Your managers are your potential successors. If not why are they working for you? Instead of administrative work and meetings, managers should focus on coaching their employees and on constantly improving quality.

Managers are particularly important in businesses with distributed networks of offices and employees. These industries—for instance, infrastructure, travel and logistics, legal services, manufacturing, health care, and retailing (including food service and retail banking)—make up more than half of the economy. They direct as much as two-thirds of the workforce and are responsible for the part of the organisation that typically defines the client experience. Yet most of the time, these managers operate as cogs in a system, with limited flexibility in decision making and little room for creativity.

With organisational leadership embracing productivity and continuous improvement, it would appear we are missing the biggest impact on productivity. It would appear leadership is guilty of failing to challenge and extract the best of their managers.

The Manager’s Role

Usually a manager is meant to communicate decisions, not to make them; to ensure compliance with policies, not to use judgment or discretion (and certainly not to develop policies); and to oversee the implementation of improvements, not to contribute ideas or even implement improvements (workers do that).

This system makes companies less productive, less agile, and less profitable. However, change is possible. Companies that have successfully empowered their frontline managers, the resulting flexibility and productivity generate strong financial returns. One convenience store retailer, for example, reduced hours worked by 19 to 25 percent while increasing sales by almost 10 percent. It achieved this result by halving the time store managers spent on administration; restructuring their work (and that of their employees) to focus on the areas most relevant to customers, such as the cleanliness of stores and up-selling efforts at the cash register; and creating easy-to-understand performance metrics that managers now had enough time to coach employees on daily.

The key is a shift to frontline managers who have the time—and the ability—to address the unique circumstances of their specific stores, plants, or mines; to foresee trouble and stem it before it begins; and to encourage workers to seek out opportunities for self-improvement. In difficult economic times, making employees more productive is even more crucial than it is ordinarily.

The Reality of the Frontline

To unlock a team’s abilities, a manager at any level must spend a significant amount of time on two activities:

  • Helping the team understand the company’s direction; and
  • Its implications for team members and coaching for performance.

Little of either occurs on the front line today. Across industries, frontline managers spend 30 to 60 percent of their time on administrative work and meetings, and 10 to 50 percent on non-managerial tasks (traveling, participating in training, taking breaks, conducting special projects, or undertaking direct customer service or sales themselves). They spend only 10 to 40 percent actually managing frontline employees by, for example, coaching them directly.

Although attention to execution is important, an exclusive focus on it can have sinister long-term effects. Such a preoccupation leaves no time for efforts to deal with new demands (say, higher production or quality), let alone for looking at the big picture. The result is a working environment with little flexibility, little encouragement to make improvements, and an increased risk of low morale among both workers and their managers—all at high cost to companies.

The effects of poor frontline management may be particularly damaging at service companies, where researchers have consistently detected a causal relationship between the attitudes and behaviour of customer-facing employees on the one hand, and the customers’ perceptions of service quality on the other. In service industries, research has found that three factors drive performance:

  • The work climate;
  • The ways teams act together and things are done; and
  • The engagement, commitment, and satisfaction of employees.

Leadership—in particular, the quality of supervision and the nature of the relationships between supervisors and their teams—is crucial to performance in each of these areas. Clearly, the typical work patterns and attitudes of frontline managers are not conducive to good results.

Time Better Spent

At best-practice companies, frontline managers allocate 60 to 70 percent of their time to the floor, much of it in high-quality individual coaching. Such companies also empower their managers to make decisions and act on opportunities. The bottom-line benefit is significant, but to obtain it companies must fundamentally redefine what they expect from frontline managers and redesign the work that those managers and their subordinates do. The examples below explain how two companies in different circumstances and industries made such changes.

Manufacturing and the Frontline

Sometimes a corporate crisis drives frontline changes. A global equipment manufacturer, for example, was facing backlogs, capacity constraints, quality and profitability issues in its core vehicle assembly business. The company’s senior leaders concluded they would have to change operations at five plants by running two shifts rather than three while also raising production levels and quality. “Substantial” results would be needed in no more than seven weeks. Frontline managers were to have a critical role in the changeover— in fact it couldn’t succeed unless they adopted a new way of working. To communicate the importance of the changes being introduced, senior leaders ordered executives to spend full days in vehicle assembly stations and sent the company’s director of operations to participate in daily shift start-up meetings at each plant.

Meanwhile, the jobs of frontline managers changed. They were to spend more time in active roles: critical processes and workflows were redesigned according to lean principles, and the managers played the principal part in implementing these changes. Administrative activities, such as writing reports to plant managers, and gathering data to prepare for site visits from regional managers, were eliminated. Innovations spouted—boards posted on factory floors, for example, were continuously updated with performance information, such as hour-by-hour tracking of lost time, as well as long-term problems and the solutions found for them. End-of-shift reports let each shift know exactly what the previous one had accomplished. Weekly reports informed workers about the five most important defects to correct, and the five most important actions needed to improve performance.

Such changes freed managers to spend more time providing on-the-floor coaching and helping teams solve immediate problems. Managers received on-the-job training in lean technical skills as well as in coaching, team building, and problem solving. They also moved their desks from offices to the shop floor and spent at least five hours a day there, literally putting themselves in the middle of the transformation.

Bring Courage and Self-Belief to the Frontline

Changing the mind-sets and capabilities of individual frontline managers can be the hardest part. Many executives see limits to how much they can accomplish, some also recognise the need to restructure their roles, but nonetheless, fear change. At times, before the job of coaching can begin, companies must address more insidious mind-sets—such as a belief that employees can’t learn, their negative attitudes toward customers, or a lack of confidence that frontline managers can influence performance.

The first step is to help frontline managers understand the need for change and how it could make things better. One retailer for example, revealed that store managers spent, on average, 61 percent of their time on administration and that they struggled with poorly defined processes for interacting with customers. In addition, these managers felt that they had no control over key performance drivers (such as sales in important product categories), lacked simple tools to monitor daily performance, and had inadequate leadership and coaching skills. They were also tired of “flavour of the month” corporate-improvement initiatives that dictated more work without addressing the fundamental causes of problems.

To give store managers a sense of what could be, this company showed some groups of managers a radically different model store. There, work processes such as stocking took much less time than it did in the company’s ordinary stores, because similar products were grouped together, and high-volume stock was stored in a common and much more accessible location. Cleaning was easier because the layout had been improved, employees had the equipment and supplies to clean more frequently and quickly, and an if-it’s-simple-clean-it-now policy had been introduced. Such steps created a more attractive store environment, simplified the work of employees, freed them to interact with customers, and reduced the amount of time managers had to spend dealing with problems in these areas.


The key is to help frontline managers become true leaders, with the time, the skills, and the desire to help workers understand the company’s direction and its implications for themselves, as well as to coach them individually. Such mangers should have enough time to think ahead, to uncover and solve long-term problems, and to plan for potential new demands.

Most importantly frontline employees must be trained and empowered to make material decisions. By respecting their ability to make the right decisions more often than not, innovation will prevail, and the most talented now unshackled employees will rise to executive levels.

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