The Importance of Supervisors in the Manufacturing Industry

A production supervisor has perhaps one of the most difficult and thankless jobs in a factory. I learned firsthand one summer as an intern at a GM Factory in Saginaw, Michigan, where I filled in for vacationing supervisors. There I was, a 21-year-old college kid supervising a bunch of grizzled workers. It was daunting at first, but I learned a lot that summer—including not to lip off too much at your going away party at the bar. After picking up my broken glasses and dusting myself off, they bought me another beer.

That memory serves a larger purpose in my service offerings today. I learned that the rubber meets the road with the supervisor. They are the ones orchestrating the activities with the value-adding workers every day to try and achieve the goals for safety, delivery, cost, and quality. In the old days, they were called foremen and they were a tough bunch who managed using their extensive knowledge of the area and their strong force of personality to get things done. They could sense when things weren’t quite right, and they’d make adjustments on the fly. They’d expedite parts, hop on a forklift, work around the issue, or cobble the machine back together. Doing the job well meant doing whatever was needed to get the job done.

Addressing the Expectations of Today

Today, we expect more from our supervisors. We want them to be proactive problem solvers and not reactive firefighters. We want them to be coaches and not tyrants. Hopping on the forklift is now a bad thing that is discouraged because we want them doing the standard work of a leader. We want them identifying continuous improvement opportunities and using Lean techniques. When there’s a quality problem, we want them to conduct an 8D investigation, and after that they need to lead daily stand-up meetings in a way that engages their workers. They must also do standard work audits to ensure that the process is being followed.

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Too often, I’ve seen times where management dumps these new expectations on supervisors without doing the heavy lifting to prepare them for it. Anecdotally, I have heard that 50 percent or more of supervisors don’t make it when companies decide to implement Lean manufacturing. I think that’s a travesty and a failure of management. These are the people that were the best in their departments, and they were instrumental in getting the company where it is, and now they are suddenly obsolete.

Even if we look past the ethics of demoting or terminating a long-tenured supervisor that has historically been successful, how are you going to replace them?  I’ve found outside hiring for supervisors to have a very low probability of success. Perhaps there are a couple of diamonds in the rough that you can promote, but it won’t be enough to cover all the needs the position requires.

Creating a Solution Takes Time

We must figure out how to help regular, everyday supervisors become the supervisors that we want in this age. The answer isn’t clear, but I’ve been around enough companies to know that most are struggling with this issue. My instincts tell me that this is a long-haul development program that starts at the top, with plant managers teaching production managers and then passing that on to supervisors. It’s a slow, long-term process and there are no easy shortcuts.

I’ve looked at numerous development programs, but I haven’t seen a genuinely effective one. Usually, these programs are centered on training. But training is only one piece of the puzzle. If you know of an effective program or approach, one that has truly helped supervisors cross the bridge, I would love to hear from you.   I think supervisors are an underserved part of the manufacturing community. Yet they are vital to the success of any improvement program.

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Rob Tracy

Rob Tracy

I’ve been involved in the manufacturing industry for more than 30 years and I know a thing or two about execution that enables the growth of companies. My advice and consultation come from real-life experience. My handshake is my word.