Supervision is a somewhat misunderstood term in its business context. Generally, supervision applies to management of first-level, or production, employees. Many people use it interchangeably with management. The terms are not always synonymous.
Supervision is managing others through leadership and personal influence. Management means simply getting things done, not necessarily through coordination of the efforts of other people. Thus, an individual can be a good manager without ever dealing with people. A supervisor, however, exercises hands-on influence and leadership skills to guide others. Effective supervisors share many qualities, including the ability to maintain distance from their employees without losing awareness of their activities, yet still caring about their productiveness and well-being. Similarly, effective supervisors are direct and fair in their dealings with employees under their direction. When supervisors discharge their duties effectively, productivity rises and employees enjoy greater job satisfaction.
Historically, supervisors were not trained to deal with subordinates. Rather, they managed by force and intimidation. It was not until the early part of the 20th century that supervision became a subject of study among management theorists.
In the early 1900s, researchers such as Frederick W. Taylor (1856-1915), Frank Gilbreth (1868-1925) and Lillian Gilbreth (1878-1972), and Chester Barnard (1886-1961) began analyzing what motivated workers. Taylor, who is often called the "Father of Scientific Management," published two books, Shop Management (1903) and Principles of Scientific Management (1911), in which he said it was management's job to set up methods and standards of work and to provide incentives to workers to increase production. A few years later, the Gilbreths began to concentrate on time and motion studies and the improvement of methods of work. The Gilbreths' approach was to seek the best way to produce a certain product and then have managers teach all workers that best way. Barnard developed what is known as the acceptance theory, which suggested that if managers were to be effective, workers had to accept their authority. Conversely, management must also take steps to ensure effective supervision of employees. Supervisors require training, should be provided with personal and professional development goals, need the full backing of the corporate hierarchy, and are well served by the maintenance of a corporate supervisory resource center.
There are three levels of management: executive, middle, and supervisory. Technically speaking, management is the process by which an individual or group directs the use of resources—for example, money, people, and things—toward common goals. Generally, the executive managers are responsible for overall planning, strategy, structure, etc. It is their role to oversee total operations, and usually they do not have much to do with the actual production process. They establish the company's mission and goals and leave the management of production to the next two levels.
Managers at the middle level manage other managers, i.e., the supervisors. They generally have less technical training than first-level supervisors. They are evaluated more on their managerial skills than their technical skills. Since they spend more of their time managing, production supervision is left to the first-level managers, the supervisors.
Supervisors play an important role in the business environment. Their primary job is to see that the work performed by employees is completed on time and at the highest level of quality. In order to complete this task, they must know the production process and have an understanding of human behavior. Theirs is a pressure-filled job.
Supervisors perform a wide range of functions, all of which are closely intertwined. For example, they must be excellent communicators. It is their job to write reports, letters, memos, performance appraisals, and the gamut of documents that businesses need to operate. They must be equally comfortable in communicating with chief executive officers and assemblyline production workers. They must be able to run effective meetings. They must carefully monitor the organization's goals, strategies, tactics, and production schedules. They must be cognizant of union rules where applicable. They must be trainers, confidants, computer experts, goal setters—in short, supervisors must be well-rounded employees who are willing to accept the responsibilities required to keep a company running.
Supervisors are required to communicate with a variety of personnel in the course of their jobs. Approaches that might improve the productivity of people in their 20s, for example, are not generally applicable to people in their 50s. Similarly, supervisors must deal with people with a wide range of personal styles, regardless of their ages and backgrounds. Supervisors must be able to write and speak concisely, clearly, consistently, and courteously with senior managers, production workers, customers, suppliers, and other people who have an interest in the organization's activities. It is the supervisor's responsibility to start the upward communication process to inform middle and senior managers about production problems, adherence to production schedules, budget variances, and other matters. Furthermore, supervisors must be able to react to downward communications from senior managers in order to address problems as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Supervisory reporting mechanisms most commonly involve oral and written reports needed to protect their workers, the organization, and themselves from legal actions. For instance, supervisors must know when and in what form to document problems with personnel, which regulatory forms must be completed, to whom they must be submitted, and how frequently they should be done. Supervisors must also understand laws and ethical guidelines governing employee surveillance as they endeavor to monitor employee performance. Privacy issues play an increasingly large role in the workplace, as practices including drug testing, videotaping of employees, reviewing the computer files of employees, and monitoring the phone conversations of employees become commonplace in the business world. A large part of a supervisor's time is spent communicating. In fact, some estimates suggest that supervisors spend as much as 70 percent of their time communicating in one form or another.
An effective supervisor must be a polished trainer. It is part of the supervisor's responsibility to demonstrate to workers exactly how certain procedures are performed. Supervisors must also be excellent learners. Workers expect their supervisors to be doers as well as teachers. Therefore, supervisors must be able to master the tasks that workers are assigned to perform. This ability is much more critical for first line supervisors than those in middle and senior management, especially in industries using production processes. A thorough understanding of all jobs involved in a given production process is essential to effective supervision, as supervisors are ultimately responsible for deploying their workforce in the most productive and efficient manner possible.
For supervisors, life is a learning process. Not only must they learn the rudiments of their subordinates' jobs, but they must also learn basic supervisory skills. They must take courses in management, computers, communications, and other skills that will help them in their supervisory roles. If they do not continually update their skills, they will fail as supervisors, which is something neither they nor their organizations can afford.
Supervisors are responsible for setting goals for themselves and their subordinates. In addition, they are charged with ensuring that unit and individual goals set by senior management are met. They must sit down with their subordinates and work together to set goals and monitor progress. This function requires full employment of the supervisor's communications skills.
Supervisors cannot simply set goals and then ignore them. First, they must set realistic goals for themselves and their staff members. Then, they must establish communications channels through which they and their subordinates monitor progress. This involves constant feedback between supervisors and subordinates, without which supervisors cannot be effective.
It is the supervisor's job to evaluate workers on a regular basis. Workers appreciate feedback on their progress. Generally, they want honest and frequent appraisals of their work and suggestions from their supervisors on how to improve their performance.
Supervisors need to be aware of the needs of their subordinates. For example, they must know how to motivate people, how to reward them, how and when to discipline them, and when and how to refer them to employee assistance programs. They may have the assistance of human resources specialists in some of these areas, but the basic responsibility is the supervisor's. Given their daily presence among their employees, supervisors play a critical role in maintaining good moral among the workforce. Employees who are happy and take pride in their work are more productive, loyal, and responsive to overall corporate goals and projects.
In today's business environment, supervisors must be computer proficient. Many of today's management functions are tied closely to computers. For example, computers are used extensively in decision making, production scheduling, and product design. Supervisors are not responsible for many of the functions facilitated by computers, but they must have a working knowledge of how computers operate and their role in the production process.
In the production end of business, organizations are relying more and more on computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM). CIM comprises several types of systems, such as computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), and flexible manufacturing systems (FMS) to aid in the manufacturing process. CAD uses computers to geometrically prepare, review, and evaluate product designs. CAM uses computers to design and control production processes. Finally, FMS is a manufacturing system that uses computers to control machines and the production process automatically so that different types of parts or product configurations can be handled on the same production line. It is essential that supervisors understand how these computerized systems work if they are to remain technologically current. First-level supervisors in particular must stay abreast of developments in computerized production systems. They must also be in positions to advise senior management as to what computerized systems are applicable in particular environments and what are not.
The supervisor is inextricably linked to the production of goods and services. First, supervisors must be knowledgeable about the production process they control. They are responsible for a large variety of simultaneous activities in the ongoing production process. For example, to a large extent they control the production schedule. Supervisors are invariably involved in product planning design, project staffing, employee training, simplification of work methods, maintenance of equipment, and organization of tasks and activities while striving to keep relations with workers as amicable as possible. While performing these tasks, supervisors must keep the object of meeting organizational or corporate goals in the forefront.
The supervisor's tasks in the production process also include equipment and materials management, such as establishing guidelines for layout of the work being performed and selecting the right equipment for each job. Supervisors must schedule carefully to ensure that time is not wasted. It is a fact of business that idle time and workers are unproductive, costly, and a waste of capital investment. Thus, supervisors must be effective time managers and employee motivators. They must also keep an eye on technological developments, since innovative advancements in machinery and work performance techniques are constantly being made.
Supervisors must keep one eye on the future when performing their tasks. For example, a punch machine in a factory may become outdated and need to be replaced. It is an axiom in the manufacturing world that what is right for a particular job today may be outdated tomorrow. Therefore, supervisors may not only need to recommend new equipment, but might also be required to do economic analyses to justify the purchase of new machinery. In some cases, they might also be asked to maintain machinery or upgrade computer software systems. At the least, they must be effective communicators who can convince senior management of the need for upgraded machinery and the justification for capital expenditure outlays.
Supervisors must be particularly effective in an advisory role. Supervisors who can advise senior managers, middle managers, and subordinates on topics that affect their work activities are valuable. The problem is to restrict advice only to those areas directly related to individuals' needs at a particular time. More often than not, the supervisor does not provide detailed advice on particular issues. Generally, the supervisor's role is to point employees toward qualified professionals who can be of assistance. That in itself requires that supervisors be aware of where the proper professionals can be found.
There is seemingly no end to the areas in which supervisors become advisers. In whatever area the advice is provided, it must be aimed at improving individuals' performance and meeting organizational goals. As such, supervisors are called on to advise staff members' regarding their job performance and their personal lives as they relate to the organization's goals.
Many organizations today sponsor employee assistance programs (EAPs). These programs provide constructive responses to employees' substance abuse, psychological, family, and other personal problems. Through such programs, employers help employees overcome personal problems that adversely affect their performance and interfere with the achievement of organizational goals. Supervisors play an important role in EAP programs.
It is often the supervisor's responsibility to recognize problems that interfere with employees' work. Once such a problem is identified, the supervisor must refer the affected employees to EAP counselors or outside counselors who can assist in finding or providing treatment for the individuals' problems.
Skill development is yet another area in which the supervisor becomes an adviser. Supervisors who do not encourage their subordinates to develop their personal and work-related skills are defeating their own purposes and depriving employees of valuable training and advancement opportunities. Supervisors must have a grasp of what training is available, how it relates specifically to individual employees' needs, and where such training can be completed.
It is imperative that supervisors work with their employees to set up individual continuing development and training programs. To be able to do so, supervisors must know each employee's strengths and weaknesses and structure individual development programs accordingly. It is of no benefit to supervisor or employee to randomly select training courses that may be of no value to the individual or the organization. For example, sending a computer-illiterate machine operator whose communications skills are weak to a spreadsheet training session is of no value. Supervisors must be able to assess which continuing training programs will benefit which individuals. This can only be done by supervisors who are themselves well-trained and active participants in continuing development programs. Again, supervisors are merely advisers in the continuing education process, but their advice can make or break individuals and the organization.
An idea champion is an individual who generates a new idea or believes in the value of a new idea and supports it in the face of potential obstacles. Generally, idea champions are members of the lower supervisory levels. They typically are creative people who are willing to take risks. Consequently, they frequently have trouble convincing senior managers that a particular idea or system will be beneficial to the organization. Thus, idea champions must often coordinate their activities with sponsors, who are more often than not middlelevel managers.
Contemporary supervisors exemplify the prototypical knowledge workers that the business world is beginning to demand. They must be knowledgeable about a wide range of environmental issues and workplace safety programs. Today's supervisors must be aware of public policy issues that were of no concern to their predecessors, but which are taking on added importance today.
Businesses today are corporate citizens. As such, their leaders must be aware of statutes and administrative laws affecting business. Additionally, ethical standards, changes in ideologies and values, and the involvement of the media in corporate affairs must be considered. Finally, society's attitudes toward business have changed dramatically over the past few years. These changes have had a profound effect on supervisors at all levels and have made their jobs more complex. For example, supervisors today must have a broader knowledge of legislation affecting production than did their predecessors. They must be careful to regulate the amount of air, water, and ground pollution released by the machinery and processes they oversee. In particular, they must have some knowledge of the reporting mechanisms that provide governmental regulatory agencies with the information they need to ensure statutory compliance. It is the first-level supervisors who are closest to the production process. Therefore, it is primarily their responsibility to make sure the production process is safe for their workers and the public.
Supervisors must also have a working knowledge of federal regulations administered by the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Labor Relations Board, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Consumer Product Safety Commission —the list is a long one. It is virtually impossible for individual supervisors to familiarize themselves with all the governmental regulations affecting their jobs today. To compound matters, many supervisors are working in the international arena as global competition expands. This requires them to widen their knowledge and experience even more.
The emergence of large international businesses is creating a new demand for supervisors who can manage effectively in difficult circumstances. Contemporary supervisors are well-advised to learn new languages and become aware of cultural differences among workers. They must learn international trade laws and regulations and the differences in reward and punishment systems. They have to learn how to motivate workers in different countries and differentiate between what is ethical and legal in one country but not in another. There is no doubt that acquiring the knowledge and experience to supervise an international business is placing even more pressure on managers, but it is also opening new opportunities for supervisors.
The future holds much potential for supervisors. They have long been an important part of the business world. It would be impossible to conduct business on any scale were it not for the presence of qualified supervisors who can lead production workers. Supervisors function as leaders, trainers, goal setters, environmental watchdogs, facilitators, communicators, and more. Simply put, they are the backbone of the business world, and will continue to be as long as there is business to conduct.
[ Arthur G. Sharp ,
updated by Grant Eldridge ]
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