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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.

For a team or worker to become autonomous, several conditions must exist.

  1. Competency. A person must be capable of making the decisions that are required. For example, if a team has never gone through problem solving training, they should not be expected to solve problems.
  2. Desire. People should want to be autonomous. Despite making extremely complex decisions in their personal lives, a surprisingly large number of people are reluctant to make decisions at work that will affect their co-workers. Some people don’t like the responsibility that comes with having to make choices for others.
  3. Leadership style. Not many leaders are capable of relinquishing control. Leadership jobs, for all their benefits, are often less secure than other positions. Performance is scrutinized, and it is a leader’s failing if a team falls short. Many leaders are unable to release the reins when their career is at stake. The irony, though, is leaders who enable their teams to operate independently generally perform well.
  4. Boundaries. Make sure that there are clear boundaries about any decisions that are off limits. Common examples might be in the purchase of capital equipment or the hiring of people.
  5. Goal orientation. Autonomous teams and individuals should have an understanding of the need to meet goals. Autonomy is most valuable to a company when people are making decisions that are aligned with corporate goals.
  6. Feedback mechanism. People must be given feedback to understand how they are doing. This means leaders must be constantly gathering information to judge how things are going, and the people and teams need to be receptive to feedback about their performance. Autonomy without accountability is dangerous.

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.

  1. Develop KPIs for the team. Key Performance Indicators, a fancy word for a specific kind of metrics, establish what the company views as a desirable outcome. (Learn about our metrics boot camp. We offer a one day intensive metrics and goal setting boot camp to help leaders develop the metrics to guide their team.)
  2. Develop a daily management system. Teams take on greater roles more readily when they have the security of a system to guide them along in their decision making. (Learn about our daily management boot camp. We offer a one day intensive daily management boot camp to help leaders establish a system to manage their operation.)


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