Don’t Underestimate the Value of Tactical Manufacturing Leadership – Part 2

Don’t Underestimate the Value of Tactical Manufacturing Leadership – Part 2

In part 1 of our 3-part series on tactical manufacturing leadership, we discussed the characteristics of strategic versus tactical leadership. In part 2, we explore tactical leadership in manufacturing organizations. 

Tactical leadership in manufacturing can look very different depending upon the leader’s area of responsibility.  I wanted to share the experience of an operational leader who had been recently promoted to an Area Operation’s Manager role after completing the leadership development program that was offered at our company. 

“Mike” was personable, approachable, dynamic and energetic.  In our conversations, I could see that he understood clearly the concepts of leadership as taught in the program.  He embraced the opportunity to lead others. The assessment that he had received at the end of the leadership development program rated him as a high-potential employee with a long runway for future growth within the organization.  He had completed his college degree in business.  He had a vision that he shared with me for the leader that he wanted to be.  Mike settled into his new role.

Manufacturing teams have targets or goals.  All manufacturing organizations summarize their performance at least annually while many evaluate performance on quarterly or even monthly periods.  In Mike’s case, our organization reviewed performance daily. Safety, quality, productivity, cost and throughput were evaluated on the manufacturing floor each morning with the area leader. 

Mike was aware of the intensity around the metrics at our organization.  But he hadn’t yet had the long-term responsibility of “making the numbers” every day.  If he hit all his targets that day, the conversations were short and tolerable.  If he missed a key performance target that day, the conversations were long and uncomfortable.  The pressure was intense and constant.  At times, it could feel personal.  Mike’s area was under-performing and he was challenged with working to turn around results.

It wasn’t long before Mike was in my office.  He was very concerned about the current state of his career path.  I noticed that his normally energetic personality was subdued.  He seemed a bit confused and had lost some of the confidence he had coming into the role.  I was surprised to see how quickly his outlook had changed considering he came to us as a highly recommended leader.  I asked Mike to tell me about his experience so far.

What he told me could happen to any leader who has just been promoted, who has changed industries or transferred to a different manufacturing location within the same company.  He said that he felt like he was a strong leader.  He had a leadership strategy which he developed from his training in the leadership development program.  He was a good communicator and listened to his employees.  He had presented the goals to the team and discussed his vision for the department.  He encouraged input and asked for participation when challenges arose.  He was well-liked, and his team wanted him to succeed. Although he had seen an incremental improvement in his team’s performance, they were still struggling to hit their targets.  He didn’t understand why his team couldn’t hit their targets.  He hadn’t experienced this struggle before. The difficult morning conversations were weighing on him. He felt as if he went from a high-potential employee to one now worried about keeping his job.  He was shaken but thankfully he wanted direction.  He was looking for help. 

You can probably guess why Mike was struggling to reconcile his high effort with a poor outcome.  He was a high-performing strategic leader who had not had enough exposure to the tactical or technical requirements of his responsibilities.  He could motivate others, communicate targets, inspire his team to work hard and build solid employee and peer relationships.  Yet, he did not fully understand in enough detail what “levers to pull” from a manufacturing perspective to achieve the goals for his team. 

Don’t underestimate the value of tactical manufacturing leadership!

A quick internet search for tactical leadership will send a researcher in many directions. One search result that pops up often for tactical leadership is the military. Tactical leaders are obviously found in the military where they spend most of their careers understanding and executing complex maneuvers based on situational history and predicted results.  For the purposes of our discussion for this blog series, we define tactical manufacturing leadership in a similar manner.  The stakes aren’t quite as high in manufacturing as in the military where lives can be lost but proper understanding and execution of tactical manufacturing leadership could be the difference between career success or a career change. 

Five key tactical manufacturing leadership concepts:

  1. Understand the financial “big picture”.  What are the overall organizational targets?  How do the targets for your scope of responsibility roll up to the overall?  What are the minimum requirements for your performance indicators?  Is it possible to miss your target but not miss so badly that the entire organization struggles to overcome it? Or conversely, does the business need you to overachieve to your target to help another struggling department?
  2. Breakdown your performance metrics.  For example, in most manufacturing groups, productivity is a labor metric.  Too much labor or not enough labor applied to an outcome such as throughput, earned hours, revenue dollars, etc. will affect your cost outcome.  You must understand the cause and effect model for each of your metrics.  Why are you getting this result?  You can’t fix what you don’t understand.  Only then can you directly intervene when a metric is trending in the wrong direction.   
  3. Research historical trends.  What was the situation the last time throughput or quality was at historically high levels?  Can you replicate the contributing factors and keep other measurements at an acceptable level?  Is the current state comparable to history?  Have material costs increased?  Has the hiring environment changed significantly?  Are quality requirements different?  Don’t forget to ask questions of experienced employees?  What did they see?  Are the targets realistic and achievable? 
  4. Determine through data if external help is required.  Is the target unreachable simply because of the current state of processing?  Do you need to automate a process that is currently manual?  Do you require capital for equipment upgrades?  Can you modify your current process to hit your metric and still produce to customer requirements?  Please note that most executives will want to know that your team has investigated all options to achieve the outcome prior to requesting high dollar changes. 
  5. Communicate using tactical language.  When presenting performance data, understand your variances to target.  Outline your improvement actions, the owner of those actions and the expected date to be back on target.  Daily conversations with executives are less painful when you demonstrate you understand your data and you have a solid recovery action plan with a date to return to target.

I chose to highlight the above five points because they represent a general overview of the tactical manufacturing leadership concept.  Tactical leadership can mean many things to leaders depending on your industry, your business financial model or the requirements of your role within the organization. 

Mike’s journey was not unusual.  Many leadership development programs focus on teaching “soft skills” to high potential candidates who wish to reach an organization’s executive ranks.  As I stated in Part 1 of this 3-part series, leadership qualities that demonstrate compassion and vision which inspire and motivate others to perform at their best must be part of a successful leader’s portfolio of skills.  But strategic leadership without competency in tactical leadership can frustrate even the most high-potential employee and stall their journey before it has even begun.

In Part 3 of our 3-part series, I will let you know what happened to Mike.  He and I both learned some valuable lessons from this experience.  We will also discuss how aspiring leaders can work with their organizations to gain both strategic and tactical manufacturing leadership training that will improve their chances for leadership success.

At KM Shinn Consulting, we want you to understand that we have seen it all.  Achieving success in manufacturing can be a daily challenge.  We invite you to go to our website at or email us at  We’d love to discuss your issues and concerns. 

Copyright © 2019 KM Shinn Consulting. All Rights Reserved.
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