Unlock the Potential of Line Managers

Last Updated Aug 11, 2009 11:35 AM EDT

McKinsey has just published its latest quarterly report on front-line managers -- a crucial but often neglected role in the business.

Often they are looked on as even more expendable than the foot-soldiers they manage, because they don't even execute strategy, they merely oversee that execution performed by the people they manage.

Front-line managers proliferate in organisations with a very distributed point of presence, such as manufacturing or retail (including retail services like banking), where they act as the bridge or contact point between the workers on the shop-floor and the strategic managers at headquarters.

They are a one-way channel of communication, without the freedom to influence or adapt the policies they must put into place. Often, they are experienced foot-soldiers who have risen up through the ranks to a position of authority, but chances are, they've not been given any formal managerial training.

The McKinsey report argues that many businesses are underestimating the value of this level of manager, who can spend an inordinate time in administration tasks, firefighting immediate problems or auditing the team for policy compliance, when they should be on the shop floor improving the performance of their teams.

In some instances, as little as 10 per cent of a front-line manager's time is spent actually managing people.

The result is an inflexible company that cannot react quickly to problems. In service-oriented companies, these problems are readily apparent to customers, whose perceptions of the brand will be damaged by inefficient or unmotivated staff.

Here's a few suggestions from McKinsey on how to unlock the potential of these front-line managers:

  • Redesign critical workflows and processes. The less waste in the process, the less chance of problems occurring. The fewer problems that occur, the less time the manager has to devote to solving them.
  • Allow communication to flow both ways. Strategic managers should spend some time on the shop-floor to see for themselves the critical issues that shape the front-line managers' working day. Move the front-line manager on to the floor and out of their office, so that they are aware of problems much more quickly.
  • Streamline reporting. Make sure reporting on performance is reported as often as possible, so that falls in productivity are spotted early and not allowed to increase in size. Frequent reports to their superiors also lessen the need for managers to prepare for visits from district or regional managers.
  • Plug the gaps in necessary management skills. Training in a throughput methodology, such as lean techniques, might be applicable. Training in coaching, team building and problem solving will undoubtedly help, both in improving effectiveness as a manager and in boosting a manager's morale.
  • Avoid flavour-of-the-month initiatives. Staff at HQ have a habit of tweaking processes, at times merely to justify their own existence. The result for the front-line manager is a continuous stream of policy changes that prove more costly to implement than the small benefits they bring.
  • Identify examples of excellence. Spotlight branches of the organisation where efficiency and productivity are exemplary and use them to demonstrate to managers of other areas how they can improve their own teams.
By applying these ideas, front-line managers will be able to cope with the day-to-day running of their teams and may even have time to step back from the coal-face and plan for eventualities, cushioning the company from potential disasters and making the most of opportunities on the horizon.

Much more than that, though, is the potential create managers who see themselves as contributors to the prosperity of the company, valued by people above and below them, not just cogs in a machine.

(Pic Kamal H. cc2.0)