Escalating decisions

I’ve seen again the WL Gore model of allowing employees to make “above the waterline” (i.e., low-risk) decisions on their own, and only requiring approvals for “below the waterline” (high-risk) decisions.

It always seems to me that this is just as patronising as not allowing employees to make any decisions at all.

It is based on the assumption that management and especially executives are not involved in the work because they are busy doing important executive-y things and so therefore would be unaware of a decision unless it was escalated to them.

There’s your problem. Managers need to be going to the gemba, to be involved in work, to be a stakeholder to all decisions that they need to be.

Managers at a “higher” level might need to make decisions due to context or scope. The wording was about risk. Different thing.

[Update: A big trend in decision-making is the distribution of authority as close to the work as possible, instead of centralising it high in a hierarchy. This still implies delegation of authority rather than liberation of it, and it’s still centralises the authority in a single person. We can go further and distribute the authority to those doing the work, when management’s role becomes invitational: inviting them to act.]

The world seems to be moving towards collective decision making, and away from hierarchal power. Designated decision makers are important in a crisis when time is of the essence, but strategic project portfolio decisions, for example, can be made with all the stakeholders from multiple levels.

There are many ways to get to a decision.

Managers so often think they are smarter than their “subordinates”, and talk about them like children behind closed doors. My experience is they seldom are.

If the employee is following a good process, such as the Advice process, then they’ll check with the right stakeholders.

That’s not the same as deciding something is “above their pay grade” and deferring to their “superiors” to make the decision.

In my experience managers are just as capable of being an idiot and not following proper process. If we treat people like adults and accept that it’s not the smartest who float to the top, then we don’t need a control such as “thou shalt escalate high risk decisions”.