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What is Frontline Leadership?

Who does a shift nurse turn to when she or he is feeling burned out? To whom does the forklift operator bring his or her frustrations and concerns about safety? That person would be the frontline supervisor.

Frontline supervisors manage all aspects of frontline activity and productivity. Separate from middle management — such as plant, department or branch managers — frontline supervisors directly oversee frontline workers. Their responsibilities can include training, monitoring, motivating, hiring, firing, resolving and assigning. Frontline supervisors report to middle or executive management and are often an organization’s largest population of leaders.

Though it’s common for frontline supervisors to be first-time managers, they are responsible for critical day-to-day operations and influencing the work of their direct reports. They are also tasked with implementing any continuous improvement strategies their organization adopts. A frontline supervisor becomes a true leader once their teams trust them and actively want to follow their direction.

Frontline leadership combines the practical skills required to manage frontline workers and the ability to make proactive decisions that will benefit the overall success of the organization. In other words, frontline leadership describes the disposition supervisors need to bring the best out of frontline employees.

A frontline supervisor becomes a true leader once their teams trust them and actively want to follow their direction.

The Importance of Frontline Leadership

According to a study of 700 employees worldwide conducted by Woohoo Inc., workers claim that 40 percent of their bad days are due to a lack of support or guidance from their boss. A lack of praise or recognition for their work and uncertainty about their company’s vision or strategy are equally to blame for employee dissatisfaction. In short, a major source of low employee morale and high burnout or turnover is a shortage of effective leadership.

Disengaged employees cost U.S. companies billions of dollars a year in lost revenue, which is partially due to poor supervision. Since frontline supervisors are directly responsible for an organization’s productivity, it’s critical that these managers possess leadership skills to keep employees motivated and aware of the “big picture.” Effective frontline leadership can create a work environment that fosters employee engagement, improves work performance, increases employee satisfaction and nets substantial wins for the organization at large.

Frontline supervisors encounter their fair share of issues on their way to becoming leaders. Diverse age groups within departments, unmotivated workers, “tribal” knowledge and resistance to change are some of the problems supervisors face when attempting to implement new protocols or training. Frontline supervisors are essentially the choke point between upper management and frontline workers: They field tremendous demands from both sides, and, if supervisors are disengaged or lack leadership abilities, they can feel like their jobs are thankless.

Frontline supervisors are essentially the choke point between upper management and frontline workers

When a frontline supervisor understands the importance of strong leadership, they become adept at nipping problems in the bud, building and facilitating strong relationships within their teams and identifying and preventing problems. Frontline workers look to their supervisors to know what they have to do on any given shift — until, through proactive leadership, they learn to take ownership of their duties and responsibilities, practically managing themselves. This is when frontline leaders can focus on larger issues, such as leading improvement efforts and proposing new initiatives within their department.

What Are Key Frontline Leadership Skills?

In order to be an effective frontline leader — not just a supervisor — one needs the following five qualities:

  • Knowledge of the work
  • Knowledge of their responsibilities
  • Skill in improving methods
  • Skill in leading
  • Skill in instructing

Within these core abilities, successful frontline leaders also benefit from possessing:

  • Emotional intelligence
  • Adaptability
  • Learning agility
  • Communication skills
  • Ability to “pitch” or “sell” solutions
  • Power to influence outcomes
  • Ability to navigate relationships
  • Respect for others’ strengths
  • Ability to motivate others
  • Open-mindedness
  • Creative problem-solving

While natural leaders intrinsically possess many of these skills, the right continuous improvement training programs can give frontline supervisors the tools to access and build upon these abilities over time.

The Benefits of Frontline Leadership Training

When tasked with improving protocols and processes internally, many organizations can suffer from trying to work inside a vacuum. Often, the best approach for implementing improvement strategies is to hire outside trainers who can take an objective view of your organization and identify areas for growth or optimization.

For proof that this approach works, look no further than Training Within Industry (TWI) instruction, which is the foundation of the methods used within the Toyota Production System (TPS). Taiichi Ohno, the “father of TPS,” was inspired by TWI when it was introduced to Toyota in the 1950s and built much of his methodology on its principles. In every Toyota plant, the frontline supervisors are considered the catalyst of all production — literally the “front” of their teams, the ones driving productivity and momentum.

TWI instruction was instrumental in streamlining frontline processes at Cummins Engine, a manufacturer of diesel and natural gas-powered engines. Cummins was experiencing a high rate of both production errors and safety incidents, which was partly due to a disengaged workforce and leadership issues. Following a TWI training course program, Cummins saw its frontline supervisors’ leadership skills improve and received a staggering 3,000 improvement ideas from its frontline workers within the first three years.

How To Develop Key Frontline Leadership Skills in Your Workforce

Improvement strategies like Lean, Kata, Kaizen and TWI not only teach workers how to operate more efficiently and safely, but teach leaders how to lead. A goal of any continuous improvement course is to turn supervisors into leaders — eschewing the concept of a “boss” for someone who encourages, leads by example and always has their team’s best interests at heart.

The right improvement training program can help your frontline supervisors learn how to:

  • Motivate frontline workers
  • Help frontline employees take ownership of their work
  • Collaborate with frontline workers and other department leaders
  • Instruct frontline employees in a way that respects and encourages their abilities
  • Instruct and enforce workplace safety measures
  • Empower frontline workers to share their own ideas for improvement
  • Make frontline workers feel valued
  • Build relationships based on mutual trust
  • Show their teams the value of collective continuous improvement
  • Training methodologies like those listed above can address continuous improvement across departments and management levels, helping your organization’s workforce become more cohesive, collaborative and productive.
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