Supervision 101 – The Fundamentals

By Bill Kirkpatrick, Life Cycle Engineering

Imagine you’re on a walk through your plant. What you see is far from a structured use of management fundamentals by your supervisor. Boards that include production requirements are incomplete or not filled out at all. Quality issues are evident. You notice considerable idle time -- employees are standing around waiting for something. The supervisor is nowhere to be found and you wait patiently. Sure enough, a few minutes later the supervisor shows up on a forklift with a pallet of parts. Wow, you think, now that’s the type of dedication I like to see…or is it? What you should be asking is why the line ran out of parts to begin with and why the supervisor had to leave the area to get the parts. Why were the employees idle and not adding some sort of value while the area was idled? These are subtle indications that something isn’t quite right with your operating / management system.

Throughout my time in industry I’ve had considerable exposure to front-line supervisors. One thing usually rings true: all too often supervisors lack effective skills I’ll call the fundamentals. This lack of skills is not always the supervisor’s fault. Supervisor vacancies are often filled with the person most proficient at performing a specific job. Rarely does a supervisor receive training in how to lead a group of people effectively.

There are several aspects to being an effective supervisor but let’s review the three fundamental behaviors that supervisors need to master. These work best with a span of control of around 15 to 20 people per supervisor and when the supervisor’s primary job is to…well, supervise, not chase parts or attend too many meetings or perform maintenance work.

Set clear expectations

Supervisors need to establish expectations with individuals or work teams that align with your business expectations. The first expectation usually involves production output (quantity) at an expected quality over a specific time period. Efficiency is the most common expectation but there are usually more. Supervisors can communicate expectations during the morning startup meeting or with individuals at their workplace. It’s vital that supervisors get buy-in to the expectations. When an individual or team understands what’s expected of them the supervisor has a basis for accountability to meet production requirements without having to rely on convincing, persuading or demanding action. Setting expectations helps to remove some of the emotion in supervising the workforce and, as you’ll see with the next fundamental, it’s not just managing by the numbers.

Follow up

Follow up requires spending time in the production area visiting with each person or team to see how they’re satisfying the expectations. It’s important not to carry the sledge hammer during follow up; this method will only lead to other issues further down the road. Supervisors should ask specific questions about any issues causing deficiencies in performance. If these issues can’t be addressed by the individual or team then it’s the supervisor’s jobs to determine a fix. Even the most effective supervisors don’t always have all the answers but they know where to find the answers, seeking the appropriate support of functional groups (management, quality, maintenance or engineering) to remedy the issue. Follow up is crucial because it provides an opportunity to interact with the workforce in a constructive, proactive way and lets the team know that meeting their agreed-upon expectations is important.

Provide feedback

Once expectations have been set and follow up has occurred, it’s time to provide feedback. This is when things can get interesting. Most supervisors have little problem with providing positive feedback. However, those that lack proper training and guidance may struggle when the necessary feedback is negative. Negative feedback due to true inefficiencies caused by an individual or team is the toughest. If a supervisor isn’t careful it can lead to some sort of confrontation. The best approach is to remind people of the initial expectations and seek their input on how to turn the negative into a positive. There may be times when the supervisor must recommend retraining or replacement, all of which is part of supervising people. While it is not always easy, providing feedback is again an opportunity to interact with the workforce.

Supervisors often receive a lot of added pressures to do more, with little or no support. Keep in mind that they are possibly the most important part of your organization because they are the first-line contact for your most valued asset, your people. Make sure your supervisors understand the three fundamental behaviors for leading a team:

  • Set clear expectations that support the organization’s goals
  • Follow up with your people to ensure expectations are understood and seek input
  • Provide feedback when needed for both good and struggling performance

Applying these three fundamentals will take some effort and time. With support from the rest of the organization, a struggling supervisor can become an effective part of your organization and significantly improve their team’s performance.


Bill Kirkpatrick is a Principal Consultant and certified Prosci Change Management professional with Life Cycle Engineering (LCE). Bill helps clients enhance performance by driving continuous improvement using Lean / Six Sigma techniques. Over 25 years, Bill has played a leading role in transformation through engineering, continuous improvement and operational excellence in various industries including HVAC, metals fabrication, mining and construction equipment, automotive and aerospace.You can reach Bill at [email protected].

© Life Cycle Engineering


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