Consider This -- What Do Manufacturing Supervisors Really Do on the Job?

Jan. 13, 2010
What you think your supervisors do and the duties listed in their job descriptions may bear little resemblance to how they really spend their time.

Forget what the job description in the human resources folder says -- do you know what manufacturing supervisors really do on the job?

ACT does. ACT Inc. is a not-for-profit company best known for the ACT college entrance examination. The company's Workforce Development Division focuses on work/job transitions and provides services and research in areas of interest to manufacturing and service companies. Over the past several years the company has amassed thousands of job-task and foundational skill analyses from companies across the United States. In the process of gathering these data, job incumbents, the individuals actually doing the work, describe the specific tasks they do and rate the tasks for importance and the relative amount of time spent doing them. This gives ACT's industrial and organizational psychologists information to assess how critical a given task is for the specific job under study.

A recent study focusing on manufacturing supervisors revealed some surprises.

A portion of ACT's JobPro database of job information focused on manufacturing supervisory jobs was examined to better understand the supervisor's tasks. Results on jobs from 98 manufacturing companies were analyzed, yielding a total of 4,768 tasks (many of which were overlapping from company to company), to determine what supervisors actually do on the job. So, what do they do?

Oliver W. Cummings, assistant vice president, Workforce Development Division, ACT Inc.

Settings Compared

The 98 manufacturing companies analyzed for this study included comparable numbers of jobs in heavy manufacturing (31 jobs), light manufacturing (27 jobs) and process manufacturing (37 jobs). We were surprised to find that except for a slight difference in computer usage -- somewhat higher for process manufacturing -- there were no significant differences in supervisor on-the-job task categories for heavy versus light versus process manufacturing. This finding may have implications for the transferability of foundational supervisory skills from one manufacturing setting to another.

Tasks Performed

ACT researchers identified 12 major categories of tasks that manufacturing supervisors perform. According to those who are employed as manufacturing supervisors, the task categories below are listed in rank order by the frequency of their occurrence across jobs and tasks.

They spend significant time monitoring 1) to ensure safety; 2) to ensure product quality; and 3) to evaluate and improve work processes.

In close concert with their monitoring roles, supervisors also spend time "being the expert," 4) mastering and maintaining specialized tools required for the job; and 5) troubleshooting machine and work environment issues and resolving problems.

Supervisors also manage production 6) by receiving direction and orders from management or customers; 7) preparing detailed work assignments; and 8) managing production levels to meet goals.

So, that's eight of the 12 critical tasks -- three-quarters of the way through the list. Have you noticed the missing element? We were surprised to see no mention to this point of the interpersonal relationships associated with the management of people. Remember, this list of tasks came directly from the job incumbents -- those actually performing the tasks each day.

The last four task categories do reflect the interpersonal side of managing people and relationships. These range from handling relationships with employees 9) through using good communication skills and team development and 10) providing feedback, coaching and training for those they supervise; to managing other relationships 11) through using good management communication skills and providing timely management reporting; and 12) building solid rapport and relationships with internal and external customers.

Foundational Skills for Success

If those are the critical tasks, what are the foundational skills that supervisors must have in order to position themselves for success on the job?

The same incumbent workers that identified their job tasks identified four foundational skill sets essential to successful performance as a manufacturing supervisor: locating and using information, reading for information, applied mathematics and workplace observation.

So, if you wonder what your supervisors are doing, it is a good bet that the best of them bring a well-developed foundational skill set to the job and are focused on the 12 categories of tasks outlined above, day in and day out.

Oliver W. Cummings, an assistant vice president in the Workforce Development Division at ACT Inc., is responsible for ongoing development of the company's WorkKeys System of job analysis and foundational skills assessment. In March 2009 the National Association of Manufacturers announced the National Career Readiness Certificate issued by ACT and based on WorkKeys assessments will form the foundation level for the NAM-endorsed Manufacturing Skills Certification System. Read more about it at

Go to to learn more about ACT's workforce-related services and products.

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