Leaders Guide: Building Better Foremen through Questions


The best foremen plan work, anticipate problems and address issues before they escalate. But inexperienced foremen are usually reactive. How can we develop our young leaders and teach them to think ahead? At Humanus Solutions, we believe the best way to develop leaders is to teach them habits – ways of thinking and acting – that produce results.

One of the best habits a frontline leader can learn is asking themselves a few, key questions throughout the day: What’s the plan for my crew? What do I need to do to set them up for success? What will we do if the plan falls through? If we can get inexperienced leaders in the habit of asking these questions, they will become better leaders rapidly.

Author James Clear says there are “three R’s to habit change”: reminder (the trigger that initiates the behavior), routine (the behavior itself; the action you take), reward (the benefit you gain from doing the behavior). 

We believe that creating habits in groups requires “three E’s of change”: engagement (involving people in making the plan), expectations (making sure the bosses will hold people to account), example (making sure the bosses walk-the-talk) and encouragement (making sure the bosses praise good performance).

Five steps to getting your foremen to ask good questions every day.

Step 1: Engage the bosses. Tell your superintendents and general foremen what you’re up to. Ask them:

  • How are we doing developing our young foremen? Are you satisfied with their progress?
  • If we could teach foremen to ask themselves a few questions every day, what would you want them to think about?
  • Would this be useful to you? Can I count on your support rolling this out?

Step 2: Engage the foremen. Set aside thirty to forty-five minutes at your next foremen’s meeting. (Have flip charts and markers available.) Start by explaining the idea: 

The best field leaders are always thinking ahead, planning work and removing obstacles before they stop work. That skill takes a while to master, but each of us can get in the habit of asking ourselves a few questions to help think ahead, plan and see problems sooner.

Ask: Think about the best foremen you know…

  • What questions do they ask themselves at the start of each day?
  • What questions do they ask themselves during the day?
  • What questions do they ask themselves at the end of the day?

(The goal is to have the foremen own this, so resist the temptation to help them out too much! Draw out their ideas by saying, “Interesting… tell me more… what else… what do the rest of you say?”)

Ask: Let’s pick two or three from each list (start, middle, end of shift)…

  • Which question would have the biggest payoff if we each asked it every day?

Ask: Let’s get specific: when should we ask ourselves these questions? 

  • What’s something we each do in the morning that can be our trigger to ask these questions? 
  • What’s the right time in the middle of the shift? What’s our trigger?
  • What about the end of the day? When’s the right time… what’s the trigger?

(Again, the goal is to have the foremen own the plan, so let them choose the triggers! Your job is to make sure they are specific moments that occur each day.)

Ask: what do you think? 

  • Can we all commit to trying this for one week?
  • The other bosses and I will be following up with each of you… can we count on you to do it? 

Step 3: Run a one-week experiment.After the meeting ends, write down the questions and the triggers and send them out to all team members. Send via email, text message, paper copies… make it impossible for people to say, “Oh, I didn’t know… no one explained it to me.”

Follow-up by talking to foremen each and every day. Get the superintendents and general foremen to follow-up. Make it a point to ask foremen about it relentlessly for a week or so:

  • How’s it going with the “question exercise” we talked about? Are you doing it?
  • If not: Why? What’s getting in the way? How can I help? Let’s do it together, right now!
  • If yes: Fantastic! Thank you! How has this been useful to you? Can you help get others onboard?

Step 4: Re-engage the foremen. Debrief the experiment at your next foremen’s meeting.

Ask: How did it go?

  • What did you find useful about this exercise?
  • Are these the right questions? How can we make them better?
  • Are these the right triggers? How can we make them better?
  • What can the bosses do to help you continue to do this every day?
  • Can we count on you to do this every day next week too?

(Focus on building support for the idea. Instead of asking, “Did it work?” ask, “Tell me why this was helpful.” Instead of asking, “What didn’t go well?” ask, “How can we make this go better?”)

Step 5: Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up. At this point, the success or failure of this venture hinges on one thing: you! So long as you make a point to ask about this every day… to talk about this every time you see a foremen, GF or superintendent… to praise people every time you see them planning, thinking ahead and solving problems in advance… this will stick.

Pro-tips:

  • Do the foremen in your organization use daily logs or notebooks? Consider custom-printing notebooks with these questions and triggers printed on the back cover!
  • Do your foremen have cell phones? Consider using an SMS messaging service to send automated reminder messages during the day?
  • This works for leaders at all levels in all roles! What are the questions you want Project Engineers to ask themselves each and every day? What about the HR or Purchasing departments? Could this approach work for them too?

How can we help?

Humanus Solutions develops leaders, teams and routines that engage people and create breakthroughs. We provide development programs for front-line, mid-level and senior leaders, as well as executive coaching and leadership team facilitation. 

Give us a call and let’s discuss how you can develop the leaders your organization needs. Contact Andy Erickson on (206) 218-7962 or at aerickson@humanus-solutions.com

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