Frontline supervisors are absolutely critical in ensuring the success of any major change initiative, such as implementing a new CMMS or getting more out of an existing one. Numerous studies and surveys conducted since the 1980s substantiate this claim. Of all the means of communicating to frontline employees, including memos, posters, newsletters, senior management videos and town hall meetings, the most powerful by far appears to be face-to-face communication through the immediate supervisor. Research shows this is true because frontline supervisors have the highest level of trust and credibility with their staff.
Thus, to ensure the CMMS is implemented and used effectively, it’s imperative for management to get buy-in from frontline supervisors. In turn, this requires concerted effort on the part of management to convince frontline supervisors that the benefits of a CMMS more than offset any perceived pain and disruption. If you can convince frontline supervisors that there’s something in it for them and their frontline staff, you’ll maximize the value of the CMMS. If there’s a perception that this is yet another IT initiative, that primarily senior management will benefit, or that plant-floor workers are being needlessly diverted from their real jobs, the probability of success drops dramatically. So, how does the frontline supervisor fit, and how can the CMMS help?
The frontline supervisor’s role
Observing frontline supervisors on a day-to-day basis, one might jump to the conclusion that their key role is chief firefighter, coordinating frontline staff in dealing with one urgent problem after another. This should come as no surprise, given the lack of training when one moves from the front line to a supervisory position. Even if training is offered, in a working environment where firefighting takes precedence, the perception is that there’s no time available to attend training sessions. Of course, this becomes a circular argument, which maintains the status quo.
To break this pattern requires knowledge of what needs to be done, a measurement system that stops rewarding the firefighting mentality, strong leadership providing the vision and drive to make it happen, and evidence of senior management commitment to providing time and resources to make the necessary changes. The frontline supervisor’s role also needs to change. There should be less emphasis on either acting like a frontline technician by getting down and dirty, or being an administrator by hiding behind piles of paperwork. The role of the supervisor should encompass more long-term thinking such as the following:
- Provide leadership and motivation for frontline staff, to attain higher measurable levels of performance perceived as achievable by using the CMMS
- Foster a learning environment that encourages skills development and career path planning, satisfying the needs of both employees and employer
- Promote strong values such as diversity, respect for each other, teamwork, and constant vigilance regarding heath, safety and the environment
- Communicate expectations, provide constant feedback as to whether expectations are being met, and support the staff in their daily efforts
- Be a change agent, encourage creativity and reward innovation
Breaking the firefighting mentality
To be comfortable and successful in their role, frontline leaders must somehow rise above the firefighting mentality. This is easier said than done, but following are some tips that may be helpful.
Think of three to five key strategic goals that can keep you focused. For example, you might have goals such as move to a more planned environment, build a highly skilled and innovative team, generate a learning organization, implement reliability-centered maintenance operations, form a partnership with operations and engineering complete with shared goals and objectives, measure more and reward success, and so on. It might also help to specify what won’t be part of your strategic focus, and make that clear to others. Get input and buy-in from management, frontline staff and key stakeholders such as operations. Note that implementing a CMMS, or making better use of the one you have, will go a long way in supporting a strategic change, but only when the focal point is process change and, more importantly, a change in attitudes and behaviors.
Prioritize everything you do by asking yourself how much it will contribute to your list of goals. When you are pulled in numerous directions during the day, determine which items can drop to the bottom of the list because they add little value. Post your list where everyone can view it. Let your staff know that you are looking for productive behaviors that will help accomplish these goals. This is how you can slowly but surely influence the frontline staff into adopting the goals, and help them distinguish between value-adding and wasteful activities.
Do more leading and less crisis management. When one of the pyromaniacs comes to you with a large fire, even if your gut reaction is to run to get your firefighting gear and hop on the fire truck, stop and think about the problem. First of all, determine if this is truly urgent with respect to your priorities. Secondly, also force your subordinates to stop and think strategically about the problem and force them to come to you with alternative solutions, not just problems. Ask them if they have examined CMMS-based data to better understand the nature and root cause of the problem. You’re no longer a technician, you’re supposed to think big picture and help others help themselves. By delegating responsibility, you’re teaching strategic and critical thinking to those on the front line. If it’s not getting through to your staff, then perhaps you need to provide more aggressive skills development or think about reorganizing the team.
Insist on setting aside time each day to think, plan, work on longer-term projects, review KPIs and critical reports, and take in the big picture. Start using the CMMS as a strategic tool for data analysis and longer-term planning. It’s easy to dive into crisis management mode, but difficult to carve out quality time to rise above it all. Find a quiet spot away from the telephones and people walking into your office with the latest issues. Be part of the solution, not the problem.
Take a carrot-and-stick approach to influencing front line behaviors. Reward the behaviors you’re trying to promote, and show little tolerance for deviations. For example, celebrate when technicians use the vast and rich equipment history on your CMMS to identify and eliminate recurring problems, or better anticipate problems through condition-based maintenance. On the other hand, after the fire bells ring, call the key stakeholders into your office and discuss what should have been done, and will be done, to prevent a similar crisis from occurring.
What not to do
As you work diligently to change the culture, be wary of the traps that typically undermine a frontline supervisor’s credibility:
- Sending unclear or conflicting messages (encouraging frontline staff to be involved in improvement projects, but not providing the time to do so)
- Over-promising and under-delivering (promising to upgrade the CMMS, and then blaming management for not approving it)
- Stealing the limelight (accepting praise from senior management without crediting the front line for helping to make it happen)
- Acting disrespectful or unprofessional (reprimanding an employee in the presence of peers)
(Editor’s note: The Plant Services CMMS/EAM Software Review, posted at www.PlantServices.com/cmms_review, provides a side-by-side comparison of more than a dozen popular software packages.)
E-mail Contributing Editor David Berger, P.Eng., partner, Western Management Consultants, at email@example.com.