In light of increasing costs and technician shortages, maintenance providers looking to remain competitive have become increasingly focused on the efficiency and technician productivity.
This is a challenge for maintenance providers because most have struggled to make lasting productivity improvements – despite doing many of the right things. They have introduced continuous improvement programs, applied Lean Six Sigma principles to their operations, hired and trained Six Sigma black belts, and invested in mobile technology solutions. Nonetheless, the gains associated with these initiatives have frequently been underwhelming. Often the programs have regressed as management attention waned, being subsequently deprioritized or abandoned.
Front-line management challenges in aviation maintenance
Fundamentally, aviation maintenance providers have struggled to get their technicians to perform at peak levels. This is not surprising given that today managers have the difficult task to balance workforce shortages, a mix of senior and junior technicians, a new breed of mechanics that are more technologically savvy with higher expectations for autonomy in their workplace, and in many cases a unionized environment whose collective agreement is often not well understood.
However, managers and supervisors often do not understand how to best perform their role. Typically, they originate from the pool of experienced technicians and from those who show a willingness to move to a different shift schedule. Once selected, these new leaders are given basic management training and are then deployed to operations. The expectation is that they will guide 10-15 technicians effectively. Simply put, they are left without the support or tools to flounder out of their depth.
To address this shortcoming, aviation maintenance providers need to invest in and improve their active supervision models and training, focusing on the critical role managers and supervisors play on the maintenance floor.
Designing an Active Supervision Model (ASM)
The goal of ASM is to provide a clear view on how the maintenance organization expects managers and supervisors to execute their daily managerial tasks. This model can be best visualized as providing an overview of the journey of managers’ supervisory tasks during each regular workday, week, and month. This journey includes but is not limited to activities such as, start-up / turnover meetings, floor tours – the latter being a key element that provides quick status updates to identify emerging challenges – but also 6S evaluations and the tools used to facilitate all the activities required to best apply the model. Each element of the ASM must be detailed, clear, and tactical. Exhibit 1 depicts a highly simplified example of an ASM for a manager in a line maintenance operation. As part of the model, the manager is expected to perform floor tours up to four times a day. The tours include visits to each of the key locations such as points of work, free stock sites, production control booths, etc. They are assisted with a touring checklist that helps them keep track of each of the touring activities.
The following guiding principles will help produce a well-designed ASM:
- Refocus managers so they spend less time on administrative tasks and are more visible on the maintenance floor, acting in direct support of operations during touring and active problem solving.
- Outline in detail all the staff roles, including objectives, goals, accountabilities, and responsibilities. Lay out clear expectations for each level of management through sample role checklists, daily calendars, and meetings expectations. Embed these elements within the performance management system through daily milestones or associated metrics.
- Hold technicians accountable using benchmark timing for standard activities and project milestones. Provide playbooks that help prepare managers for conducting difficult performance-related conversations with team members.
- Provide solutions to enable completion tracking and real-time collaboration between maintenance crews and management. The solution’s functionality should enable crews to be able to ask for help remotely through text, video-conferencing or other means, and should support the sharing of knowledge between crews.
- Redefine and re-scope meetings so they are more reliant upon data and facts, not anecdotes. Best-in-class providers make use of digital collaboration tools or simple visual dashboards to convey information. Their use helps managers and supervisors to frame crew discussions.
- Combine various elements that support each other. For example, during a tour of the maintenance floor, the manager could also assess continuous improvement or collect information to inform forthcoming shift turnovers.
- Provide managers and supervisors with feedback. It is critical to tie the ASM into performance management (e.g., management by objectives) so that management can evaluate the effectiveness of the effort.
ASM practice and evolution
The ASM implementation needs to respond to the culture of the organization and its experience of past operational pain points. For instance, if the organization has relatively junior management staff, the model might include case-based best practices to help management understand how to deal with challenging day-to-day interactions. This can further be enhanced by putting in place elements in the ASM that allow management to articulate the challenges supervisors are facing, to enable them to acquire feedback from their peers, and to tap into other organizational resources.
The ASM requires support from appropriate tools and technology. In some cases, this can be low-tech, such as paper based touring checklists. The ASM will also require tools that provide real-time data on maintenance demands and that enable collaboration between the crews and management. Such tools can usually be developed on top of existing collaboration platforms and should not require specialized software. These tools should be integrated into the mobility solutions provided to frontline employees.
In advance of the ASM’s implementation, the organization will need to deploy the tools to be used and provide sufficient training to all management levels. The right touchpoints, KPIs, and guardrails will need to be put in place to ensure that managers and supervisors are applying and adopting the new model during the transition period and are not defaulting to past approaches.
In our experience, the ASM is most successful when it is treated as the central point for continuous improvement, evolving dynamically and continuously. The extent of this evolution and managements continued focus on it will determine the level of success. Ultimately, the Active Supervision Model aims to improve management effectiveness by equipping front-line managers with the tools, support, and guidance they need to manage, and learn from, the daily operation.