Autonomy is the state of being competent and empowered to make decisions on one’s own.
Self-directed or self-managed work teams are examples of autonomous groups. In the most effective application of these sorts of teams, workers own the process, rather than having supervisors or leads giving direction. This responsibility may include continuous improvement efforts, goal setting, maintenance, problem resolution, production tracking, and other daily management issues.
As a company becomes Leaner, it requires greater levels of autonomous activity from its frontline employees.
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For a team or worker to become autonomous, several conditions must exist.
As people get more capable of making decisions, their leader’s trust in them will increase. Leaders can then focus more of their energy on big picture problems and strategy and let their teams handle the routine daily issues.
As they gain understanding of the challenges of keeping an operation up and running, autonomous teams tend to commit to continuous improvement. They are able to better understand the need for improvement, and have a greater ability to get things done on their own.
Many people claim that they want autonomy in their work. It is probably more accurate to say that most people want autonomy under normal conditions, but want leadership in a crisis. Leaders should challenge teams to get outside of their comfort zones, but maintain reasonable expectations as to what frontline employees can do when encountering something new.
Watch out for those that ask for autonomy, but consistently avoid doing the ‘harder right’. This is most common when cost-cutting decisions are required, or when a decision or action may get a co-worker in trouble.
Transitioning to autonomy is tough on a team, as any change can be. Some people will have a difficult time and may need substantial coaching during the transition period. Don’t try to make sweeping changes all at once. Becoming autonomous is an evolution, not a revolution.
Some leaders may have a hard time letting go of control. Like all things, this will take practice. Those bosses that struggle should complete a daily review of things that they could have let other people handle.
I generally recommend two actions to get teams on the path to autonomy.
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