Unlocking the potential of frontline managers

A retail manager responsible for more than $80 million in annual revenue, an airline
manager who oversees a yearly passenger volume worth more than $160 million, a
banking manager who deals with upward of seven million questions from customers a year.
These aren’t executives at a corporate headquarters; they are the hidden—yet crucial—
managers of frontline employees.
Found in almost any company, such managers are particularly important in industries
with distributed networks of sites and employees. These industries—for instance,
infrastructure, travel and logistics, manufacturing, health care, and retailing (including
food service and retail banking)—make up more than half of the global economy. Their
district or area managers, store managers, site or plant managers, and line supervisors
direct as much as two-thirds of the workforce and are responsible for the part of the
company that typically defines the customer 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.
In a majority of the companies we’ve encountered, the frontline managers’ role is merely
to oversee a limited number of direct reports, often in a “span breaking” capacity, relaying
information from executives to workers.1 Such managers keep an eye on things, enforce
plans and policies, report operational results, and quickly escalate issues or problems. In
other words, a frontline 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, our
experience shows. Change is possible, however. At 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 upselling efforts at the cash register; and creating easy-tounderstand
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
1 Various management studies have defined the optimal number of direct reports for a single supervisor as anywhere from
6 to 30. Our case evidence suggests that 12 to 15 direct reports at the front line is typically the most appropriate number,
depending on the complexity of individual jobs, the typical number of new problems to solve, and the overall experience of
the frontline staff.
and stem it before it begins; and to encourage workers to seek out opportunities for selfimprovement.
In difficult economic times, making employees more productive is even
more crucial than it is ordinarily.
The reality of the front line
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 nonmanagerial
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 (Exhibit 1).
Even then, managers often aren’t truly coaching the front line. Our survey of retail district
managers, for example, showed that much of the time they spend on frontline employees
actually involved auditing for compliance with standards or solving immediate problems
(Exhibit 2). At some companies we surveyed, district managers devote just 4 to 10 percent
of their time—as little as 10 minutes a day—to coaching teams. To put the point another
way, a district manager in retailing may spend as little as one hour a month developing
people in the more junior but critical role of store manager.
Exhibit 1
Where the time goes
Site-level managers
Representative time allocation by industry, %
Area managers
Web 2009
Frontline supervisor
Exhibit 1 of 2
Glance: Across industries, frontline managers generally spend only 10 to 40 percent of their time
actively supervising their employees.
Exhibit title: Where the time goes
1Sales, manufacturing, operations.
2Includes breaks, customer service, direct selling, special projects, training, travel.
3Business to business.
On site with frontline
Car rental
Site manager
Plant line
travel and
In our experience, neither companies nor their frontline managers typically expect more.
One area manager at a specialty retailer with thousands of outlets said, “Coaching? A good
store manager should just know what to do—that’s what we hire them for.” A store manager
in a global convenience retailer told us, “There are just good stores and bad stores—there’s
very little we can do to change that.” Another store manager, in a North American
electronics retailer, said, “They told me, ‘We don’t pay you to think; we pay you to execute.’”
These shortcomings are rooted in the early days of the industrial revolution, when
manufacturing work was broken down into highly specialized, repetitive, and easily
observed tasks. No one worker created a whole shoe, for example; each hammered
his nail in the same spot and the same way every time, maximizing effectiveness and
efficiency. Employees didn’t necessarily know anything about the overall job in which
they participated, so supervisors (usually people good at the work itself) were employed
to enforce detailed standards and policies—essentially, serving as span breakers between
workers and policy makers. Many manufacturing companies still use this approach,
because it can deliver high-quality results on the front line, at least in the short term.
In many service industries, the same approach has taken hold in order to provide all
customers in all locations with a consistent experience.
Although attention to execution is important, an exclusive focus on it can have insidious
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.
Exhibit 2
Not enough time District managers’ reported time per day with site managers and frontline sales/service staff
Web 2009
Frontline supervisor
Exhibit 2 of 2
Glance: Of the time district managers spend managing the frontline environment, they devote as
little as ten minutes a day to coaching teams.
Exhibit title: Not enough time
Time in stores 35 minutes
Walking floor, auditing for compliance 20 minutes
‘Firefighting’ 5–10 minutes
Actual coaching time with frontline,
site managers
5–10 minutes
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 behavior 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.2 Clearly, the
typical work patterns and attitudes of frontline managers are not conducive to good results.
At a North American medical-products distributor, for example, one supervisor reflected
that the company “is like California—forest fires breaking out everywhere and no plan to
stop them. A lot of crisis-to-crisis situations with no plan. We’ve been in this mode for so
long, we don’t know how to stop and plan, although that’s what we desperately need to do.
I wish I knew how to intervene.” Because frontline managers were so busy jumping in to
solve problems, they had no time to step back and look at longer-term performance trends
or to identify—and try to head off—emerging performance issues. It’s therefore no wonder
that the company’s performance had begun to decline: inventories were increasing and
errors in shipments became more frequent. Companies can also get into frontline trouble if
they fail to maintain well-managed operations (see sidebar, “The danger of complacency”).
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 front line
Sometimes a corporate crisis drives frontline changes. A global equipment manufacturer,
for example, was facing backlogs, capacity constraints, and quality and profitability issues
in its core vehicle assembly business. The company’s senior leaders concluded that 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—indeed, it couldn’t succeed unless they adopted a new way of working.
2 For example, see Florian V. Wangenheim, Heiner Evanschitzky, and Maren Wunderlich, “The employee–customer satisfaction
link: Does it hold for all employee groups?” Journal of Business Research, 2007, Volume 60, Number 7, pp. 690–7; S. Douglas
Pugh, Joerg Dietz, Jack W. Wiley, and Scott M. Brooks, “Driving service effectiveness through employee–customer linkages,”
Academy of Management Executive, 2002, Volume 16, Number 4, pp. 73–84; Benjamin Schneider and David E. Bowen,
Winning the service game, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1995.
To communicate the importance of the changes being introduced, senior leaders, among
other things, ordered vice presidents 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.3
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,4 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. A typical manager’s span of control fell to 12 to 15, from 20 to 30.
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.
As a result, managers and workers identified and implemented other improvements—for
example, making parts more available, with fewer defects, and routing materials more
efficiently—so that lost production and the need for rework fell. Overall, though the
transformation took ten weeks rather than seven, the initial targets were exceeded. Across
the five plants, the number of completed vehicles rose by 40 percent a month—despite the
elimination of a shift—and quality by 80 percent. Worker hours fell by 40 percent.
Retailing and the front line
Changing the mind-sets and capabilities of individual frontline managers can be the
hardest part. In our experience, many of them see limits to how much they can accomplish;
some also recognize the need to restructure their roles but nonetheless fear change. At
times, before the job of coaching can begin, companies must address more insidious mindsets—
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.
3 More on the importance of the senior leadership’s role in driving change can be found in Carolyn B. Aiken and Scott P. Keller,
“The CEO’s role in leading transformation,” mckinseyquarterly.com, February 2007.
4 Lean transformations, which focus on removing all waste and improving the flow in a process, typically involve just-in-time
supplies, the standardization of work, and continuous tracking of quality and timeliness. This company focused particularly
on line layout and line balancing, standardizing work, 5S (organizing and managing workspaces), and index or “takt” time
(maximum allowable time to produce a product to meet demand).
The first step is to help frontline managers understand the need for change and how it
could make things better. At the convenience store retailer mentioned earlier, for example,
an analysis 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
“flavor 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’ssimple-
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.
Managers also gained time in other ways: for example, they no longer had to complete long
weekly sales reports, respond to corporate directives that arrived at unexpected times, and
accommodate too-frequent visits by district or regional sales managers. Streamlined sales
Even when companies get frontline management right, it can
be easy for them to lose sight of their gains. Consider, for
example, the experience of a chemical manufacturer where
shift supervisors didn’t need to spend time on simple, immediate
problems, because workers could solve those themselves.
Instead, these managers focused on more complex, longerterm
improvements: eliminating defects, understanding the
fundamental causes of operational problems, and coaching and
mentoring operators and mechanics.
From the outside, the shift supervisors didn’t seem to be
contributing much, so during a cost reduction effort, the company
implemented self-managed teams. Although the reduced costs
initially seemed beneficial, over time discipline slipped, new hires
were chosen and trained less rigorously, long-term issues were
no longer addressed systematically, and the self-managed teams
became less reliable. In other words, they could manage the work
day by day but not in the long term.
As a result, about five years after the role of shift supervisor
was eliminated, the company’s capabilities began a steep slide:
the structural integrity and safety of plants fell, costs went up
dramatically, and reliability plummeted. It took the company
another five years to dig itself out of the hole. Some of its
businesses shut down completely, in part as a result of global
economic conditions, but also because the high cost of restoring
its efficiency and reliability made it less competitive.
The danger of
reporting captured fewer but more essential indicators, such as the volume of sales in key
product categories. All visits from district or regional managers were scheduled in advance
and followed a predetermined and performance-focused agenda.
As a result, the time store managers spent on administration fell by nearly half, so they
could devote 60 to 70 percent of their days to activities such as coaching workers and
interacting with customers. These managers spent more time on the sales floor with
individual employees and regularly discussed store strategies and performance metrics
with them. The discussions took advantage of a new performance scorecard with just a few
key metrics, such as the number of customers greeted during peak hours, success rates
on “suggestive selling” at checkout, and immediate follow-up with customers to gauge
their satisfaction. Because the stores stayed open 24 hours a day, managers weren’t always
present. They therefore engaged all employees in regular problem-solving sessions to
create a better selling and service environment in the stores—for example, by ensuring that
more employees would be available at critical times of the week. Furthermore, managers
could now adapt the company’s general operating model by deciding how many (and
which) employees would be present in stores at any given time.
This vision of a well-run store, contrasting starkly with the stores of the managers who
visited it, overcame their fears. Once frontline managers have accepted the need for
change, however, they must learn the new ways of working required by the demands of
their redefined roles. At the convenience store retailer, training sessions and trial-anderror
fieldwork helped the managers develop the needed capabilities quickly. Some of these
skills were technical, focused on managing more effective processes and revised daily
routines, as well as keeping track of the simplified store performance scorecards. Other
forms of training enhanced the managers’ interpersonal skills, such as how to engage and
empower subordinates; to have regular, constructive conversations about performance;
and how to provide feedback and coaching.
Managers were also made aware of the negative mind-sets (such as, “I am just another
associate when I go on the store floor,” and “My job is to make sure that tasks get done”)
that made it harder to develop the right skills and capabilities. They learned how to
counter these mind-sets and to adopt more positive ones (for instance, “I regularly provide
my employees with constructive feedback and tips,” and “My job is to ensure that tasks
are complete and that customers are served as well”), which promote more appropriate
behavior and better performance. When the company rolled out the program broadly, the
results were impressive: productivity rose by 51 percent in one region and by 65 percent
in another.5
5 In this case, the productivity metric is the sales-to-labor ratio. The improvement in individual markets ranged from 34 percent
(an increase to 4.0, from 3.0) to 81 percent (an increase to 7.8, from 4.3).
Companies that succeed in redefining the job of the frontline manager can improve their
performance remarkably. Successful approaches can be applied across many industries.
A mining company that implemented such a program enjoyed a 10 percent increase in
tonnage per frontline employee. A bank branch found that cross-selling went up by 24
percent within a year. Total sales at a department store rose 2 percent in one six-month
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
A nursing supervisor at a European hospital that empowered its nurses offered perhaps the
clearest description of the way frontline leaders ought to think—a description that couldn’t
be more different from the role of traditional frontline managers: “I am a valued member
of this team, who has responsibility to make sure my ward nurses have the right coaching
to improve patient service while contributing to the overall functioning of our ward—for
the first time, I feel as important as a doctor or an administrator in the success of this
institution.” That kind of frontline leader can consistently help employees to enhance their
impact on an organization’s work.
Aaron De Smet is a principal in McKinsey’s Houston office, Monica McGurk is a principal in the Atlanta office, and
Marc Vinson is a consultant in the Cleveland office. Copyright © 2009 McKinsey & Company. All rights reserved.
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