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Better Supervision = Better Productivity = Better Profits (Part 1)

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(Photo: © iStockphoto/Izabela Habur)

Mariah E. de Forest |

EVANSTON, Ill. — I once wrote an article titled Training Foreign-Born Hispanics for Supervisory Jobs in the Dry Cleaning Industry due to the need to teach the growing numbers of Latino first-level supervisors how to improve performance in the face of customer demands for high-quality cleaning and next-day service, all at competitive prices.

The article explained how dry cleaners could boost productivity and speed turnaround times by training Hispanic supervisors to adapt the traditional authoritarian Latino leadership style to a U.S. “best practices” mode of supervision. I also discussed the five key elements needed for effective training of Hispanic supervisors.

Here are those elements, and the results of the training from six dry cleaners using this approach. Each had four to seven drop-off stores, for customer convenience, feeding their garments to a single central plant.

WORKING WITH RATHER THAN AGAINST THE NATURAL AUTHORITARIAN LEADERSHIP STYLE

While authoritarian supervision is typical in Spanish-speaking cultures, it is a major stumbling block for success here. Hispanic supervisors were shown how to adapt their traditional management style to one that is more acceptable to workers in America.

Typical Hispanic supervision often amounts to ordering people around, no back talk, as well as rewarding and punishing. Training taught supervisors to modify this ingrained concept of authority by instead acting like a respected teacher or father. Although regarded as authorities in traditional Latino cultures, these figures represent responsive “respected mother”-type icons, guiding subordinates to do the “right thing” rather than ordering them to do so. This construct helped convince the supervisors that this approach did not threaten their authority. They learned that one key to better productivity was helping, rather than just ordering, employees to improve productivity and quality.

One of the workers commented: “All of a sudden, my boss noticed how I was working, and even helped me straighten out a problem we were having with our spotting boards. I don’t know what happened, but since she started talking (to) us about our jobs, I enjoy coming to work a lot more. I try to get the garments spotted and ironed faster.”

The first lesson in training authoritarian-oriented supervisors, male or female, is to show them how to channel authoritarianism into a more constructive direction. Hispanic supervisors can accept their respect is enhanced, not diminished, by acting as constructive “father”- (or “mother”-) type figures. They learn that guiding employees is not a threat to their authority, but a way of engaging them in improving performance. The benefit of this approach was measured by departmental productivity, which climbed an average of 7% in this case. Absenteeism rates also declined, which helped turnaround times on the garments.

HELPING FOREIGN-BORN SUPERVISORS MANAGE DEPARTMENTS RATHER THAN SIMPLY GIVING ORDERS

Most supervisors are reluctant to ask for help. In Latin cultures, it’s a sign of weakness. Benefits of training increased when central plant floor superintendents were shown how to guide their subordinate Latino supervisors on a regular basis. Superintendent/supervisor meetings presented a strong “role model” to authoritative-style supervisors. If the floor superintendent or central plant manager could do it without losing face, so could they. This guidance reinforced our training.

Here’s what supervisors had to say:

“I never had a personal meeting with my boss before. I thought he was going to bawl me out for the... loading times, but he sat me down and he gave me some ideas for getting the girls to push harder. I appreciated it.”

“My boss never talked much to me. Would just hand me the list of re-dos. The other day, he told me individual meetings are a part of my training. So we sat down and went over the reasons for the re-dos, and he gave me suggestions on how to show the new girls the best way to iron and touch up. It worked out just like he said!”

These meetings resulted in fewer production delays and cut the re-dos as supervisors learned seeking guidance was not a sign of weakness. Improved manager/supervisor communication trickled down; meetings between supervisors and their workers improved.

Face-to-face communications between plant management and individual supervisors is a must to reinforce the concepts taught by training.

TRAINING NEEDS PLANT FLOOR EXAMPLES—NOT GENERALIZATIONS—FOR EFFECTIVENESS

Four of the dry cleaners had used inexpensive training sessions found on the Internet. The results showed supervisors couldn’t translate the generalizations of canned training to the specific problems in their own plants.

Before our training began, our firm spent several days interviewing and observing plant employees — at the dry cleaning machines, in ironing, touch up, inspection and bagging. We wanted to uncover what workers needed from their supervisors for better performance, and how the workers perceived the guidance they were getting.

The typical worker in the pressing area, for example, wanted two things from supervision: help in solving on-the-job problems with their equipment, and approachable supervisors who did not denigrate them. These comments became mini-case studies for supervisors, who recognized them as issues from their own departments. Here’s what some supervisors said after the training:

“I was surprised when I heard my workers were having problems with the spotting boards. They had told me before, but I thought that was just an excuse. Now I see I should have been asking them and checking if their equipment was OK. It really helped our quality.”

“I found one [dry cleaning machine] was going only half as fast as the other, and was a bottleneck slowing up the department. I thought the operators were just goofing off. It showed me I’ve got to pay more attention to complaints.”

Training is more effective when supervisors understand the issues discussed are not theoretical examples from some book, but real-life problems from their own departments. When actual in-plant issues are used during training, supervisors realize it is no theoretical exercise but a way to help them deal with their problems. Follow-up interviews provide feedback on how the training improved results.

Check back Thursday for the conclusion!

About the author

Mariah E. de Forest

Imberman and De Forest Inc.

Vice President

Mariah E. de Forest is vice president of Imberman and De Forest Inc., a national human resources consulting firm. She can be reached via e-mail at IMBandDEF@aol.com.

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