This post is by Dr. Donald Kennedy
I have a tendency to make short phone calls to get answers. But lately, I have been moving more and more towards email and other forms that leave a trail of the conversation. As I write this, much of the time spent in meetings revolves around supply chain issues of 2022, so my examples are also on supply chain this time.
With the high turnover of employees that most organizations now face, there is also a higher amount of time required to get a cultural understanding of the words used in that setting. As an example, in one meeting I once asked a purchaser for the status of our parts orders for one of my $100 million projects. The answer was that “everything was procured.” We had everyone in a room together and we all heard the same words. It is common to blame “communication” as a flogging boy for suboptimal processes. This seemed like a case where we had maximum communication. Many of us left the meeting feeling confident that we would not have any major materials issues. A few months later, we were getting our first reports of parts not being available. I went back to the person who provided the status and I learned that while I heard “we have everything we need,” the person saying the words meant “I have issued purchase orders for everything we need.”
In another organization, the leadership team decided that to get out of a current backlog of unfilled orders, a step forward would be to drop any “just in time” delivery policy the company had and switch to a “get everything done we can do as soon as we can do it.” This meant that some work in progress could sit for a year, but it would minimize shortages we were facing due to supply chain upsets. The costs and inefficiencies involved with over producing one component and the carrying costs paled in comparison to the costs of not getting product out the door in our current situation. A few days later, I was speaking with a coworker and the topic came up. I was surprised to hear that they were producing items to meet the forecast demand. That person heard “get everything done we can do as soon as we can do it – of course recognizing the inefficiencies and carrying costs of over producing too much too soon.” We had to reconvene a leadership team meeting to discuss again the exact same issue. It was clear to me that almost everyone left the original meeting with the understanding that what was actually said should be followed with “of course, do not take that literally.” And I recognize that there will be times that following rules literally will produce undesired results.
Because management is easy except for the part dealing with people, there is no simple solution to the issues I highlighted above. There are tools that help, such as paraphrasing what you heard back to the person who said something or “teach back” method. Learning these tools can help.
One of the first steps is to be vigilant to the concept that simple words can mean different things to different people. As another example, I had a hard time when I started at one company when people were discussing how to get items in and out of a warehouse. I thought the issue was resolved by having a big storage tent at the production site to store all the components. I eventually realized that to everyone else a “warehouse” was a field in their ERP system and none of the issues involved anyone actually touching a physical item. So be vigilant and do not assume that just because someone heard the same thing you heard that you both left with the same message.
About the author
Dr. Donald Kennedy CPEM, FASEM is a regular contributor to the Practice Periodical. He amazed many readers of the last issue by staying at one employer in three consecutive calendar years (22 months total). He is currently back working where his career started in shop floor fabrication at a multinational equipment supplier.