Job of a Supervisor

The first lesson is that the supervisor’s job must be a genuine management job. The supervisor must carry a large measure of responsibility. A supervisor at IBM, as manager of a project, he is responsible for getting a new design into production. He is in charge of working out individual output norms with his men. He is in charge of the scheduling of tools, materials and parts. That the supervisor should not be a worker himself is generally recognized. Indeed many union contracts forbid him to touch a machine except repair it. But it is sufficiently understood that he must be genuinely a manager, with significant planning and decision making responsibility. Indeed, his job should be so big that it can have genuine objectives derived directly from the objectives of the business, and that its performance and results can be measured by their contribution to the performance and results of the business.

The supervisor must have control over the activities needed to discharge his responsibility and must have adequate personnel to handle them. Even at its best a supervisor’s day will always remain crowded. But if he is to do his job reasonably well, he simply has no time to fill out those printed forms on which most supervisors today spend up to one third of their time.

He also has little time for the routine training of people in work with which senior workers are thoroughly familiar. He has enough to do planning and scheduling, keeping materials flowing and equipment in good condition which together account for well over half of the activities of the successful production supervisor. The rest of his time is fully occupied in personal contacts with his men on their problems, in work with the men and so on. He needs in other words, one or more trainers.

But the supervisor also needs technical services. He may need help with industrial engineering methods and cost accounting. He may need someone to keep track of the details of scheduling or of tool supply and machine repair. These are service functions to the supervisor. Like all service functions they should be discharged by someone on his own staff, for it is the supervisor who is responsible for performance.

Another lesson from IBM is that we have to reverse the trend toward narrowing the supervisor’s authority. At IBM the supervisor hires, recommends, discharges, trains, promotes and schedules. And he alone handles all the relations of his department with the company, for instance, with the personnel department. Of course, all his decisions on people should first be reviewed by this superior – a rule that applies to all personnel decisions made by any manager. And the subordinate should always have a right of appeal. But the decisions themselves should be the supervisor’s; otherwise he lacks the authority he needs to discharges his responsibility.

We have a great deal of additional evidence of the need for a larger role for the supervisor and of the impact this has on his effectiveness.

A large automobile assembly plant recently switched from central hiring to hiring by the individual supervisor. The employment office still interviews, screens and tests applicants. But the supervisor makes the decision; and he is always sent several candidates for any job opening. The result has been a noticeable improvement in output. Supervisors explain it first by the improvement in placement. He can pick the man who is just fit for the job. Secondly, they feel – and so do the men – that a worker knows much better what is expected of him when he is hired by the foreman. The Employment Office, one union officer commented will always talk to a man about the marvelous opportunities and about the good pension plan and the medical insurance. It won’t tell him much about the job – it knows nothing about it. The supervisors on the other hand, will tell a man realistically what he is expected to do and what’s in it for him.