Total Quality Management – Part 07: Establishing Autonomy of Frontline Employees

As far as your customers are concerned, your frontline employees ARE your agency.

Do they know that?

Do you feel that way?

Do you tell them how important they are? How?

Do they get all of the support they need to provide the best level of customer service that they can?

In order to treat your employees as if they were the most important part of your operation, you must be sure they know WHY they are doing their tasks, not just HOW they should be doing them.

The HOW of a job separates the concept of education from the concept of training. Training teaches methods — the efforts of their hands. Education teaches principles behind the efforts — the understanding of their minds.

I realize that this is an esoteric principle. But if we can get beyond the numbers of pieces of paper that we expect our employees to handle, we will find that they are capable of changing the way the paper is handled to the benefit of the clients and of the agency. The employees will be of greater benefit to you and to the customers if they understand why they are performing as you require as well as they understand how to perform that way.

Autonomy is the power that you bestow upon your employees to independently service their customers. Agencies without autonomy are easily recognizable. Service employees do not make decisions. They simply relay problems to the agent and carry out the agent’s decisions. Sound familiar??

Autonomy is a difficult concept for agents to accept — until they realize the liberty and latitude it provides them to perform the functions that are most valuable for their businesses. When agencies begin, the producer/owner is the spark plug and center of business generation. As the business grows, employees are added as arms of the owner. They are expected to carry out the owner’s desires to leverage him to sell more insurance. Once the agency’s size reaches critical mass, however, leverage by the use of “assistants” becomes self-defeating. The owners find themselves administrators instead of salesmen. They are forced into administrative roles by the very success that has caused their growth.

Empowerment of employees and providing autonomy uses the employees differently. The first requirement is to hire the best employees that you can afford. You must trust your employees in order to empower them. If you decide that you can live with mediocrity, then this article and the principles of TQM are probably not for you. If you believe that your employees are of high quality, you must be willing to empower them with decision making authority and the autonomy to use that authority.

Understand that while they will not make the same decisions as you might, theirs will be acceptable solutions in most cases. After all, you sometimes make wrong decisions, don’t you? You must back the employees at all times. It is a basic management principle that praise be made publicly and criticism be made privately. This advice is very appropriate in the empowerment and autonomy of your employees. If their decisions are a different, but acceptable solution to a problem, accept them. If you disagree with the decision, analyze the situation with the employees in private and correct the solution that they used, but never criticize the process that caused them to make a decision to resolve a customer problem.

The manager’s role is to eliminate the roadblocks keeping the employees from performing their jobs effectively. While rules and procedures are necessary, be careful of those rules created for the minority, rather than for the majority. In many cases procedures are written to avoid the abuse of the agency in one or a few cases. These rules affect the other 99% of the customers who have no intention of abusing a situation. Autonomy warns the employee against the possibility of the abusive situation, but permits that employee to decide (independently) when a situation is “normal” and deserves facilitation by exception or creative decision making. Eliminate as many restrictive policies, procedures and rules as possible. Your employees will thank you and your customers will notice the change.

What are the “obstacles” in your agency? What “roadblocks” can you eliminate in favor of better service? Are you now an “empowering boss”? Do you provide autonomy for your employees? How do you find out these answers and more? — ASK THE EMPLOYEES!!! Conduct a blind employee survey that directs these questions to the employees without fear of retribution based on their answers. The best results are achieved when an outside firm is hired to create the survey, distribute it to the employees, collate and analyze the results and present them to you and the employees simultaneously. The results of the survey will tell you how strong a manager you are really considered (as long as the employees do not fear retribution) and what you can do to make the situation even better. Call Agency Consulting Group (609-779-2430) if you would like to discuses an Employee Survey for the purpose of determining empowerment and autonomy related issues within your agency.