risks requires that they get more substantial rewards. Many people will feel uncomfortable making decisions ‘above their pay grade’. Managers should keep the riskier decisions to themselves, but in truth, most frontline employees don’t want to take on deciding whether to roll out a new product or where to build a factory. They would, however, love to be able to decide to purchase a new computer monitor to replace one with a bad flicker. And they don’t want to have to jump through a bunch of hoops.
- General Convention (AKA “We’ve always done it that way”): History is tough to overcome. If the best answer you can find about why a manager makes a decision is that the manager before made that decision, it is time to work on eliminating that approval process.
- Psychological Factors: Some managers like having power. They like having control. They like feeling important. There’s probably even a psychological term that describes how people lacking control in one area of their lives grasp onto it in another area to compensate. This situation is particularly hard to deal with because reason and logic often don’t play a major role. If you suspect this is the case, an anonymous request to a more senior leader for a specific process improvement project, or a conversation with a trusted mentor or HR rep can help get this barrier removed.
- Fear: When a manager has been bitten by a problem in the past, he is less likely to give up control in the future. Look at the reasons for past issues, and consider the root causes that led to the failure. You’ll find that most of those reasons could have been prevented by clearly defining a policy or process, and by making sure employees knew, understood, and followed it.
- A Mandate: Often, a manager must approve something because of a mandate. Perhaps a director in the finance department saw an increase in overnight shipment charges, and got a policy implemented that requires all ‘red’ shipments to be signed off on by a manager. Mandates like this, though, are seldom passed after a visit to gemba, the specific place where the actual work is being done. Many mandates are established in a conference room. Try this: Mandate that all mandates be physically signed off on the shop floor after speaking to a frontline employee, and more than a few probably would end up in the trashcan.
- Lack of Trust: While it is seldom explicitly stated, a common driver for approvals is that many managers simply do not trust their employees to make good decisions. Trust, though, is often just the surface reason. It often is related to another item from this list. Solve that underlying issue, and the trust problems tend to dissipate. Keep in mind, though, that trust issues are amplified when there is an adversarial relationship between managers and their teams.
- Crime: This is the elephant in the room. Some leaders think that employees will steal if not monitored. The question, though, is whether employees act unscrupulously at a higher rate than managers. I’ve never seen any data that shows that ethical behavior is correlated to rank. In fact, if I were to gamble, I would bet that more total dollars in losses are related to criminal activity that comes from white collar crimes at higher levels than from ethical lapses originating on the shop floor. Regardless, in cases where there may be a temptation, consider using peer review to have teams police themselves.
- Legal and Regulatory Requirements: Sorry. Not much to be done here. Just make sure that a qualified expert has reviewed the legal statutes and regulations, and that there is, in fact, a requirement for manager approval. Sometimes, misinterpretation creates more work.
So, again, I recommend that you take a look at each and every approval process, and determine what would need to happen to remove that need for authorization. If you want a truly empowered workforce, they have to have the authority to make decisions on their own.
Now, I am certainly not saying to just eliminate all approvals tomorrow, but I do firmly believe that it will be good for your company in the long run to improve your processes so approvals by managers become unnecessary. Just get it into your mindset that approvals are a warning sign of poor processes.
My challenge to you, before you leave this webpage, is to commit in your mind to one approval process that you will start working to eliminate. I’d love to hear the process that you are going to work to resolve. Let me know what it is at Info@Velaction.com.