The New Role Of Supervisors In The Lean Enterprise

As companies transition toward lean enterprises, in which resources are committed to identifying and eliminating waste to better service their customers, many traditional roles within the organization need to change. One such role is that of the front-line supervisor.

Columns From: 8/1/2004 Modern Machine Shop,

As companies transition toward lean enterprises, in which resources are committed to identifying and eliminating waste to better service their customers, many traditional roles within the organization need to change. One such role is that of the front-line supervisor.

Traditionally, the front-line supervisor has been in charge of a given workcenter, focusing attention on assuring the work is completed. In doing this, the supervisor has spent the majority of his or her time scheduling (and rescheduling work), juggling employees, getting equipment running, communicating with those outside of the workcenter and fighting fires that arise on a daily basis. In reality, the front-line supervisor has focused on the present, with occasional periods set aside for forward-thinking activities such as planning and training. In the lean enterprise, this must change.

Transitioning to a lean enterprise is not easy and does not happen without careful planning and successful implementation of plans. Most companies are successful in the planning stage. Solutions are developed, target dates are established and personnel are assigned responsibility for completion. Unfortunately, it is often the execution of the implementation plan that is lacking, frequently due to people focusing on the present. As front-line supervisors must play a key role in any lean transformation, the improvement efforts frequently become their responsibility. For this reason, it is imperative that supervisors spend less time handling current activities and more time thinking about those that will be required in the future. In fact, supervisors must plan on spending 20 percent to 40 percent of their time planning and implementing the changes that will be necessary to assure long-term success of the organization.

I recently spoke to a plant manager whose company was in the midst of a successful lean transformation. He understood the importance of a supervisor's role in the company's ongoing improvement effort, stating, "Today's supervisors need to be looking down the road. If they are spending all their time on jobs that are already in the shop, how can they prepare for what is coming?"

So how do supervisors make time to look to the future? There is no magic formula, but supervisors who have been able to find time point to two major factors. First, these supervisors view their jobs not as telling others what to do, but as coaching others to do things independently. A coach cannot control every action that takes place, so he or she must prepare the team to handle actions together, without the assistance of the coach. Supervisors need to recognize that they too cannot control everything, and employees should be prepared to cope with the unexpected and make the best decisions possible under the circumstances.

Second, supervisors must look at the things they currently do, and identify what adds value and what does not. This should be conducted as objectively as possible, identifying all tasks as either "have to do", "others can do" or "don't have to do". Once all tasks are identified, put together a plan for ceasing "don't have to do" tasks and delegating those that "others can do". Some traditional supervisory tasks that are ideal candidates for delegating to employees include staffing, scheduling work and performing minor repairs on equipment. Obviously, the plan will have to include time for training employees on the tasks to be delegated. Once you have put together the plan to address the "don't have to do" and "others can do" tasks, look at the remaining "have to do" tasks to see if they can be simplified. Try to simplify two or three such tasks by looking for duplication of effort, excessive manual activities that could be automated or combining multiple activities. The time saved from simplifying these tasks, along with eliminating and delegating other tasks, can begin to provide you with the time necessary for focusing on improvements, such as reducing setup times, improving the organization of the workcenter and eliminating or reducing unplanned machine downtime.

If you are a front-line supervisor, think about how much time is currently devoted to planning and implementing improvements in your organization. If you are finding yourself bogged down in daily activities, ask yourself if you are spending enough time coaching employees. Then look at how you are spending time, and make a personal plan to free yourself and devote to the changes required tomorrow.

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