Developing Great Front Line Leaders

by Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

Why Do We Need Great Front Line Leaders?

The answer to this question is simple – both the workplace and the workforce have changed. One could argue that we have needed a different kind of supervisor all along – that there was never near as much of a need for someone to ‘command and control’ as there was for someone who excelled at coaching others and improving systems. In recent years, technology and automation have further reduced the need for manual labor in the workplace and heightened the need for knowledge workers. Unfortunately, the people that are entering today’s workforce are even less prepared for supervising others than they were years ago. Even more unfortunate is the fact that front line leaders are the key to high performance and process excellence.

EXPLORE MORE: How great are your leadership systems?

Why are front line leaders the key to high performance?

Typically, process improvement responsibilities are placed in the hands of safety professionals, the Quality department, or the Engineering group. Supervisors might be asked to perform in this capacity, but rarely are their jobs designed to support a consistent, meaningful level of process improvement work. Additionally, time rarely exists in their jobs as they are currently designed to allow for this work, and most front line leaders don’t have the skills needed to manage projects, use process improvement tools, and facilitate team-based improvement efforts. Unfortunately, if you choose to limit your process improvement efforts to only a small percentage of your workforce, your progress towards process excellence will take quite some time.

Front line leaders are the key to high performance, but they can only be effective in that role if they know how to develop people and work with them to help improve systems. Why are front line leaders so important? To find the answer, simply ask “Who spends more time with the highest percentage of your workforce than anyone else?” If that question does not convince you, try asking “Who do employees really get their perception of what the organization is trying to accomplish from?” You can have the most charismatic and influential leaders at the top of your organization and still fail to make significant progress towards process excellence simply because it is tough for one or two people to affect significant behavior change when they only spend two or three hours with people each year. Front line supervisors see their people every day. Each day, they intentionally and unintentionally send strong message to their people about what is important and what is not. The question is “Are they sending the RIGHT messages?

DISCOVER MORE: Measuring Leadership Behavior Effectiveness

If you would like more information about the tools and systems I have successfully used to help front line leaders excel at their jobs, please send me an e-mail at

What skills do great front line leaders need to have?

Great front line leaders need ‘hard’ skills to improve systems and ‘soft’ skills’ to effectively coach others. Few people are taught these skills as part of their formal education however, and most supervisory jobs are not designed to encourage their use. Think about it – how much time do the supervisors you know spend processing paperwork, doing other clerical duties, and serving as a ‘gofer’ instead of coaching, analyzing systems, and developing improvement projects? In order to succeed in a high performance workplace, a great front line leader needs to develop and regularly use the following skills:

Behavior Skills

  • Take initiative to improve performance
  • Respect and promote diversity
  • Communicate expectations
  • Seek first to understand
  • Provide performance feedback
  • Resolve conflict and build teams
  • Utilize change and innovate

Task-Based Skills

  • Graph creation and analysis
  • Spreadsheet and database use
  • Develop and implement improvement projects
  • Process analysis and design
  • Identify cost reduction opportunities
  • Facilitate and lead team meetings
  • Create performance improvement plans

How do you teach front line leaders these skills?

Most high performance skills require practice for true learning to occur. Just as practice is required to become a better golfer or to make a higher percentage of your free throws, supervisors need to practice using problem solving tools, coaching others, and developing projects. In a Great Systems! workshop, front line leaders practice while they learn. By focusing only on the key concepts that need to be learned, lecture can be minimized in favor of skill practice. My process excellence certificate processes require front line leaders to provide evidence that they have both used process improvement tools personally to make changes and stick, and they have successfully worked with their team to put improvements in place as well. Can your front line leaders prove that they have made changes that matter?

In our training, front line leaders get to practice using the tools in a team environment that they will be expected to use at work. They get immediate feedback from both their peers and the instructor on their performance. They take home a workbook that summarizes the key learnings and provides additional practice exercises that they can use back at work. They create both an action plan for further improvement AND they redesign their job so that high performance work practices can occur. Finally, they receive three months of free online coaching from the instructor as they put their action plans to work. A certificate test is also provided to supplement the completion of the learning plan itself.

What do you base your opinion of high performance supervision on?

For almost 30 years, I have both served as a trainer for front line leaders and formally been responsible for their development. I have learned the hard way about what works and what does not when it comes to supervisor training. Most importantly, I can empathize with the daily challenges that a supervisor faces on the front lines while also pushing them towards higher levels of performance. I have helped over 200 front line leaders improve their performance at work to-date, and I have some success stories that I am very proud of.

Additionally, I have seen the downside of what happens when you simply send front line leaders to a two or three day “skills development” workshop and ask them to change. This approach, simply put, will not work! In order to get consistent and effective tool use, you have to (1) require each supervisor to demonstrate tool use over time so that new habits are developed and (2) redesign their jobs so that time for tool learning and use exists. In other words, proven change must be required, time must be provided to help make that change happen, and coaching must be provided as they practice to help these people learn the skills that they have not received through their formal education.


What is the most “critical factor” in making an improvement initiative successful?

This is a tough question, because I am torn between two possible answers.  An improvement initiative will not succeed if time is not allocated towards it, and that time, if allocated, is used effectively.  That said, an organization can allocate this time on paper (in a strategic plan, job description, or expense budget for example), but fail to require EACH of its leaders to demonstrate the degree to which they are personally using this time to improve the key processes they are responsible for.  If I could only change one thing, I would change what I expect from each of my leaders, because most people will find a way to reach a goal if that goal is clearly stated, along with significant consequences for failing to achieve that goal.

How can you make your front line leaders great?

As with any type of supervision or process ownership, a balanced set of metrics and reporting should be used to track leadership behavior and task effectiveness.  A ‘bottom up’ Leadership Index should be provided to each front line leader by his direct reports at least once a year as a behavior effectiveness metric.  The process owner should also be held responsible for the safety, cost, quality, and people metrics that his or her processes produce over time (in the form of trend lines and a balanced scorecard).

I also expect each of my process owners to provide the following each month – a key project list for their processes, a monthly summary of their key accomplishments and challenges, and a performance summary spreadsheet that shows DAILY process inputs and outputs.  Because I expect my front line leaders to spend 30-60 minutes a day on these items and use a spreadsheet to compile and organize them, I can review their progress at any time by simply looking at the spreadsheet itself, the results trend lines posted in their process areas, and/or their hard copy monthly report (or intranet web page). These requirements have been built into my “Process Excellence From the Inside Out” certificate process.

Would You Like to Learn More?

My goal is to help you use the workbooks, workshops, and articles featured on this site to (1) develop effective and engaged teams, (2) design excellent work processes, and (3) sustain better results without having to spend a lot of money or time. I truly believe that an organization cannot attain such goals without a team of great front line leaders. I can help you improve your supervisor team in two ways – by facilitating a training workshop or by acting as an ‘on the job’ performance improvement coach. Send me an e-mail if you would like to learn more.

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