Five Strategies for Training Hispanic Supervisors

Food manufacturers can blend traditional authoritarian Latino leadership style with a U.S.-style "best practices" mode of supervision.

By Mariah DeForest, Contributor

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I wrote "How To Train Across Cultures" for Industrial Management about two years ago because manufacturing executives, especially in the food processing industries, need to teach their growing numbers of Latino first-level supervisors how to boost employee productivity and control costs in the face of tight-fisted retail customers pinching their food-buying dollars.

The article explained how food processors of all types could boost productivity and reduce per-unit costs by training Hispanic supervisors to adapt their traditional authoritarian Latino leadership style to a U.S.-style "best practices" mode of supervision. I also discussed the five key elements needed for effective training of Hispanic supervisors.

On the following pages, you'll find the 5 strategies as well as the results of the training from 23 food processors that used this approach:

Strategy 1. 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 the success in our country. We showed Hispanic supervisors how to adapt their traditional management style to one more acceptable to Latino workers in America.

Typical Hispanic supervision often amounts to ordering people around, no back talk, as well as rewarding favorites and punishing others. The training showed supervisors how to modify this ingrained concept of authority by acting like a "priest" or "respected teacher." Regarded as authorities in traditional Latino cultures, these figures represent responsive "father" figures, guiding subordinates rather than just chastising them. This helped convince the supervisors this approach did not threaten their authority, and they learned 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 I was having with the [machine] on our line. I don't know what happened, but since he started talking to me about the job, I enjoy coming to work a lot more. I even take the OT I used to turn down."

LESSON No 1: The first lesson in training authoritarian-oriented supervisors 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" figures. They learn that guiding employees is not a threat to their authority, but a way to engage them in improving performance and eliminating waste. The benefit of this approach was measured by departmental performance improvement, which climbed an average of 8 percent. Waste declined, as did employee absentee rates.

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Strategy 2. Helping foreign-born supervisors manage their departments rather than simply giving orders to their workers: Most supervisors are reluctant to ask for help. In Latin cultures especially, it's a sign of weakness. The benefits of the training were increased when we showed plant managers how to guide subordinate Latino supervisors on a regular basis. Supervisor-manager meetings presented a strong "role model" to authoritative-style supervisors. If the plant manager can do it without losing face, they could. This guidance reinforced the supervisory 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 amount of waste we were having on the dicers, but he sat me down and he gave me some ideas for getting the guys to try harder to keep [waste] at a minimum. I appreciated it."

"My boss never talked much to me, would just hand me the production schedule. The other day he told me individual meetings are a part of my training. So we sat down and went over the schedules, and he gave me suggestions on how to rotate the jobs and keep employee complaints down. It worked out just like he said."

These meetings resulted in far fewer production delays and waste issues as supervisors learned seeking guidance was not a sign of weakness. Improved manager-supervisor communication trickled down, and supervisors found holding line meetings with their packing crews also ironed out a lot of problems.

LESSON No. 2: Face-to-face communications between the plant management and individual supervisors is a must to reinforce the concepts taught by training.

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Strategy 3. Training needs plant-floor examples -- not generalizations -- for effectiveness: In the past, 10 of the companies used inexpensive training sessions they had downloaded from their trade associations' websites. The poor results showed supervisors could not translate the generalizations of the canned training to the specific problems in their own plants.

Before beginning our training sessions, we spent several days interviewing and observing plant employees. The goal: uncover what workers needed from their supervisors for better performance, and how they perceived the guidance they were currently getting.

It quickly became clear that the typical workers out on the packing lines wanted two things from supervision: First, help in solving on-the-job problems; and second, 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 often short on the trays for the 16-oz. packages. They had told me before, but I thought that was just an excuse. Now I see I should have been checking more often if supplies were OK. It really helped our downtime."

"I found one wrap-around tray packer wasn't working properly, and was a bottleneck slowing up the whole line. I thought the operator was just goofing off. It showed me I've got to pay more attention to complaints."

LESSON No 3: 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 -- like adjusting the speeds of the top case sealers and case erectors or teaching employees how to calibrate the volumetric feeders -- are used in the training, supervisors realize it is no theoretical exercise but a way to help them deal with their problems. Subsequent interviewing provides feedback on how the training improved their results.

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Strategy 4. Using goals to encourage teamwork in a diverse workforce: The Latino supervisor's natural tendency to favoritism based on ethnicity and language was altered by teaching them to focus on goals encouraging teamwork. There was much less concern about language and cultural differences and much more cooperation when supervisors were taught how to reach specific goals. Here's what a supervisor said:

"It was an eye-opener. I have a mixed group, some Spanish and some English. There was always this attitude that I give the Spanish speakers extra consideration since we talked the same language. When we started concentrating on reaching daily goals on maintaining line speeds, people were more willing to stop bickering and help each other, rather than asking for special consideration."

"With daily and weekly goals, we got a lot more teamwork since we were all working to the same thing. Some workers put pressure on others to keep product moving and not fall behind."

Setting specific department goals improved the sense of mutual responsibility among employees. Interestingly enough, being required to reach goals gave workers more of a sense of security than of fear. They knew where they stood. Here's what one worker said:

"Other workers near me didn't pass along any information from the supervisor. They wouldn't tell me how to adjust the in-line mixer, which made my life harder. When we had targets to achieve, though, people stopped fooling around, and we all got down to work. It made quite a difference in how much we put out."

LESSON No. 4: Goal setting focuses supervisors, and subsequently their employees, on quantity and quality and reduces favoritism. The resulting cooperation in 20 of the 23 food processors helped foreign-born supervisors improve their individual departments' productivity substantially.

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Strategy 5. Creating a sense of pride by setting benchmarks to measure supervisory improvement: We measured productivity and quality performance on the lines in each department before the training started, and then several months later. This simple before-and-after comparison showed the Spanish-speaking supervisors the results of their efforts and gave them a sense of pride in their accomplishments, one key result of their training.

In each of the food processors, we reviewed the supervisors' production and reject rates with them before the training began, raising their awareness of their performance. Once they knew senior management was taking performance seriously, they realized they were being held accountable. They took the training to heart and focused on managing their departments to achieve better results. Said some Mexican-American supervisors:

"I never knew from one day to the next just how much waste we were getting at the mixers. Now I know the exact amount on each line as well as the total day's output of good product. I can see right off by the case counters if we have a problem or if we're on the right track with a new idea. It saves a lot of time and material."

"I never knew if my department was doing better over the year or not. Our annual bonus is based on the amount of improvement, but there was nothing on record to go by. Now I know how I'm doing and can prove it. It gives me a tool to motivate my workers with."

LESSON No. 5: Make sure supervisors know their performance is being benchmarked. This becomes the basis for realistic goal-setting. Benchmarking underlies meaningful targets to shoot for, and training gives supervisors the tools to hit them. Having metrics available for supervisors to rate themselves also helped improve productivity in 19 of the 23 food producers.

As retail grocery chains find the low-wage non-union competition from the Walmarts and Coscos of their world becoming a larger threat, they are putting ever greater pressure on their suppliers to hold down prices and pass along the savings – at least some of them – to American consumers. These pricing pressures will continue. For food processors of all types, this means continued pressure to boost employee productivity and cut per-unit costs.

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