Managers Need to Lead, Guide, Direct
Every manager has wanted to be a fly on the wall when front-line-technicians are in the field. It is tempting to want to monitor these situations to find out just what employees do and say all day long.
That desire is the basis of the television show "Undercover Boss," where company executives disguise themselves as ordinary employees and work as trainees. The goal of the undercover effort is to allow executives to learn what really takes place in the company outside the top floor of corporate headquarters.
What does the show have to do with maintenance and engineering management? Sadly, most managers and supervisors in maintenance and engineering departments spend very little time in the field with their technicians. As a result, many managers have no clue about what really goes on outside of their offices.
Lack of Leadership
I have performed assessments of maintenance and engineering programs in every kind of institutional and commercial organization, and one of the most common problems I find is the lack of time managers and supervisors spend working with employees doing what I call "leading, guiding, and directing."
This situation results in self-directed employees. Self-directed work teams can function well, but only if they have well-defined rules and boundaries. Most maintenance and engineering departments do not operate within this formal framework. Instead, questions, decision-making, technical advice, work planning and scheduling, and training are normal parts of a typical workday.
The rule of thumb is that front-line maintenance supervisors responsible for ensuring the quality and quantity of the tasks technicians perform should be in the field about 70 percent of the average workday. If a department has quality team leaders or foremen who can share in this responsibility, the 70 percent figure might drop a bit.
Here is the problem: Every day, I see front-line supervisors who are in the field less than 20 percent of the time. In some of the worst examples, supervisors are in the field only 5 percent of the day. In those worst-case organizations, maintenance technicians are totally self-directed and receive little or no supervision or guidance.
As I complete a maintenance assessment, I interview the management team and ask about employee performance. Among the most common responses managers give me are these:
- I never see them working, but I do see them walking around.
- The quality of the work is sub-standard, and jobs are always late.
- We have safety problems.
- They do not know what they are doing.
So I begin discussing the amount of time supervisors spend in the field. Most times, managers say, "That’s big problem, but we can’t fix that. We have too many important meetings and too much paperwork to complete."
My response is, "You either can’t or don’t want to fix it."