Excellence on the Front Line
January 30, 2020

We all recognize the critical nature of front line supervision and management in executing daily operating functions.  They are the linchpin of strategy execution, where the rubber meets the road.  But, many companies we talk about and work with cite this as an area of weakness and target for improvement.  If it’s critical, how can we allow it to be labeled weak?  What happened?

First, let’s talk about what constitutes ‘weak.’  What are the signs that companies use as an indication they need change? Consistent unacceptable HSE performance, failure to meet production/transaction/work order/etc. plans, operating costs above targets, and excess labor and overtime, to name a few.

All are indications that more than likely, basic supervision, people management, and communication skills have not been properly addressed by management and leadership.

When asked how they get supervisors, many companies reply, “We pick the best operator, customer service rep or maintenance tech, and promote them.”While this may suffice to provide ‘technical’ knowledge of the overall process for them to manage, it does not address how they will transition to a supervisory role.

Additionally, this may leave a significant gap in the necessary skills to operate daily.  Not only is the line short its best player, but now the new supervisor will probably spend a majority of their time focused on the replacement as their sense of ownership lingers. 

Planning, sharing, and assigning goals, results evaluation, developing corrective actions, communication,  how to provide individual coaching and confrontation effectively are the additional skills and capabilities a successful supervisor needs to perform and advance.

In very few cases, these are innate to a person.  However, most people need training and experience to build these skills.  The good news is that structured programs of training and mentoring with consistent follow-up to assure the new supervisor the company is invested in their future, are successful.

Selecting the right candidate from your company resources, when looking to promote from the functional ranks, generally doesn’t require in-depth- experience with the operating or administrative process and assets.  An overall understanding of the company, its products, and the assigned process should be sufficient.  A well-constructed training and mentoring program centered on company culture and values will build the communication and leadership skills needed.

Succession planning of identifying people within the operator or task execution level and beginning basic supervisory training before gaining position is a great way to ensure a supply of vetted candidates.  Naturally, company HSE training and area-specific safety training focusing on the role of supervisor are always key.

A series of defined workshops and/or training classes followed immediately by actual application of the topics covered, supported by the mentor, has the highest retention and skill-building results.  For example, basic supervisory skills of operational metrics, communication, building a weekly work schedule with targets, and shift handoff meetings should be learned before being on the floor.  The goal of the program is to create behavior change converting them from a task performance role to a task management supervisory role.  Behavior change requires the repetition of the new practices supported by transparent evaluation and feedback.

More complex topics such as problem identification and solving root cause analysis, conflict/coaching, and budgeting should be introduced as the new supervisor gains experience.  In case these situations arise early in the supervisor’s tenure, the mentor will step in and guide them through the process.

Measuring their progress with documented step accomplishment scale and evaluation process is critical to the company; also to the candidate, to assure the candidate is provided the appropriate training in the proper time, and that the candidate is successfully adopting the skills and engaging in the process.

The progress and evaluation given through the mentor provide the candidate with quantitative, metric-based feedback to gauge and adjust progress while preparing the supervisor for actual on the job performance metrics.

As they enter their full-time supervisory role, they should be fully prepared to understand the operations dashboard(s) the business provides to them real-time, daily, weekly, etc. and the basic implications of the movement of each metric so they can be coached through action plan development.

Following this type of program ensures the new supervisor should be in full, independent operating mode within four to six months.

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