Direction is Not Supervision
Robert Apelgren, Senior Reliability Engineer
Too many times, we take a supervisory position and make it unidirectional. I am not aware of any company that assigns a job title and description to a supervisor instructing them to just tell people who, what, when, where, how, and why to do something. In fact, most companies today have certain descriptions leaning towards quality and improvements. Corporate goals set the environment on how things will be approached and prioritized. A supervisor must be a dynamic person who has the ability to take the corporations goals and push to achieve them while building future supervisors or more importantly “leaders”. There are three important factors in shaping the future leaders: communication, mentoring, and follow through.
Corporate goals drive the business in the direction the shareholders want. Generally, in any vision or mission statement the corporation describes the desire to be the best in the business in some format whether it is quality, customer service, or top producer. In any case, you will find that the underlying goal is continuous improvement. Continuous improvements do not just happen and are the product of the workforce that made the improvements happen. If the workforce is making the improvements happen then it is reasonable to say that a better-trained and happier workforce will make more improvements happen and in a shorter time. The corporations who are moving towards Lean Manufacturing and have to go through major change management initiatives will especially benefit from this type of atmosphere. “Lean production systems require more from the front-line worker than traditional mass production.” (Allen, Robinson, & Stewart, 2001, p. 170)
Supervisors must be adept in problem solving, scheduling, and communication. A supervisor is the direct link from the front-line employee to the management. Supervisors are generally low to mid career level personnel who have a substantial amount of shop experience coupled with the training to execute schedules and maintain the status quo. Shop experience is an important tool in the box when it comes to dealing with crisis issues on the shop floor with equipment downtime or personnel shortages. The decisions a supervisor makes can sometimes mean the difference between a few hundred dollars and several thousand or more. In addition, the supervisor must execute the schedule within the best possible compliance to keep the backlog of overdue maintenance actions to a minimum. Finally, the supervisor has to maintain a level of normalcy to the shift to keep employee morale at its peak. The more confusion there is in a shop the less likely there will be happy employees working there. The one thing that seems to be overlooked so much in today’s fast paced industries is the supervisor’s responsibility to form and shape the future leaders that work as their subordinates.
The first of the three important factors is communication. Communication is the backbone of everything done in business. Whether the communication is for direction or feedback it is a necessity for the organization to function. Every single continuous improvement program and quality management system stresses the importance of communication in all directions in an organization. In addition, the success of all of these programs relies on communication. The supervisors play an important part of the communication system by translating technical information to the information needed by management. Examples include downtime, quality deficiencies, and project costs. A supervisor should be training the personnel working for them on the methods of communication and priorities of communication in relation to what management needs to know.
Supervisors have a great opportunity to fulfill the role of becoming a mentor for personnel that work for that supervisor. The term mentor has become a popular term in the past ten years with all of the quality management systems that are hitting the streets. The traditional mentor was someone that is respected and chosen by a subordinate or peer to be a model for growth. Quality management systems are now structured to set up a mentoring system to grow leaders. Mentors play a large role in the improvement of personnel by filling a key spot as an advisor. The advisory role does not stop on job specific training but also includes career planning, education planning, and life issues. The supervisor does not have to be the direct and final advisor for these subjects. The direction a supervisor gives on whom to talk to can be just as important for the growth and morale of the personnel. Preparation says a lot about a leader and how they assess tasks.
Finally, the follow through demonstrated by a supervisor can display the concern and priority the supervisor has for the employees. Everyone wants to feel important. Employees generally ask questions due to some kind of genuine concern about a situation or subject. A supervisor needs to address the situation even if it has to be a negative response to the question. In the case where there is not an answer available at the time, the supervisor needs to ensure he follows up on the question. The lack of follow through sets a bad example to employees and reduces the trust they have for the supervisor to meet their needs. Too many times a person enters a plant and suggests an improvement to receive a response from other employees against trying because no one cares or listens. This kind of atmosphere is crippling to an organization that wants to perform some change management initiative.
Supervisors make things happen on the shop floor and are the primary salesperson for new changes that will affect the front-line workers. Effective shop floor management is essential to the success of any corporation. Communication makes shop floor management effective and fluid. If all of the levels communicate on a normal basis changes will happen more efficiently and effectively. The main point to remember is that the supervisor is the first line in the training of tomorrow’s shop floor leaders.
Allen, J., Robinson, C., & Stewart, D. (Eds.). (2001). Lean Manufacturing: A Plant Floor Guide. Dearborn: Society of Manufacturing Engineers.
Robert Apelgren is a Senior Reliability Engineer. He received his BS in Industrial Technology from Roger Williams University and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. He is a Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional. He has 12 years of maintenance experience as a technician, supervisor, coordinator, consultant, and trainer.