Best Practices for Maintenance Supervisors

Rex M. Gallaher

I had the privilege of visiting a large pharmaceutical plant in North Carolina several years ago. It was in response to a presentation I had made on just what should supervisors be doing. My organization was undergoing a work sampling on our 2,800 maintenance supervisors to help us get a handle on what they were actually doing.

Most managers felt that we had burdened the supervisor with too much administrative work and, as a result, kept them from being on the floor interfacing with operations, providing assistance to the craftsperson and evaluating reliability performance. I wondered if our supervisors comprehended the need for face time and what that meant. I personally needed to get a handle on what I was to define as “face time.”

We were introduced to the plant’s maintenance management team and the dayshift maintenance coach. He had a team of 18 facilities craft persons who maintained the building and environmental equipment for a million-square-foot-plus facility.

He told about his work day. It began with a 15- to 20-minute team meeting in which updates were made on the day’s schedule and plant/corporate performance. Employees identified any unusual situations they envisioned, potential problems and lessons from their completed jobs. Time was always allotted for social interaction.

The coach reviewed operational impacts, what was planned for the next day, unusual activities for the following week and his expectations for the day. That was their only gathering for the day. The team went to work on their assigned preventive and scheduled work orders.

So far, I found nothing unusual, until I asked him about “face time.” What did this consist of? He replied that each team member was an important, unique person and that he spent at least five minutes a day with each of them. If he could, he tried to see each twice during the day. His job was to assure that they had the resources needed to complete their work. If he received a call, he would respond to the work site for face-to-face assistance. Using the daily work schedule and assignments, he worked his way through the plant, interfacing with operations managers/supervisors about scheduling and priorities and some personal dialogue.

Face time was personal dialogue. It primarily was exchanges about children, sports, work impacts and other seemingly non-process items. Not so unusual, but this was the primary type of dialogue between him and his team members. He knew their goals in life, spouse’s and children’s names, some of their home issues, what was happening on the Fourth of July or this summer, and other “non-work” type stuff.

He headed off our questions about “work progress,” saying that unless he had something pertinent to scheduling or planning, he seldom initiated that dialogue. If the employee wanted to discuss work, the employee started that conversation. The coach’s time was spent maintaining interpersonal relationships with his team members.

His members were the skilled experts, and he felt they wanted the respect that entailed. How did he determine progress against the work order? During their social interaction, he observed what had been accomplished against the PM checklist or planned work order and could pretty well figure the progress. (He had previously reviewed these documents.) If he thought they may be a bit behind and might need help, he could bring up that “Joe was ahead today and could come over to provide another set of hands.” Otherwise, unless the employee brought up an issue, the coach stayed out of the job.

Toward the end of our visit, several team members came to join us. We expressed our appreciation for their coach but wanted their take on his approach to “coaching” them. To a person, they expressed their gratitude for their “boss.” They felt needed, respected and trusted. If the coach had asked them how they were doing or if they needed any help, they would have interpreted that as interfering with their responsibilities. The coach was always available to them, if they needed him. They looked forward to his visit each day. They knew him first as a person and second as their coach who represented the company to them.

Would they take a higher-paying job at the competitor down the road? No way! Did we know that if an employee found a seminar, a conference, a course or a new tool, he was encouraged to pursue it with company money? “We have a responsibility to provide the best product we can. We enjoy doing that, and it is more than appreciated.”

Their plant had been evaluated against similar plants on reliability and cost-effectiveness and was considered the maintenance benchmark plant for their company and several of their competitors.

Now I had an example of “face time” that represented a best practice. It requires planned floor time with a set agenda. However, it is only possible with a plant-wide mind-set about the empowerment that employees would appreciate, having the pillars of maintenance excellence in place that supports supervisors as well as the team members, and providing the information, training and communication within an atmosphere of trust.

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