An Ode to a Frontline Supervisor

Wedged between distant decision-makers and the people who do the work.
She is the go-to person for everything: safety, morale, productivity, quality and most of all, schedule attainment,
But has little authority and less support for any of these.
Who thanks the supervisor, as she caroms from crisis to crisis,
From broken equipment to absent employees to material shortages,
Unable to spend more than a few minutes with each of her fifty direct reports? 
Who soothes her frustration and anger? As the master of workarounds, she does what she must to get things done.
Unheralded, unappreciated, and usually blamed for the broken system she is charged to manage, she privately counts the days to her retirement.

Ok, perhaps, I’ve overplayed this a bit, and the last time I wrote an ode was in a 17th century literature class about 50 years ago.  But I was struck last week when teaching a Shingo Institute workshop by a question from one of the participants, as we discussed the principle, RESPECT EVERY INDIVIDUAL.  Referring to an excerpt from a 1952 episode of I Love Lucy, a popular example of autocratic management, my student queried, “What’s the supervisor’s name?”   

(If, by chance you have not seen this video clip, stop for a moment and view it.  Here’s a recently colorized version:  Lucy 2020.)

The excerpt is from a 1952 episode of I Love Lucy, but I recall seeing it first in 1994 when Toyota Production System Support Center (TSSC) played it in a training for my company.  They referred to it as “traditional manufacturing,” and asked our class to identify things that would not be conducive to TPS.  There were many observations of bad practices and bad behavior, which I will not relate at this time. Watch the clip yourself and see how many you can find.

What struck me about the question is that in the many times I’ve shown this video, all attention and empathy by observers is typically devoted to Lucy and Ethel. The supervisor is just a nemesis.   In fact, the supervisor, as we Googled, has no name – she’s just SUPERVISOR.  This new line of questioning led to a productive class discussion regarding the common plight of frontline supervision.  Not excusing her bullying behavior, merely asking her to be more caring and supportive trivializes her problem and disrespects her as well as Lucy and Ethel.  Hence the keyword EVERY in the principle RESPECT EVERY EMPLOYEE.  I’ve often referred to frontline supervision as “most difficult job in the organization.”   What do you think?  And, by the way, how many practices and behaviors can you name that are not conducive to TPS? 

O.L.D.     

Enjoy your summer as best as you can in this crazy pandemic environment.  And if you’re looking for an energizing event to kick off the fall, checkout out our Northeast Lean Conference: 21st Century Lean. Yes, of course, it’s virtual but we have a super line-up of speakers and participants – and all of the engaging activities of our in-person conference: thought leader keynotes, breakouts, Lean Lounge, Silver Toaster Award and Lean after Dark.  Plus – bonus video material for attendees.  Here’s the link:  http://www.northeastleanconference.org. Hope to see you there.   

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