It really isn’t your problem

Feb. 5, 2008
A manager shouldn’t try to be a Mr. Fix-it.

It was the third time my boss had “fixed” equipment in my production line. He and a mechanic had torn down the bead mill, costing us another day of production because he improperly installed the gasket. At the shift meeting he admitted it was his fault. If cornered by plant management he would own up to the mistake. That wasn’t the point, though. Hanging in the air during that meeting was the question: Are you really the right person to fix a bead mill?

I’ve seen this situation several times in my career. A promising engineer is promoted into management but doesn’t want to lose touch with the nuts and bolts of the profession.

This raises two obvious questions: Who’s minding the store while the manager is being a mechanic? and Does he really have the skills, ability and training to do the work right? Plus, a manager/mechanic deprives staff of the training experience they need to support the plant.

Unfortunately, this problem can last for months. After all, tackling it may pose career risks and anyway seems less important than meeting production numbers and quality requirements. In my situation, I took a chance. I was on good terms with the HR manager, so I spoke to him. To be completely fair, it’s important to be specific: how much downtime resulted from the interference, what equipment was involved, and who else was better qualified to do the work. I doubt if anything was done, or will be done, unless the manager’s meddling causes a major accident ― one that can’t be blamed on someone else.

This particular manager didn’t have good rapport with staff, so the only option was to go over his head. However, if the manager trusts you and has good rapport with staff, it might be possible for a group to intervene. Their pointing out that he’s trying to cover second base and shortstop at the same time might convince him to think twice before he dashes out again to tear down a pump.

This raises another question: Why don’t the manager’s bosses get involved? It’s an important issue because of the potential for over-burdening of the manager as well as for equipment damage. It gets down to the essential responsibilities of a manager. A good friend of mine and one-time boss, Dick Hughes, put it quite succinctly: “My job is knowing who’s best to do an assignment and to help him do his job effectively.”

Expanding that simple definition to plant management overseeing many production lines can seem an exercise in abstraction. However, critical to meeting production goals and quality targets has got to be management effectiveness. A line manager who lives in the plant probably isn’t being as useful as he could be. Perhaps managers should punch a time clock so management effectiveness could be measured against time worked, with differentials calculated based on how much production has gone up or down.

More realistically, work orders can provide a potent tool. They should contain the names of the people who worked on the equipment. As long as these forms are monitored and completion is enforced, they will clearly indicate a meddling manager. It’s quite routine for HR to use this information to monitor worker performance so why not use it for the management as well?

How should bosses deal with a manager who spends his time repairing equipment? First, ask if this person is good at his job. Stable production and quality are signs that the manager is in control. Then, ask how many hours per week that manager spends on the job. If the average exceeds 50, it’s time for a talk. If possible, have someone check the work orders so you can estimate the number of hours the manager has spent doing engineering and maintenance work that was better done by someone else. If the manager is good at repairing equipment, maybe the best place for him is in another department. If like my previous manager, he isn’t good at repairing equipment, he should be told to keep his hands off.

Dirk Willard, contributing editor
[email protected]

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