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The following article appeared in
Journal of Employee Communication Management, May/June 1999
Ragan Communications
, Chicago

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Communications, Meet Operations
In a long and successful career as a communicator specializing in measurement, the author has learned how to use communications to improve operations.  In this essay, she not only exhorts her colleagues to dig deeper into their organizations, she shows them how.

By Angela D. Sinickas, ABC

 

 A few months ago, I spoke with about 15 members of the communications department of a large corporation about the impact of communication research on the bottom line.

As one of my case studies, I described a company where focus group research had uncovered an operational problem where a series of miscommunications about patient documentation between employees in the corporate billing department and employees in about 20 field offices was contributing to a loss in revenue.  After the focus groups, I conducted an information flow analysis on the billing documentation process and identified a number of specific communication blockages.  Correcting the blockages -- including things like faxing, phone calls and a filing system -- led to significant revenue improvement for the company.

When I finished this story, the vice president of corporate communications asked:  "But is that really an issue communicators should be involved in?  Shouldn't it be the responsibility of operational management to improve operational processes?"

The short answer I gave in the meeting was:  "Yes, it is their responsibility. But engineers looking at a problem will find engineering solutions. Financial managers looking at the same problem will find financial solutions.  If communicators don't examine the operational problems as well, no one else is likely to identify the communication problems -- or know how to fix them."

But my answer addressed the question at only the surface level.  This provocative question has been lingering at the back of my mind ever since that meeting.

On one hand, we communicators are in overdrive already just taking care of what everyone agrees is part of corporate communications' role.  Communication staffs are running lean. Just maintaining existing channels of communication and getting important company-level messages out through them takes up more time than we have.  And then we still have to find time to handle crises.  Expanding the definition of communication for which we are responsible seems to make no sense at all -- at least at first glance.

On the other hand, we often bemoan that management doesn't understand the importance and value of what we do. Some executives see the traditional communication work we do as marginal to what the company does, not integral to it. 

I believe we communicators usually walk away from involvement in the kind of operational communication work where our expertise could make a real contribution to our organizations' success. By the nature of our jobs, we probably have a more comprehensive understanding of how the different parts of our organizations fit together than almost anyone else.

Another reason we should pay more attention to operational communication is that measuring it is often easier than measuring other types of communication. That's because operational management is generally already tracking the outcomes we work to influence through enhanced communication. And, finally, making a measurable difference in communication at the operational level can gain us great credibility with operational and senior management.  That enhanced perception of our value can then be leveraged to gain greater resources for all the communication work that needs to be done.

Communicators are already taking charge of some non-traditional communication problems

Let's take a look at a number of non-traditional organizational communication issues where the involvement of a communicator has made a difference, even though that type of communication was probably not in his or her original job description.

Memo overload: Receiving too many memos, whether on paper or through e-mail, is a common problem mentioned in many organizations during focus groups and interviews. One company's solution was to introduce a weekly news bulletin of brief items delivered electronically to each branch.  A few weeks after this new channel was established, the company president declared "Memo Mania Month."

Those who received inappropriate memos or e-mails were asked to return them to the sender with a "Thanks, but no thanks" written at the top along with their own names.  The returned memos were collected during the month by each department at corporate headquarters. At the end of the month, the department with the greatest weight of returned paper won the booby prize: an acre of trees were planted in a national forest in their name. 

Memo Mania was highly effective. The number of inappropriate memos dropped noticeably from the very beginning.  Those who had information to share started calling the weekly news bulletin's editor. Three years later in follow-up focus groups no one mentioned any problem with too many memos or e-mails.

A rapidly growing number of communicators have taken on responsibility for becoming, in effect, e-mail editors.  Their organizations have limited the number of individuals who can send an e-mail or memo to all employees.  Depending on the volume of information, these e-mail editors send out daily or weekly e-mail bulletins with easily scannable headlines and crisply written summaries.  Anyone who needs more information is either directed to additional sources or provided with a hyperlink to get there. Not only is everyone better informed, but they're using less work time to do so.

Voicemail run-around: Shortly after voicemail was introduced at one company's headquarters, I heard during focus groups in the field that no one could reach people at corporate any more. Because this company was highly centralized in its decision-making, this led to lost business when field sales personnel couldn't get timely approval from corporate on pricing large contracts. Of course, employees at corporate said they loved voicemail because they could turn it on and get a lot more work done in large blocks of time.

When the company president heard from a major customer that she couldn't get through to the person she needed to talk to, the company's communicator was assigned the task of fixing the company's approach to voicemail. The first step, to focus everyone's attention on the problem, was to shut voicemail down for a month and retrain everyone in how to use it -- not how to push different buttons, but how to use it as an effective communication tool. Some of the changes included:

  • Having everyone change their greetings daily to let callers know if they were in the office that day.
  • Not allowing calls to automatically roll over to an assistant's voicemail. If a caller pressed the button to talk to a person's assistant, that phone would ring until it was picked up by the assistant. All assistants were trained in how to electronically "pick" up calls from each other's phones within three rings.
  • Learning how to leave messages on voicemail with enough information so that the receiver could research the answer and reply to the caller or the caller's voicemail.

At another company -- a telecommunications company, no less -- the problem with voicemail was that messages were frequently sent to high-level managers for them to share with their staffs. In employee research, we discovered that by the time many employees received the voicemail, the meat of the message was preceded by as many as five or six levels of management providing an interpretive introduction to the voicemail they were forwarding. As a result, most employees deleted the messages without waiting long enough to find out what they were all about.  Worse yet, many employees received the same message more than once from different managers they worked with. This problem was corrected by sending out the messages to a much broader audience directly. Any managers who wanted to comment on the message could send out a separate voicemail to their own staffs with their own interpretation.

Mismanaged meetings: Results from my clients' communication surveys show about 90% of employees who have access to regular staff meetings say the meetings provide information they either need or want to do their jobs. Yet, in focus groups and executive interviews we hear a litany of complaints about badly run meetings. Rarely, however, do communicators try to do something about this problem.

One solution is to provide a self-assessment tool that can be used by meeting participants at the end of each meeting to discuss what went well and what they'd like to work on during the next meeting.  Another client of mine developed a large poster with 10 guidelines to follow for effective meetings and posted it where it could do the most good -- in every conference room throughout the company.

Lost information from shift to shift: Focus groups conducted in manufacturing and distribution facilities often highlight shift-to-shift information transfer as a major communication problem. Often there is no overlap time between shifts. Even when there is time, many supervisors don't use it to communicate with each other information that might be helpful for the following shift.

Employees provide example after example of costly operational problems that result from the lack of the information transfer.  A machine that is not performing correctly, an order that has been changed, new priorities for delivery are all examples that can lead to a slowdown in production, diminished quality, need for rework, a line being shut down unexpectedly for repairs, etc.

Solutions developed at different companies, with different levels of technologic support available, include:

  • Identifying a supervisor on each shift who has the additional responsibility of being the information conduit between his or own shift and the preceding and following ones.  This person gathers input from the other supervisors about information that could affect upcoming shifts and passes that along to the next shift, either to the next shift's information supervisor or to a quick meeting of all the shift's supervisors.  This person also is the main information liaison with other groups that can affect the shift's work. This can be either a rotating or fixed assignment.
  • Having a clipboard attached to each piece of equipment on which a log is kept of how the machinery is performing.
  • Having a desktop computer in the supervisors' area on which each supervisor enters information about the shift for other supervisors to skim through when beginning a shift.

No time to communicate at call centers: One of the fastest growing groups of information "have-nots" today is call center employees.  Their production quotas are set so high that their supervisors don't have time to conduct staff meetings.  They don't allow their employees to attend all-employee meetings, health fairs, recognition/reward events or holiday parties or allow them to view the president's state-of-the-company video. They have to ask each other for answers to questions they get from customers because supervisors aren't available. 

And, because these call center employees lack up-to-date information, they make mistakes, give out inaccurate information to customers, have to handle second and third call-backs from people whose problems haven't been resolved, and keep customers on hold while they try to research information that they could have been prepped on through more access to information channels -- and the time to use them. 

Some solutions being implemented by communicators working with call center managers:

  • Giving every employee an extra 15-minute communication break each day to be taken at their desks during slower periods when the call queues are small. During that time, they're expected to read e-mail, newsletters, customer brochures, policy change memos and electronic bulletin boards; listen to voicemail and recorded news broadcasts; view "silent radio" screens or TV monitors with information they need; and become familiar with the changing information on the intranet.
  • Rewarding call center employees who have the best performance by selecting them to attend company informational events and having them accompany sales people on calls to customers.
  • Displaying samples of your own and competitors' products, along with customer marketing materials, in the call center.  

However, few communicators are trying to solve these other common communication breakdowns

Here is a list of other typical operational communication breakdowns that I've learned about during interviews, focus groups and surveys at a number of companies. You may find some of them at your own organization. Yet it is a rare communicator who takes on responsibility for finding solutions to these communication problems:

Sales/customer service interface:  Sales people complain that the service personnel talking to their customers provide incorrect information. Service personnel complain that sales people promise things that can't be delivered and don't understand the processes involved in servicing customers. Neither understands what the other does or how best to work together for the common good.

No feedback loop between marketing and operations:  Many companies spend a great deal of money researching customer satisfaction through focus groups and surveys. Yet they rarely share this information with the employees who could improve customer perceptions through their own actions -- if they knew what customers like and don't like about the way they do business. The reason given for the disconnect is that by informing employees of the problems causing customer dissatisfaction, the competition may gain access to the information and use it against them. In the meantime, employees complacently keep doing the same things the same way -- and keep losing more customers to the competition.

Other interdepartmental interfaces:  Horizontal communication across departments or locations regularly receives low scores on surveys, yet the solutions to improve those scores vary so much by organization and by the type of communication needed between various pairs of departments. Departments deliver information to others in the service or production process not knowing exactly how it will be used, when it is needed or why it is necessary.  Some examples from three clients' focus groups:

  • Employees in one company complained that departments regularly send out memos that are countermanded by another department and then changed again by the president. Employees asked in the focus groups, "Don't they ever talk to each other at corporate?"  Based on the executive interview findings, they don't.
  • At another company, annual goal setting is developed vertically within departments without cross-departmental communication. Yet, departments set performance targets that depend on inputs from other departments. At the end of the year, targets aren't met because departments didn't include in their own goals providing what other departments needed from them to get their own work done.
  • In a county public works agency, employees describe how they often have road crews resurface streets just weeks before another department rips up the same streets to work on the sewers. The different departments have no way of accessing each other's schedules.

Interoffice mail snafus:  At two organizations I've worked with, interoffice mail takes four to five days to travel between two offices in the same building. Surveys arrive at employees' workstations after the deadline has passed. Employees in production and garage facilities often don't have individual mailboxes. I've heard of mail taking weeks to catch up with employees transferred to new positions. Few organizations have a single function responsible for updating distribution lists; each department tries to keep their own lists updated, wasting time and leading to many missed communications.

Changing corporate priorities aren't sorted out at the field level:  At the corporate level, we issue information out to the field about each new initiative. Yet we rarely try to integrate all the initiatives or help prioritize them for the plant managers or branch general managers who have to translate corporate ideas into operational realities. For example:

  • The word comes down from corporate that productivity needs to be improved. In a rush to increase the quantity of goods manufactured, people don't pay enough attention to the paperwork, and the products get shipped to the wrong customers. Employees don't take the time to maintain their equipment, and product quality plummets, resulting in returned orders and rework. All of this, of course, reduces overall productivity.
  • A newspaper company significantly increases the amount of color in its pages. Production employees do everything they can to still get the newspaper off to the circulation drivers on time, even though color registration is completely off in many of the ads -- resulting in refunds to the advertisers.

So what's an overworked communicator to do, save the entire world?

Well, maybe not, but we can do a lot more than we are now to save our own companies.

Before I go any further, let me say that 13 of my 24 years as a professional communicator were in corporations and civil service. I know what pressures face an organizational communicator. And still, I firmly believe that we absolutely must get involved in operational communication improvement. And I believe that getting involved more operationally will make our jobs better.

Where to begin?

Start with interviews and focus groups to identify the operational processes with potential bottom-line impact that seem to have communication gaps. You may already have many examples waiting to be rediscovered in previous focus group reports. We have often ignored communication issues identified in past research because they didn't relate directly to our job responsibilities -- issues that couldn't be addressed through a mass communication campaign using the channels of communication under our direct control. 

Second, identify the potential financial impact of the current miscommunication.  Improving operational communication can easily be tracked against improvements in operational success measures that are already being tracked by others in our organizations:  sales, quality, safety, productivity, turnover, etc. For any process in our organization that seems to have a communication breakdown, we can fairly quickly find out from our operational management:

1. What negative operational outcome occurs when this communication doesn't work well?

2. How much does it cost us in increased expense or lost revenue each time it happens?

3. How often does it happen?

4. Multiplying #2 times #3, what does this cost our organization during the course of a year?

Third, get buy-in from appropriate senior leadership to conduct more detailed research by observing the selected operational processes up close and talking to the employees who do them while they are at their normal work locations.

Fourth, talk with the middle managers and supervisors responsible for the operational process. Test your potential solutions with them. Involve them in the problem solving for at least two reasons.  They are likely to know which of your ideas have any hope of practical implementation, and they will be less resistant to making the changes if they are perceived by senior management as part of the solution, not just the problem. 

Fifth, present your findings and recommendations to senior management.

Finally, when your solution is implemented, track the improved operational outcomes. 

Communicators who are skilled at organizational politics should be able to build a fairly tight business case showing how increased staffing for the corporate communication department could save/make the organization a great deal of money. I can guarantee that nearly any significant operational process with a communication problem at a medium- to large-size organization has an annual potential revenue/cost impact many times greater than the annual salary-plus-benefits cost of a mid-level communication professional.

Once you've worked up the numbers above, it should be a fairly easy "sell" to senior management that investing in additional communication staff, dedicated to operational communication, would provide a very high -- and measurable -- return on investment.  You could compare the financial improvement over time or you could implement the communication solutions only at some locations and compare the operational outcome improvements at locations with and without the communication solutions implemented.

The personal pay-off for jumping into operational communication can be increased credibility and greater respect from our management colleagues.

In my last corporate position, I was vice president of communication for a holding company with four operating companies.  When I was first hired, the CFO flat-out told me he was against the creation of the new position. He anticipated higher costs without any upside.

Fortunately, the president intuitively knew that better communication could make his company run better -- and he didn't have a traditional definition of my role. He sent me on a number of assignments that led to operational communication improvements, which resulted in reduced overtime, lower cost of goods and fewer days' sales outstanding. I then hired some communicators at our operating companies and trained them to have a similar perspective of their job definitions.

My personal pay-off came when the CFO who had openly questioned the value of communication jobs came into my office to say he'd completely changed his mind. He had spent six months as interim president of one of our operating companies and saw first-hand the difference that his local communicator made in successfully implementing nearly every initiative he undertook. 

That's what makes this job we do worthwhile. And operational communication can make more of a difference, more quickly, than a lot of the other things we do.


© 1999 Angela D. Sinickas, All rights reserved

Angela Sinickas, ABC, is president of Sinickas Communications, Inc., a communication consultancy specializing in helping corporations achieve business results through targeted diagnostics and practical solutions. You can visit her new website, CommToolbox.com, to see the automated planning, measurement, and benchmarking tools she has developed based on her manual, How to Measure Your Communication Programs.

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