Are production supervisors the problem?

For some unknown reason, most companies in the United States do not properly value the first line supervisor in their manufacturing plants.  Virtually every company that we encounter, especially those in financial trouble, have very poor floor supervisors or very poorly "managed" and trained supervisors.  This really leaves them exposed and rarely do they recognize this.

One recurring theme that we have found with companies that promote people from within the organization into the role of supervisor is that they were a good employee or a great operator, very good at their job, reliable long term employee and the like.  Sometimes they are promoted to get them out of the union.  However, as good as they may be, this does not insure that they will make a good supervisor and in fact most of the time is doesn't unless they get the proper training, coaching and mentoring.  Many times the supervisor is the one who catches the entire wrath of management for performance issues and problems and tends to be the one who gets the blame all the time and beat down.  Instead, the production supervisor should be a more valued and prized member of the team as he or she is where the rubber meets the road.

First line supervisors are truly the first line of defense and can be a company's secret weapon if they have good ones.  Instead of being one of the lowest paid salaried people they should be some of the highest paid people in your employ.  Good supervisors pay for themselves many times over.  It is not easy to be a good supervisor but it is very easy to be a poor one.

What should a good supervisor do in the manufacturing environment?

  • Patrol their departments regularly looking for problems, directing traffic and keeping the company-machine (production) running efficiently.
  • Make sure material handlers are on task servicing the operators.
  • Make sure operators stay on task and meet production and quality requirements.
  • Make sure company policies are enforced and information is efficiently passed from the office to the shop floor.
  • Make sure maintenance is informed of problems and that production needs are being satisfied quickly.
  • Checking machine cycle times to make sure they are to standard and not degraded or slowed down.
  • Audit operator methods to make sure the proper authorized method is being used and has not degraded.
  • Be tenacious in getting the departments needs taken care of.
  • Carefully manage the materials being used in his areas and watch out for waste or misuse of it.
  • Work at cost reduction and waste elimination at all times whether it be labor, materials or other resources.
  • Be a good time manager.

What should supervisors NOT do?

  • Get caught up in too much clerical type work which keeps them in their office doing reports or other paper work that should be done by others.
  • Doing purchasing work and inventory responsibilities.
  • Doing production scheduling work (running what he wants to run) other than implementing the issued production schedule.
  • Be allowed to sit in their office idle.
  • Only handle time cards.
  • Be afraid to act because of the union.
  • Doing production, packing or material handling work themselves instead of delegating that work to others (because it is easier to do it myself or they would rather do that type of work rather than supervise).
  • Stay in a particular area (maybe the area they were promoted out of) because they like it or are more familiar with it.
  • There is nothing inherently wrong with promoting from within, however, management must be willing to put the time in to make sure the new supervisor is properly trained and not just oriented to the department in the name of training.  Many times the "training" is done by supervisors who themselves are poor supervisors and the cycle continues.  The superintendent or plant manager, if they are qualified, needs to spend one on one quality time with the new supervisor teaching them what is expected and they should be measured and evaluated against those expectations until they prove they can do the job.  There should be a training plan that explains and defines the duties and responsibilities of the supervisor.  Hiring a supervisor trainer or sending them off to a training class or seminar is not always a good plan either as the new supervisor may only hear theory and eat donuts rather than truly get what they need.  Usually supervisory training needs to be done by someone who knows what a supervisor should be and have the authority or have access to the authority to make it happen.
  • Recently, I was asked to look at a poor performing manufacturing plant in Canada.  The plant was a real mess and the workers managed themselves.  They walked off the job anytime they wanted to and did exactly as they pleased.  There was no supervision on the floor as they were always in their offices doing reports for management, time cards and calling for quotes and buying materials for production.  The only time they were on the floor was to check inventory and collect time cards or check the production counts to determine if they were to work overtime that day.  This is about the worst possible scenario for a manufacturing plant yet this is played out all over Canada, the US, Mexico and the world every day.

So what do you do?

  • Make sure you have a superintendant or plant manager who knows what a supervisor is really supposed to do.  If you do not have that person within your company, look to the outside for help.
  • Develop a written list of things that the supervisor is supposed to do and be responsible for, NOT their job description although that may be a good starting point.  These should not be abstract responsibilities but should be an actual action plan of do's and don'ts.
  • Assign the person who will coach and mentor the new supervisor.  This will probably NOT be the person who orients them to their departments, operations and employees.
  • There should be a written training plan that starts with daily one on one interaction and trails off to an oversight role.  There must be documenting and reporting of progress and corrective action to be taken if required.
  • Existing supervisors should also be reviewed, reoriented and trained (or replaced) if they are not already performing as they should.  This process may be the single most important thing an organization does to help themselves not only survive but prosper in the long run.  Never underestimate or look down upon the first line supervisor.  He or she may be the most important people in the organization.