Front Line Supervisors – the Key to Sustained Excellence

byKevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

First published in Industrial and Systems Engineer Magazine September 2001

Back in 1993, I, like many others in business at the time, was part of a restructuring event. In essence, the company I was with had decided to eliminate its Industrial Engineering positions at the plant level (along with other positions), and I in turn had a choice. I could be reassigned as a Production Manager, or I could look for a new job. Needless to say, I took the reassignment. I had no idea how key my front line supervisors would be to my success (or failure).

Do You Truly Want to be a Front Line Leader?

I had wanted to fill that type of role anyway for the past five years or so. When I took the job however, I was totally unaware of the true learning that I would take away from the next two years as a member of front line management. Office (management) positions made up my work experience for the first twelve years of my career. While those jobs would require me to interface with people and processes on the front lines, I had not held a front line job. At that time, I really did not think that it would be that different. Boy, was I wrong.

They call them the front lines for a reason. Nothing is wasted on the use of the military analogy and all of the sounds and images that it conjures up. If you have personally worked on the front lines in a manufacturing plant, at a call center, or in a restaurant, you know what I mean. The two worlds of work are very different. We can learn some significant lessons from those differences. Such insight would serve me well in the years to come.

EXPLORE MORE: Developing Effective Work Team Leaders

Why is Working as a Front Line Supervisor So Different?

More than anything else, you notice a heightened sense of stress and pressure on the front lines. The work continues to come at you. You cannot escape to the break room, the restroom, or your office when things get a little (or a lot) crazy. Instead, you have stand there and take on the work. The front line staff may make the job look easy, even when things don’t go that well, but every day is a challenge. Sometimes the challenges have been seen before. Other times they are new. The key distinction to note here is that you have to stand there and take whatever comes your way, at least until your first official break of the day comes.

The front lines are also where the money is made each day. If you work in a service industry, you interface with the customer on an almost continual basis. If you working on an assembly line, your daily efforts directly affect the quality and cost of the product. You are a direct cost, and as such, the fruits of your effort are readily visible. That is the most positive thing about front line work – it is easy to determine if you personally add value to the product or service you provide.

DISCOVER MORE: Measuring Leadership Behavior Effectiveness

Back to the Challenges of Front Line Leadership

I share these thoughts and learnings with you for a simple reason. Recently, I made the decision to return to the world of manufacturing as a Production Manager. I could continue to work with people primarily in the training rooms, board rooms, offices, and hotel conference rooms of America, but the lure of the front lines was too great. I wanted to be back where it was easier to tell if I was making a difference or not.

For the previous seven years, I taught others how to be great front line managers and supervisors, even though I was no longer working in that capacity myself. Now, I would have the opportunity to ‘practice’ what I had been ‘preaching.’ I would be able to better gauge my personal value on the job. The work would also allow me to try out a lot of the new tools, techniques, and concepts that I would write, speak, and otherwise teach people about.

What are Your Perceptions of Front Line Work?

As you read this, I hope that you look at your own personal perceptions of the front lines. In general, I feel that most people take this type of work for granted. I think we discount what it is like to ‘restrict’ a person to a three-by-three square of floor space for a majority of the workday. We fail to appreciate the luxury of being able to go to a relatively quiet place when things begin to get a little crazy. We may even lose sight of the degree that we personally add value to our organizations each day.

This is not to say that it is easy to fill a management role away from the front lines, or that such work does not have its own daily challenges and stress. There are challenges and stress in any job. There is something to be said, however, for the perks that come with ‘away from the front lines’ work. We are freer to roam the halls during the day, sit in air conditioning for most of our work hours (or simply just to be able to sit), and take a few minutes for casual conversation at the start or end of a meeting. The two types of jobs are different. Find and explore these distinctions between work systems to learn more about each of them.

Both Types of Work are Needed for Sustained Success

You might argue that people choose to do the type of work they do. They choose to make the decisions that they make as they fill different work roles in life. While this is true, we cannot deny that we need both types of work. Both types also need to add high amounts of value. Challenges lie in learning to (1) appreciate the type of work that each group performs, (2) continually search for additional ways to add value as we perform our own jobs, and (3) work together to identify system changes that will make work a better place for all of us, and our product or service better for our customers.

LEARN MORE: Facilitating and Leading Teams Workbook

I like to work on the front lines, but it is definitely a different world than the worlds I experience as an industrial engineer, a Director of Quality, a trainer, or a consultant. It is a world that I thought I understood back when I would fill those roles. No amount of reflection, listening, empathy, or insight can actually take the place of doing the job itself. Unfortunately, some of us may not have such an opportunity, at least in the near future. If that is your case, please give some thought to the ideas and perspectives that I mention above. I think you will find that they will definitely help you build stronger relationships and get better results when you interface with others on the front lines.

If you would like more information about the process I use with groups to help them develop great work team leaders, please send me an e-mail!

Keep improving! – Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems  

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“Each step on the road to high performance begins with a choice.” — Kevin McManus, Great Systems!