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Information Overload

Making ‘Less Is More’ Your Communication Mantra

March 3, 2021
People have a highly limited capacity to handle data—so why would you ask them to process more and more?

Over our 30 years of experience in industry, we consistently hear a clear, collective cry from leaders: Communication within their company is poor, and it’s hurting the business.

The engineering team persistently fails to provide timely notifications of design changes to the shop floor. Then, to add insult to injury, the shop floor fails to inform the sales team of late deliverables. And then, where the rubber meets the road, customers are left high and dry, with some eventually taking their business elsewhere.

Many companies attempt to address such communication issues with training, meetings and memos. The thinking goes: “This will step up the flow of information and stop critical balls from dropping.” Yet, best intentions aside, the problems persist. Why? Because leaders, many of them wrongheadedly, presume that more is more.

There’s an unshakable belief in business that increasing the flow of information can only lead to good things. But as the saying goes: “There’s the rub.” You see, people have a highly limited capacity to handle data. That’s why you hear advertising pros say that you only have eight seconds to get someone’s attention.

So if people tune in and out that quickly, why would any company ask them to process more and more data? Suffice it to say, it doesn’t bode well.

There is, however, light at the end of the tunnel. While you effectively can’t change human nature, you can, with one time-honored principle, decrease information flow—and increase communication.

The Pareto Principle

If you’ve studied business or economics, you may be familiar with the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. Named after Italian economist and philosopher Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923), the principle, in simple terms, specifies that 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes, thereby asserting an unequal relationship, or imbalance, between inputs and outputs.

Applying the Pareto principle to information, then, consider that 80% of acceptable outcomes depends on only 20% of the data. In other words, by singling out only the critically important details —i.e., those certain to have an outsized effect on performance—you can align, or rightsize, the amount of information you convey to the actual capacities of your workforce. 

Here are three simple ways to get started.

1. Prioritize the most essential information.

There are many different elements that can make or break a business. And today, one such element is the intersection of a company’s product and its operations—where the good, the bad, and ugly show up. If your product’s fulfillment is complete, correct, and timely, all’s good, and you’re virtually problem-free.

The information you convey should be streamlined and hyper-focused around three key priorities: quality, accuracy, and timeliness. Anything else, regardless of how “important” it may feel, is superfluous and counterproductive.

2. Modify what—and how much—you send when.

Even after prioritizing the most essential information, you may still be looking at excessive data. One way to address this is to send information in bite-sized installments; i.e., in as-needed intervals or in tune with how specific employees or teams tend to process and utilize information.

For example, an order status report that highlights only late orders is more manageable than one that lists all active and upcoming jobs.

Also, work to reduce each installment with a “just the facts” approach, sparing people needless or tedious details. Additionally, send information only to the people who really and truly need it, rather than a long, unfiltered list.

3. Periodically take stock.

By following steps 1 and 2, your communication issues can, and should, be minimized. To be clear, however, problems will inevitably crop up now and again. It’s  important to identify them as they arise, and then take swift, specific action to deal with them.

Make it a habit to take a pause and think about whether you’ve relapsed into old patterns—asking people to take in more information than they can reasonably handle. If so, reinforce steps one and two and spare employees that feeling of dread or defeat.

4. Adjust your avenues

Once information flow has been winnowed down to what’s essential, it becomes easier to identify the best medium for reaching a team. Where emails might have been the only viable option due to the volume of information involved, newly streamlined data will allow text or instant messaging to serve as a more effective channel. In addition, the decreased time spent with formal reporting allows more time to use in-person and video communications to confirm that a team understands the overall mission and is aligned to the big picture.

In other cases, the workflow itself could serve as the communication medium. As one example, consider a shop floor where an employee has to choose one job to work on where the materials for many are available. While many companies might communicate job priority verbally or in writing, when there is room for confusion, a more efficient possibility might be to release jobs on a piecemeal basis to the shop. In this latter case, there is only one job to choose from, so there is no mistaking where the priority lies. In addition, the required effort and the potential for misunderstandings are minimized.

Ready? Pareto’s legacy is profound, and in following his lead, you can solve your company’s communication problem — and know that less really is more.

Sean Fields and Michael Sanders are co-authors of Quantum Lean: Taking Lean Systems to the Next Level (J. Ross, 2020). They are a network member and the co-founder, respectively, of BeehiveFund a nonprofit organization that assists small to medium-sized manufacturing and service businesses in areas such as production scheduling, inventory control, and quality-management systems. 

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