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Are Your Supervisors the Biggest Barrier to Your Lean Manufacturing Efforts

Are Your Supervisors the Biggest Barrier to Your Lean Efforts?

Your supervisors, over the years, have probably learned some behaviors that don’t fit well with lean practices. A more pointed way of saying that is, you’ve taught your supervisors behaviors that don’t fit well with lean practices.

First, I don’t think your front line supervisors are intentionally subverting your lean initiative.  Nor do I think that your front line supervisors are naturally inclined to resist your lean initiatives. In my own experience, they tend to be very supportive of lean concepts and tools. But your supervisors, over the years, have probably learned some behaviors that don’t fit well with lean practices. (Another, more pointed way of saying that is, you’ve taught your supervisors a set of behaviors that don’t fit well with lean practices.) 

Some of the behaviors that I’ve seen well-intentioned supervisors evince that hinder your lean efforts are:

  • an attraction to “fire-fighting” rather than true problem solving,
  • a “keep it running, no matter what” approach,
  • a “turn the speed up” approach,
  • a reluctance to delegate tasks or projects to operators,
  • reluctance to engage in standard practices themselves, even as they espouse the value of standard operator practices,
  • reluctance to orient, train, and coach employees.

Once again, your supervisors are engaging in these behaviors, not because they are stubborn and ornery but because that’s what they’ve been rewarded for in the past. Now your lean initiative is bringing a very different way of doing business into their operations. And you’re probably doing it in a way that doesn’t make very clear exactly what’s expected of them in the new environment. So, naturally, once they walk out of the class room where you told them about the wonderful benefits of lean (and they are wonderful), they’re going to go back to work and do what you’ve taught them to do: fight fires, make it work, keep it running, turn up the speed.

How do you get supervisors to change their hard-earned, hard-learned behaviors? You need to:

  1. give them something different to do,
  2. tell them they have to do the different thing in a different way,
  3. give them the training and support they need to do the different thing a different way.

Give Supervisors Something Different to Do

Too often, lean activities go on around supervisors. I’ve made this mistake in my own consulting work: Teams meet, kaizens get scheduled and conducted, substantial changes get made to the workplace, all without the leadership (sometimes, without even the input) from supervisors. 

Supervisors need to be given responsibility for elements of the lean initiative and given support for carrying out those responsibilities. 

At my clients, supervisors are charged with carrying out a progressive 5S approach in their areas. This means that they must:

  • schedule and carry out mini-5S events within the areas for which they are responsible,
  • make sure that their reports know what’s expected of them in carrying out the progressive 5S approach,
  • recruit and educate operators to facilitate the mini-5S events,
  • carry out, with their operators, 5S audits of their areas,
  • develop schedules for sustaining 5S within their areas.

To be sure, supervisors already have a lot on their plates, and they’re not shy about telling us as much when new responsibilities are given to them. On the other hand, there’s no other way to assure success of the lean initiative. Supervisors must be centrally and substantially involved in rolling out and sustaining lean tools and methods. We help assure their success by providing the requisite training and education. 

Doing the Different Things a Different Way

When we begin educating supervisors about their roles in new ventures, a common question is, “But what if they (the employees) don’t cooperate? What if they resist? What if they don’t do what we want them to do?”

I see that as evidence that supervisors want to do the new thing in the old ways: develop policies and procedures to get compliance. 

Don’t misunderstand me: Policies and procedures are important but they don’t lead, in and of themselves, to the culture change necessary to sustain the lean enterprise. Doing different things differently means communicating more, engendering more input, following through better and more completely, engaging employees in decision making and problem-solving, and expecting more of employees.

I’d go so far as to say that these skills are more important to the success of the lean initiative than is knowledge of lean tools. The industrial world is strewn with lean failures that started with significant efforts to train supervisors in lean tools while ignoring the need for new supervisory behaviors.

Give Supervisors Training and Support

Again, it’s not enough to tell supervisors, “You’ve done the kanban simulation and learned about the eight wastes. Now go implement lean. The organization must devote time and energy to helping supervisors learn and apply new skills.

The first step in getting supervisors to do things in a different way is training and education. If supervisors are going to be new things in new ways, they may need new communicating, delegating, motivating, problem-solving and team-building skills. 

The second step is providing supervisors with coaching as they make efforts to implement the new skills.

The third step is following up to make certain that supervisors are rewarded for using the new skills and encouraged to leave the old behaviors behind. 

Don’t give your supervisors or their needs and interests short shrift when implementing lean. The success of your lean initiative depends on it.

Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. Bohan has a bachelor of arts in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master of science in organizational development from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He has published articles in National Productivity Review, Quality Progress and ASTD's Training and Development Journal. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference, Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance. Bohan can be reached at [email protected].

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