Continuous Improvement -- Talking The Walk

Dec. 21, 2004
Communication lays the foundation for "passionate" change.

Everyone says communication is important. Everyone says you can never communicate too much. When asked, every manager will say he or she could be doing a better job, talking to more people more frequently. But why? Why is communication so important? It comes as no surprise that Joe Hinrichs, director of manufacturing, vehicle operations, Ford Motor Co., stresses the importance of communication when asked where he begins when making organizational changes. Hinrichs is responsible for manufacturing, quality and product launch at six of Ford's truck and sport utility vehicle assembly plants. He also champions the company's North American productivity-improvement efforts. "The foundation for willing change and passionate change is trust," Hinrichs explains. "What's the foundation for trust? That's a relationship. If I've never met you before, how can I trust you? If we've never spoken before, how can I trust you?" Communication leads to trust, which allows organizational changes to happen more easily. Hinrichs notes that communication is not just talking, as people higher on the organization chart tend to do, but listening as well. "A lot of leaders in a lot of organizations have very little interaction with the workforce," he observes. "They have very little understanding and communication with the workforce on a real level. You can have superficial communication -- sending a letter or an e-mail out -- but that's not two-way." If leaders create a culture where this interaction is in fact two-way, interaction that builds a foundation of trust, it sets the stage for the people themselves to bring forward the ideas needed to move the organization forward. What this means for plant managers on a day-to-day level is a lot of meetings, walking the floor, talking to teams, talking to union leaders, salaried people and supervisors. It also means responding to e-mails and phone calls promptly and in such a manner that it doesn't squash people's desire to talk to you. No trivial feat in a world where everyone's clamoring for a few minutes of your time. Hinrichs himself says he has frequent skip-level meetings -- one-on-one conversations with the people who report to the people who report to him -- and open forums where the discussion is open, free flowing and supportive. By setting such an example he establishes the norms and expectations for his leadership team. He evaluates his direct reports on how frequently they have similar meetings, their allocation of time to the floor, and their frequency of meetings with union leaders. He looks for a "cadence" of communication. "What we spend time on is what people respond to as being important to us. If we allocate portions of our time to these things, people begin to understand that this is important, and they'll fall in line," says Hinrichs. Of course communication often takes a back seat and organizational changes are frequently mandated based on authority. The because-I-said-this-is-how-it's-going-to-be approach to management. While such a style can work in the short term on a superficial level, such changes quickly revert to the old ways when a leader moves on to the next assignment. By contrast, cultural changes spurred by communication, relationships and trust are more likely to endure. "If you're able to involve people enough to make change happen quickly, and they're the ones involved in it who actually did most of the work, you're more comfortable leaving because you know it's going to sustain itself," notes Hinrichs, who has held three leadership positions in his three-and-a-half years at Ford. "But on the other hand, the emotional attachment and the joy that comes from bringing about that positive change, that's difficult to leave behind." David Drickhamer is IndustryWeek's Editorial Research Director. He also coordinates the IW Best Plants award program.

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