Front line leaders often exist as an almost forgotten level of management.
While an organization’s upper management may be diligent in deciding which individuals to promote into these essential management positions, they may neglect to fully prepare them for not only routine management tasks and processes, but also the more fundamental delivery, quality, safety, and process improvements that are often required. These issues all too often slip through the cracks because of the random and reoccurring “fires” that front line leaders must put out daily.
As a result, the work of front line leadership is the organizational equivalent of the movie, Groundhog Day. Leaders face the same issues day in and day out, but because of their workload, they can only apply temporary bandages to fundamental problems. The unsurprising result is that the same problems tend to recur over and over.
When we work with organizations to help them improve operations, we often see gaps in how mid-level management develops and prepares their front line leaders.
These gaps can take several forms. In some cases, an organization’s leaders may simply forget to include front line leaders in broader leadership development efforts. In other cases, they try to include them, but fall short of actually developing their management abilities. On a number of occasions, the organization may go so far as to send the front line leaders for training and certifications, but then leave them to implement what they learned on their own.
The bottom line is that front line leadership is often in desperate need of management tools that allow them to effectively manage the complex array of metrics, responsibilities, and processes that define success not only for themselves, but also for their teams.
One of the best management tools for front line leaders is a team information board, or what we commonly refer to as a “glass wall.” This tool logically organizes the key metrics that most directly impact the success of the front line leaders and their teams.
If you’re new to the concept of a glass wall, it’s fairly straightforward. Typically, it’s a standard-sized whiteboard with an approximately 6 x 4 grid, with a peg or clip in each cell (see Figure 1). Running vertically are 5 or 6 columns representing major performance areas, such as enterprise, safety, quality, delivery, cost, and morale. Horizontally, 4 rows focus on outcomes, metrics, and process of the day, areas needing improvement, and plans for addressing key problems and issues.
On any given day, there are 3 key steps that the front line leader must take in order to oversee the glass wall tool. The first is to ensure that all the necessary metrics data has been gathered and that the right people are in the room. The second step requires the leader to help the team analyze the metrics to ensure that goals are being met. The third step is to identify the top areas that require significant or immediate corrective action.
The same basic management tool can work at various levels within the organization. At the most basic level, the front line leader uses the glass wall to oversee the equipment, metrics, and outputs relevant to his or her team. On a higher level, the same approach can be used to roll up the metrics for an entire value stream. At an even higher level, a business unit director could roll up all value streams into one series of metrics for the entire unit.
Although the glass wall management tool is somewhat low-tech, it allows for better collaboration when compared to automated dashboards. Utilizing a physical display of the metrics requires the team to literally gather around it, share perspectives, and brainstorm face-to-face. When things are working the way they should, the team is able to recognize and celebrate their successes, leading to stronger morale in the workplace and greater level of results.
The timeline for implementing a glass wall management approach can range from a few months to more than a year. The variable is how many gaps an organization has in the way it prepares its front line leadership.
There’s a lot riding on your organization’s ability to manage these details. The key is to thoroughly prepare and coach your front line leaders to actually manage. Otherwise, as the expression goes, instead of managing your business, your business will be managing you.