Commitment to Communication

Lean improvement principles are rooted in clear, consistent communication

Communication within an organization is rarely supported by key performance indicators (KPIs) or even identified as a best practice. Yet communication frequently drives all that is good (or bad) in operations.

Ongoing, transparent communication is the critical component of many lean principles in particular — pull systems, andon, hoshin kanri/strategy deployment, performance management, respect for people, etc. — and process improvement in general. But where insufficient or inaccurate communication exists, distrust and disenchantment grow among both management and staff — with process disarray likely to follow.

Improving communication in an organization is technically simple, but culturally complex — because it requires individuals to change behaviors:

  • Building trust: Leaders and managers are typically driven to ensure that everything is done — and done right. When it’s not, they frequently assume control, completing tasks personally or by delivering urgent commands to frontline staff. Yet while this firefighting style of management has traditionally helped executives to rise within an organization, it’s not helpful in establishing a culture of continuous improvement.Why? Because leaders and managers need to trust those who work with them to identify problems in their processes, and to develop solutions. This requires not just training for workers, but a new style for managers: asking, not telling; coaching, not commanding; and developing, not directing. These forms of communication not only speak far louder than barked orders, but also build the trust necessary for workers to feel comfortable voicing their opinions — and assuming greater responsibility.
  • Associate engagement: In lean organizations, frontline associates are responsible for improving work as well as doing the work. But before that can occur, they must first care about the work. This begins with basic conversations that ask employees to explain the work they do, how they do it, the frustrations they encounter, and their ideas for fixing troublesome processes or policies.These conversations alone won’t change processes or the organization — but they will change employee perceptions of management, and spur greater interest in their joint work. At the same time, frontline associates must have the opportunity to ask similar questions of management. Once genuine, two-way communication is established, engagement must be supported with enhanced training (for technical and problem-solving skills) and higher levels of empowerment to make changes and improvements.
  • Modeling: Few things communicate as well as a good example (or a bad one). Performance Solutions encourages a systematic approach for improvements in which a model is identified for transformation (a specific plant area, line, or even piece of equipment). The model is selected based on criteria such as urgency, capacity to replicate standards to other areas, and the ability to completely improve the area.
    The objective is to move the model area as close to perfection as possible, which creates a benchmark for other processes in the plant and starts the communication and transfer of knowledge. With the model as proof, everyone can see that every line or piece of equipment can achieve the new standard.
  • Leadership communication: A lean transformation is most visible on the frontlines, with associates making changes to their functions, activities, and work. But long before those actions take place, significant changes occur at the top of the organization. Leaders voice their commitment to creating a lean organization, define a vision for the organization, and set a strategy to get there. Their styles and behaviors (i.e., showing up at improvement events, celebrating successes, engaging with frontline associates) also communicate a willingness to support a long-term, sustainable transformation.

In addition to these lean methods of communication, other tools and techniques are incorporated in how organizations standardize processes (5S shadow boards, job instruction sheets); signal workflows (kanban cards); and track and monitor hourly, daily, and weekly performance (visual management boards). Although you may never find “communication” as a line on a financial statement, you’ll always see its impact (for good or ill) throughout an organization.

Does your organization have a failure to communicate? Performance Solutions by Milliken can help.

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