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#42 How to help a supervisor at the frontline, with Hugh Alley.


Welcome to Episode 42 of the enterprise excellence podcast. It is such a pleasure to have Mr Hugh Alley with us today, whose passion is helping people become better leaders. He is the author of the new book, "becoming the supervisor, achieving your company's mission and building your team". I'm so looking forward to this conversation on achieving excellence through such an important leadership position.

Proudly brought to you in association with S A Partners, a world-leading business transformation consultancy.


Early on - from toxic plant to sharing the success of cultural improvement.

Hugh worked in a toxic plant of 600 people. He watched the general managers screaming at the supervisors and watched the supervisors shouting and screaming at their crews. The crews yelling and screaming right back, and it was dysfunctional. As you can imagine, that company did not farewell. Hugh was the assistant to the President as they shut the company down. And putting 600 people out of work was just heartbreaking. And he never wanted to do that again. As he reflected on it afterwards, it was so clear that those frontline leadership skills were missing.

And then, about 15 years ago, a buddy asked him to come and be his operations manager. Hugh took the job, and as he walked into the main factory, his spidey sense went up. And it was not as severe, but it was that same toxic kind of situation. He had to do something, and this burning platform motivated Hugh to set up his industrial engineering consulting firm.

Hugh was working with many small manufacturers around British Columbia. And then one of his clients said, "I like what you're doing. Will you come and work for me?" And suddenly, Hugh was the supervisor of 65 people, without having had any experience as a supervisor before. He felt overwhelmed and learned on the job, as most frontline leaders do. Hugh then worked for a more prominent consulting firm for about eight years and then a friend's operations company for four years. He had such great success in turning the place around with the culture and seeing performance improvement. Hugh knew that there was something to share. He struck out on his own and started training using the 'training within industry' concept or core training.

Hugh's Inspiration

John was Hugh's President at the company that did so disastrously so early in his career. Due to his integrity, wit, and focus, Hugh would do any deal with him on a handshake. Tracy Defoe introduced Hugh to the 'training within industry' style and pulled him into that world. She has been super helpful and a pleasure to work with.

Why did Hugh write a book on the supervisor?

Hugh believes that skilled frontline leaders, supervisors, team leaders, foreman, etc., are at the pointy end of the stick. They have managers poking at them, they have to get production up, and they're stuck trying to build a relationship with their crews. Many of these people have come into their role, almost accidentally. They got thrust into it. Hugh knew Derek, a welder, who told him, "I just didn't step backwards fast enough", and that's how he got the promotion. He needed some help and guidance because he did not learn how to manage people in welding school.

Hugh looked around for something that could help supervisors, and there was nothing available. The available material targeted senior management and the CEO type roles. Hugh wanted to create something easy for supervisors to read but still have enough good content that they could take away and put to use straight away.

"Becoming the Supervisor, Achieving your Company's Mission and Building your Team"

Hugh's book works on two levels:

Level 1 - what does the supervisor need to learn?

Level 2 - how does the manager of a supervisor bring them along?

Level 1 - what does the supervisor need to learn?

A fine supervisor has five skills that they should do passively to make the lives of their people better and help achieve the mission of your company.

  1. Instruction: Being able to teach someone a new skill.

  2. Leading: Addressing the situation when somebody's not performing the way the company needs it.

  3. Improvement: Making some improvements in the way that work gets done in your area.

  4. Priorities: Knowing what your team members should do first.

  5. Listening: You need to be able to listen to understand others.

Level 1.1 Instruction: How do you train new skills to front line workers faster and reduce scrap?

This level comes from the job instruction module in the 'training within industry' framework. Even if this skill is not done particularly well, as long as it's done, mostly okay, it makes things better. So, knowing how to separate the essential steps, the key points, and the reasons makes a big difference.

Your necessary steps are numbered, and they're like the skeleton. And then you build on that. You add muscle and sinew in the key points. And, then the reason is to put the skin on it all. But if you leave any one of those pieces out, it just doesn't work quite so well. Without that structure of numbering and labelling, people could be easily confused and think, where are we in that instruction? One of the everyday things you could see is, the next step is, and the next step is, and the next step is, now which next are we at?

The impact it can have is enormous. Hugh had a client in complicated assembly work who used to take three months to get their people up to speed. Once they had finished working through the job instruction process, they could bring a green person on and performing at production speed and production quality in one month. Two months of salary and production had been saved, and their mistake rate had significantly reduced. So the impact is enormous, both for the company and the learner, and it makes the supervisors' life more manageable.

It is very different from the usual behaviour when a new employee arrives, and the manager would say, "Come with me and watch what I do over the next couple of days". Or worse, they'll say, "So all you need to do is", and they'll wave their hands and point at something, and then say, "You got it?" And of course, the new employee doesn't want to admit that they don't know. And then they pick up whatever it was, and they wreck stuff and make mistakes.

But in the job instruction model, you say, "Okay, you've got four crucial steps". So firstly, you would tell your new employee what the steps are: Step 1 is, step 2 is, step 3 is, step 4 is. Secondly, you would show them the steps while reiterating the language. Next, you would go through the critical steps and introduce the key points. Then you would go through it all again, and when you've shown them the process four times, they're starting to get used to it. Then get them to do the process a few times while listening to them tell you about the steps.

Level 1.3 Improvement: How do you improve work processes in the areas you are responsible for?

Hugh talks about the challenge of actually observing what's going on in a workplace in this section. It's also a part of the job methods module from the 'training within industry' framework. The lead character in the book is Trevor, and he's being mentored by his boss, the general manager, Julie. Julie says to him, "Okay, just go out, and write down everything you see happening". And everybody thinks that would be so easy. And they get out there, and they write down some observations. But what you find is that we all gloss over so much and miss the details that give us opportunities for improvements. It might be that extra three steps you always take or when a particular item always needs to be adjusted before use.

Hugh hates it when things have to be adjusted because it means it hasn't been set up correctly. You should be able to index it and just set it and be done; that's a whole other story. But it's part of the opportunity that shows up when you watch carefully enough to see the detail.

A great example is if you've ever been involved in setting up machinery. You watch the person doing it. They almost always wind up looking for the nuts, grubbing around in their toolbox for the nuts! And you think that's nuts! Why are they doing that? They took them off, so there must be a way to put them down so that it's easier to pick them up again. So it's not that it's hard work. But it's so crucial to watch exactly every detail, write it down and then you can look for ways to eliminate or simplify or combine operations or rearrange the sequence to make it go easier.

Supervisors are intelligent and logical people, and they will almost always see opportunities without you having to go in and teach them. Hugh gives the example of Stuart, a supervisor who brought in 5S without being taught it. Why? Because it solved a logical problem. He took out all the materials that didn't belong. And found a place for the materials that did belong, placing them close to where the work was happening. The 5S system was still functioning when Hugh returned to the plant a year later. Stuart didn't need to know that it was that it's called 5S. He thought of the idea because he carefully watched the movements of the team in the workspace.

A coach can ask careful questions that speed up that learning process. For example, the coach could can ask, "What do you expect to have happen?" and make the supervisor do the mental model of how this will turn out if they try it? And they will eliminate a lot of options very quickly when they actually do that. But the coach doesn't have to be the one to say, "Don't do it that way". The coach can ask the questions, which speeds up learning, and helps the supervisor learn to ask those questions themselves.

Level 1.5 Listening: How do you listen for understanding?

All you need to do is think about your relationship with someone special: your spouse, your kids, your parents, or a good friend. And you'll recognise that a vast amount of what's communicated is in the tone and the emotional content. And we get so focused on kind of our business task that we want to rush through all that emotional stuff. But if you've ever had a kid who's had a tantrum, they're not going to hear anything you say until you somehow enfold them in a hug. And let them know that it's okay, and they've been heard. And once the sniffles have mostly subsided, then they might be interested in listening to you.

As adults, we're a little more restrained. We don't need to rush up to somebody who's got unmistakable emotional behaviours happening and hug them. Because a lot of people get unnerved by that. As a supervisor, if you don't hear the emotional content first and acknowledge that that's where the team member is, you can talk to them till you're blue in the face, and they won't hear you. Regardless of what the frustration is about, you need to ensure that you listen to them and hear them out before you get to the work of the subject matter. But if you give yourself the time to do that, the subject matter goes fast because the emotion is out of the way.

With an adult, the display of emotional feelings is more subtle, less immediate and much harder to see. You won't know the backstory of your team members unless you listen to them. Are they dealing with a kid who's going through who's in prison? Or experimenting with drugs? Or are they dealing with a parent with Alzheimer's, and they're wrestling with deciding whether they put the person into a care facility?

Adults bring their backstory into wherever we are. And Hugh believes it's a fiction that you can leave it outside; we are not divisible like that. He does think that it's fair to listen and show empathy. And then discuss the need for the work to happen alongside the emotion. So, bring down the level of tension and anxiety by demonstrating that you're listening and showing empathy.

Different cultures also have different ways of showing respect and attentiveness. The amount of eye contact you have varies dramatically, depending on who you are and even your gender. A Caucasian woman would expect higher eye contact than a guy. An Asian may be much less comfortable with direct eye contact. In Canada, one thing that constantly gets misunderstood is that eye contact is relatively rude amongst many indigenous communities. And so they're looking away or looking down. And that's not because they're avoiding your look. Well, you, as a supervisor, could misread that. If you listen and seek to understand and show empathy, you'll learn to engage meaningfully with your team and build better relationships.

What stops organisations from helping frontline supervisors and their leaders improve?

One of Hugh's working theories is that many managers have never seen an excellent supervisor functioning, and they don't understand how much impact it can have. They underestimate what they could get in terms of the company being able to achieve its mission. It seems impossible to imagine that a company could double its production in a plant with existing people and machinery in one year. Most people would say, ha, not a chance!

Hugh's assumption now is that most organisations can double production. He thinks about one client in particular, and in six weeks, they figured out how to increase their output by 60%, without adding any people or machinery. That's an astounding improvement. But if you've never seen it, it's hard for you to believe that that's true when you're struggling to get 2% more.

Developing the five core skills that Hugh details in his book and helping build your supervisors to become true improvement leaders can exponentially help a business achieve its future.

What is Hugh's Two Minute Tip in this area of becoming a supervisor and developing supervisors?

Assign work well.

Generally, work is not assigned well. Hugh has six steps for supervisors' to assign work well:

  1. You need to assign work ahead of when they're going to run out of work.

  2. You've got to tell them 'what' and 'how'.

  3. Ask them how long they think it will take if they're not interrupted.

  4. Establish timelines and the deadline. They may not think that they can get it done when you need it to, but you still need it done then.

  5. Get them the help they need.

  6. Ask them to summarise.

And the two things that typically don't get done is people don't ask, how long do you think it will take if you're not interrupted? And they don't ask people to summarise? If you can do those two things, it makes a big difference.

If people can start the job in the right way, you're going to get a much better outcome.

Where should a supervisor start when wanting to improve?

You need to look at two things. Firstly, is there a particular pain point that the company is dealing with? It's back to the mission of the company and building your team. So what does the company need right now? Maybe the company is dealing with quality issues. Well, you're probably going to want to start on job instruction to try and build Standard Work. But maybe there's just so much friction and conflict between departments. And what you need to do is start with job relations. So what blockers are the company dealing with that are stopping products and services from reaching their customer?

Secondly, the company is performing reasonably well. So you may want to understand a particular individual's pain point. What are they individually wrestling with? Maybe it's a specific workstation that isn't functioning well. Or do they have a problem setting their priorities? You start where their pain is because then you're making their lives easier. And along the way, you're going to make the lives of their whole team easier. And you're going to make the rest of the company perform better.

If you're starting with the company pain and then helping the individual pain, there's a desire to move forward and motivation to change and improve.

What's a recent insight you've had?

Hugh's biggest insight has come from learning about Toyota Kata. In Toyota Kata, you are looking for a particular target condition, and you run into obstacles. The supervisor training becomes the experiment and countermeasure to overcome that obstacle. It's linking the corporate level initiatives with the supervisor training, which to Hugh, is exciting. The supervisors can see how what they're doing matters to the company. And they can also see how it's making the lives of their people easier. And this is a really rewarding way that Hugh helps.

Key Takeaways

Start with the biggest problem.

The first key takeaway of starting with an organisation, an individual team or a person's most significant problem, in their view, is such a fantastic approach. Naturally, there is emotion and motivation already present, which is key to achieving change. People are highly likely to engage, put effort into and have a positive experience with improvement related to their most significant issues and concerns.

Number and sequence instructions in coaching.

I've seen this approach achieve great results so many times. When helping people learn, our brains want to structure with something we are trying to learn. Simply numbering the key steps and then coaching a team member through the steps creates rapid results. I was thinking of the 'I do we do, you do' three-step sequence to coaching during the conversation. The first coaching step, 'I do', is where a supervisor outlines and demonstrates the key steps. The second step of coaching, 'we do', is where the supervisor observes and supports the team member performing the steps multiple times, helping them reflect and improve each time they complete the task. The third and final step to this coaching sequence, 'you do,' is where the supervisor enables the team member to perform the tasks by themselves and checks back in after some time. Working through the sequence is a robust and straightforward development of competency and knowledge.


01:29min I had an experience early in my career, where I worked in a really toxic workplace, plant 600 people. Like, I watched the general managers literally screaming at his supervisors. And I watched the supervisors shouting and screaming at their crews, and the crews shouting and screaming right back, and it was totally dysfunctional. And as you can imagine, that company did not fare well. I was the assistant to the President as we shut the thing down. And putting 600 people out of work was just heartbreaking. And I don't ever want to do that again. And as I reflected on it afterwards, it was so clear that just those frontline leadership skills were missing.

07:59min And so many of these people have come into their role almost accidentally, right? They got thrust into it. I actually know one guy who told me that "I just didn't step backwards fast enough". And that's how he got his job. And he's actually one of the people I dedicated the book to, and Derek turned out to be a fine supervisor. But he needed some help. He needed some, some guidance, he needed some tools, because he was a great welder. But welding school doesn't teach you how to manage people.

13:39min I had a client who used to take them three months to get their people up to speed. So they're in a pretty specific high tech world, doing some complicated assembly work. And it would take three months. And when once they had finished working through this job instruction process, they could bring a totally green person on and have them producing at production speed, at production quality in a month. Wow, that's huge. You think about being able to bring on a new person and have them up to speed in a month compared to three. I mean, you've saved two months of salary. You got two months more production. Yeah. And you've reduced the mistake quantity significantly. So the impact is huge, both for the company, for the learner, and in terms of it makes the supervisors' life easier.

23:37min Now there's absolutely room for a coach in there. Because you can ask careful questions that speed up that learning process. For example, you can ask them what they expect to have happen and make them do the mental model of how this will turn out if they try it. And they will eliminate a lot of options very quickly when they actually do that. Yeah. But you don't have to be the one to say don't do it that way. You can ask the questions, which speeds up their learning, and it helps them learn to ask those questions themselves.

28:51min Now, I think it is fair to say, "Yeah, that's there, and it sucks, and I'm really sorry about it". And then lay out what you need the person to do, despite all that. But it's not setting it aside. It's just alongside all that you also have this responsibility here. But they won't hear that unless you hear their pain first.

Thank you for sharing so much knowledge, Hugh and everything you've done to help us create a better future to come. You've found a gap in organisations, written a book and developed an approach that has been missing. Thanks for a wonderful conversation.


Hugh Alley

Hugh is delighted for others to contact him, phone, email, text, whatever. He is happy to talk to anybody.


is proud to support many Australian businesses. You can find him on LinkedIn here. If you’d like to speak to him about how he can help your business, call him on 0402 448 445, or email Our website is

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