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Doing Other People's Jobs: The Ball and Chain Holding Manufacturing Leaders Back

Sept. 4, 2023
Being hands-on, collaborating and modelling behavior is not the same as interjecting yourself into other people's roles.

Working with manufacturers over the years, I’ve noticed one pattern with very negative implications: I see many leaders from senior to mid-level working on tasks one or several levels below their roles.

For instance, I’ve observed a director-level leader working on putting out a fire on the production floor. And on some occasions, I’ve seen vice presidents working on tasks that a manager or supervisor should have handled.

I’ve also witnessed front-line leaders bypass their direct supervisor and directly engage leaders two or three levels above them. Do you know why? Sometimes, it is because the more senior leader has enabled that behavior; other times, the employee sees no alternative.

 Don’t get me wrong; I recognize the value of these leaders being hands-on, of collaborating and modeling the behavior of addressing problems. However, this can’t come at the expense of their primary role, continuously. It’s just not sustainable.

Among the consequences of these situations are

  • Conflict or disengagement with leaders who are bypassed.
  • The senior leader losing the respect of their direct reports, neglecting his or her primary role and being frustrated and stressed from being pulled into too many situations
  • Employees becoming dependent on the senior leader, limiting their growth and engagement

This pattern is the ball & chain that holds manufacturing leaders back. It limits their effectiveness, and their entire team falls into a vicious cycle of dependency, frustration and stress.

The causes vary; I have narrowed them down to three main areas:

People: When we tolerate incompetent or poor leaders within the business, people below these leaders are forced to engage higher levels of management.

Process: When unpredictable, unstable and unreliable processes are present, employees become frustrated and are forced to function in a reactive environment. The constant firefighting can quickly overwhelm the team and thus require the attention of the senior leader.

Culture: When leaders create, tolerate or enable an environment where anyone can bypass the chain of command, frustration, disengagement and resentment leads to lower productivity, an unhealthy work environment and, ultimately, employee turnover. Employee turnover perpetuates the cycle and pulls the leaders down a level; for instance, when a direct report leaves the company, the leader must find a replacement and sometimes fill in themselves until they hire a replacement.

As the senior leader, you must set the tone and embrace the following mindsets:

  • Get out of the weeds. Refuse to allow yourself to be constantly bogged down by tactical issues.
  • Develop talent. Invest your time and resources to create a stronger team.
  • Empower the team to make decisions. Give them permission to fail and let them know you trust and support them.
  • Pick your battles. Strike a balance between situations where you must get involved and those that will serve as a valuable experience for your team.

These situations are preventable if leaders take action.

1. Start with leadership. In the short-term, coach your leaders on their shortcomings and hold them accountable if they fail to own them or you don’t see an appropriate response.  Start by having one-on-one private conversations with each leader. Explain the gap (i.e. “I have noticed a pattern that’s leading to unproductive work and frustration for myself and others. For instance, I’m often being pulled into situations that you should be handling), give them the opportunity to reject or acknowledge your observation. Listen to their point of view, and share what your expectation is. If they acknowledge your observation and take responsibility, quickly move the conversation to coaching and action planning; this implies asking thought provoking questions about the proper way of handling these situations in the future without leading them to or providing the answers (allow the self discovery and growth to happen for them). However, if they still reject your observation, you’ll have to assertively lay down your expectations with the caveat that the current state is unacceptable. Finally, make sure to show support by expressing your confidence in their ability to improve, that you are counting on them as a valuable member of the team, and that you will be there if he/she needs help in the process.

2. Start standardizing, documenting and improving the processes that generate the most challenges. Make sure to engage your team in the process. At the end of the day, they will want to have a say in how they perform their work. In addition, their involvement will begin to address the next item on the list.

3. Start working on the culture. Meet with your employees and let them know you are listening and are committed to addressing their challenges, whether they are people- or process-related. Seek to understand your employees’ perspective and address their obstacles (workload, poor leadership, training, problematic coworkers, onboarding, equipment issues, etc.). Engage the leaders reporting to you in this process so employees feel the entire leadership team supports them.

Without these steps toward real change, employees will struggle, leaders will become frustrated and the ball-and-chain cycle will continue.

 Operations veteran Dan Burgos is founder and president of Alphanova Consulting, a Dallas/Fort Worth-Based business transformation and lean consultancy.

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