I had a recent conversation regarding the management of a shutdown. The question on the table was something to the effect of:

“If we have a job overrun on the critical path at the beginning of the shutdown, then we should immediately adjust our entire schedule and announce that we will bring the shutdown in late.”

I guess if you look at it from a purely scientific manner, then yes, this would be true. My gut tells me something very different in fact. Over my career, I can’t think of a single shutdown where everything went according to plan. My experience tells me that if we are a few hours behind (the unofficial rule of thumb in my head is ½ of a shift or less and we can make it up no problem), then we will somehow be able to reach down deep and make it up. I know this to be true, but cannot explain the science behind it.

One of the phenomena at work here is the fact that our time estimates that we assign to individual work orders are generally pretty far off, often terrible in fact. That means that part of the reason that we are able to make up this lost time is that our original expectations were overly un-optimistic, leaving us a sizeable safety margin to work with.

I believe that the second part of the puzzle lies with the level of direct supervision provided to that task. There is a linear relationship between the amount of time that a critical path task slips and the number of people you will find at the job site nervously pacing back and forth… many of them not contributing in any real way, but observing just the same.


This leads me to ask the question, “What is direct supervision and what effect does it have on the execution of a task?” I know that it is much more than standing over your people with a concerned scowl on your face, but I also know that complex jobs that lack direct supervision are not often performed as well as those that have the correct level of supervision.

So what is it that a front line supervisor does in order to ensure that the job goes well? Let’s explore these ideas with a couple of comparisons to some archetypes from everyday life.

What Does Good Look Like?

I guess a good place to start is by taking a quick look at what good looks like. What does it mean to execute a task to the highest possible level? I think that there are 3 important attributes to look at:



Safe: First and foremost, the task must be performed without causing injury to people or the environment. If we can’t pull this off, then the rest doesn’t really matter.

Efficient: A well performed task is performed using the least possible amount of resources (people, parts, tools, and most importantly time).

Quality: Simply stated, the task was performed correctly. If it is an inspection, we have discovered and documented for future repair all existing abnormalities. If it was a repair task, then the repair was performed in such a way that we are not coming back to this asset any time soon (low levels of rework).

The Three Attributes of a Front Line Supervisor

Why can we make up lost time, and what can a supervisor do to achieve this? I think the answer can be found in these 3 characters from everyday life that we are all familiar with. If you are a front line supervisor, you need to perform all 3 roles simultaneously.

Your Role as a Lifeguard: Lifeguards get involved when there is a problem. Scaffolding put up in the wrong place preventing work? It is your job to sort it out and get things moving again. Missing some critical repair part that is needed to finish the job? While you may not go and retrieve it for them, you need to make sure to deal with any roadblocks that they may come across along the way (authorization to issue from stores, what is the item number, “we are out and need to find one out in town”, etc.). Lifeguards are problem solvers.

Your Role as a Coach: Coaches prepare their teams to be successful. Coaches point out problem areas where difficulties may occur. Coaches point out hazards to avoid so their people don’t get hurt. Coaches train their people. Coaches motivate. Coaches communicate expectations. Coaches make their people want to perform.


Your Role as a Sheriff: Sheriffs hold people accountable. The word “accountability” has gotten a bad rap in my opinion. Accountability is that little bit of pressure we all feel that drives us forward when things get difficult. Accountability is not screaming and yelling and threatening. Accountability is driving that feeling in your people so that they don’t want to let you or your team down. It’s that little push. Accountability is a good thing. We could all use a little bit more of it.



So your job as a supervisor is to provide your team with the right combination of these 3 attributes. Not too much, not too little. Easier said than done.

Does every job require the same level of supervision? Certainly not. Each task presents its own level of complexity and risk. You have to decide the right amount of supervision to provide. Similarly, each team carries with it different experience and skill levels (and personality quirks) and will require different levels of supervision in order to be successful.

This is where the real art of supervision comes into play: analyzing each team and each task and providing just what is needed to achieve success.

Best of Luck and Mahalo


3 Responses to The Three Faces of the Front Line Supervisor

  1. Byron López says:


    Great article, is very important to know the supervisor’s role, other way we underestimate his job.

  2. Anthony McInerney says:

    Hi Mike,

    Love it, plain and simple. Trying to work out the balance of Supervision to task to work-crews is the bit we struggle with.

  3. jejen says:

    very inspiring

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