Interested in having an improved business operation this year? Start with your communication!
I have read many books that in my opinion overemphasize the need for communication – now before you stop reading this article right here, please allow me the opportunity to explain. I do believe that communication is crucial to the success of Continuous Improvement (CI), but as much as your success depends on it, so does your failure.
Four tips for communication success:
1) Communication must be multi directional.
There must be ways for information to flow upwards, downwards and sideways. There must also be more than one way for this to happen, because people have different preferences – cater for the more creative communicators, the more conservative communicators, those that want to remain anonymous and those that want recognition for their idea. Incorporate fun, entertaining, eye catching ways that entice people and make them want to communicate with you. Make sure that anyone can participate and contribute - this means that not only do you need to take individual preferences into account, but also language proficiency. Cater for more than one language and cater for people who cannot read and / or write. You may think that in this day and age encountering that is unlikely, but we are constantly amazed at how well people have been able to hide such a thing from their team members. Be sensitive to these types of issues and ensure that the manner in which you accommodate them does not put the individual in question on the spot. Change your communication methods often enough so that the novelty does not wear off and so that it continues working.
2) Information must be able to flow quickly and be conveyed accurately.
Not like when we played that telephone game as children whereby the end message that got whispered by 20th child in the row is hilariously different from what the first child in line had in fact said. This is a very real danger! Also ensure that there is a way to provide feedback speedily – not three months down the line only. You should target providing feedback at least on a weekly basis. This may be a tough discipline to get into at first, but it is achievable and worthwhile. Very few things in life make a person more despondent than being ignored. You want to leverage on an individual’s excitement and build on that fire that was ignited in them that day when they wrote you that email or submitted that idea, not months later when all that energy has already dissipated and they regret ever having raised that idea in the first place. Worse yet is never going back to them at all. Save yourself from this CI killer by empowering your employees.
3) Communication must be transparent.
This means that no topic is off limits and when you provide feedback a one word answer will not suffice. Explain your thinking and reasoning so that people will understand and in future can employ that same reasoning themselves. They have to understand all the factors you considered when you made the end decision - this way you are truly empowering them. Understanding breeds tolerance. When people understand how complex a decision is, they are more likely to be understanding and forgiving when you get it wrong. Explaining something in detail today, may save you a lot of time having to think for other people in future, when they could instead be thinking for themselves and in a manner that is relevant to the matter at hand.
4) What you do must be sustainable.
Don’t kid yourself; a suggestion box with no pieces of paper and no pens with it, that no one is checking anymore, is not a suggestion box anymore. If the leaders in the business are not taking their own communication mechanisms seriously enough to sustain it, why on earth are they then surprised when other team members follow their example and also do not take it seriously? Make sure that people know where they can find what information. It is very annoying to have searched high and low for information that is supposedly readily available in a place that no one has just ever bothered to tell you about. This in itself could contribute to answering a number of questions before they even have to get asked.
The risk of over communicating:
These four points all support the notion that communication is key to the success of CI, but then why did I say that it can also cause your demise? If you over communicate you may create too many restrictions and convey too many fixed ideas around the topic of CI instead of allowing sufficient room for people’s creativity, magic to be generated, experienced and enjoyed! It is a difficult balance to keep – not communicating too little and not communicating too much and there is unfortunately no perfect recipe for this. If you can get the communication mechanisms throughout your business working effectively your people will guide you very clearly on where you need to communicate more – you just have to listen and react. Let me illustrate with an example:
Let’s say you walk into the canteen today and there is a piece of unprinted newspaper thrown over each table with a crayon lying on it. You may wonder what on earth is up with this and just go about your normal daily routine. Tomorrow when you get into the canteen there is a different question written on each of the unprinted newspapers. Where you usually sit down for lunch it reads “What can I do today to show you that I care about you?” The question makes you think and at some point during your lunch you scribble a note back “Buy me flowers”. The next day when you got to your table you see other notes have been added such as “Say thank you”, “Give me a raise”, “Give me a hug”, “Let’s party” and “Ask me about my family”. It makes you think about who may have written down these things and as you go through the rest of your day, you are more aware of asking your fellow team members about how their families are doing and actually saying thank you for the work that they do. A few days later when you come into the canteen there are vases with flowers on each of the tables and a new notice has been put up at the entrance to the canteen that says “Thank You for YOUR contribution, we value YOU!” - WOW!
In this version of the story, you had no idea who had written down the questions or the answers or who had organized you the flowers. You have been spreading feel good stuff like caring questions and thank you’s all throughout the business and probably so has a number of other people. You feel good and many others feel good. It almost feels magical… It may even lead you to consider writing down that idea you have been playing with, that one you have always been too afraid to voice out loud for fear of ridicule, but that you really think could actually work. What if that then also came to life? Now compare that to the alternative; everyone being called together in a group to be informed that as from tomorrow there will be unprinted newspapers and crayons on the tables in the canteen. The questions will be written on by management and we ask you to please write back to us. We will read your answers every day and then try to see which of those ideas we can implement. It just doesn’t feel the same, does it? And immediately you are excused from addressing any of the answers you may read on those papers – no need for you to walk around thanking other employees, thank you very much, management will see which ideas they want to implement and which not. That is how you kill CI with over communication.
Naturally you may wonder now, so what if they come and ask me, “What are the unprinted newspapers all about?” Well then ask them, “What unprinted newspapers?” “What do you think it’s all about?” “Have you tried writing something on the paper and seeing what happens?” Let your questions guide them to thinking - do not just think for them.
Watch your words:
Before we step off from the topic of communication, there is one additional very important thing to mention here – watch your words! Your words are more significant than you can imagine. Keep your words positive, watch your words when you address or talk about issues and ensure that when you talk about the people in your business you use the words “team members” instead of “resources”, “staff” or “subordinates”. Team members imply equality and respect whereas the other words can be interpreted as down talk. And just as important as choosing the right words is ensuring that your words and actions are aligned.
Su-Mari Du Bruyn is co-founder of the company Adapt To Change. She is a qualified HR practitioner and logistics specialist, passionate about Continuous Improvement and people development.