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Creating a Culture of Good Communication

You’d think we humans would be pretty good at it—but we aren’t.

I get around to my share of small, medium, and, sometimes, large manufacturing companies. I generally start my work by gathering as much information about the company’s operations and culture. If there is one constant across nearly all the companies I’ve been invited to help, it’s that rarely are employees happy with the state of communication in the company. It’s odd that this would be the case, when one thinks about it. After all, what do we humans do more often than communicate with one another?  It seems that we’d be pretty good at it by the time we get to our work lives, doesn’t it? But a culture of good communication doesn’t happen by accident. It takes these four steps:

  1. Figure out what employees want and need to know
  2. Use a variety of channels
  3. Pay attention to style and content
  4. Continually assess the effectiveness of communication efforts

The first step in fixing communication is to provide answers to questions employees have about the organization and their own role in making it successful. Too many companies have not provided good answers for questions like:

  • What’s the company’s overall strategy? 
  • How well are we progressing on that strategy? 
  • What’s our part in carrying out that strategy? 
  • How well are we performing in those roles? 
  • What changes are coming up? 
  • If the changes are external, what are we going to be doing to respond to them? 
  • If the changes are internal, how will they be carried out? 

Second, senior leaders need to provide the answers to these questions frequently through a variety of channels. I tell clients that their communication efforts are effective if any employee in the company can make the link between what they are doing at that moment and the company’s overall strategy. For example, a shop-floor employee ought to be able to tell how putting her tools back on a shadow board is related to, say, opening up new markets:

“When we put our tools back where they belong, we don’t lose time looking for them. That means it’s easier for us to meet the production schedule, which, in turn means our delivery performance is high, even as we’re able to keep finished goods inventory low. Our good reputation for world-class customer service allows us to open up new markets.”   

How would an employee know all this?  Good communication, of course. It takes lots of messages passed through a variety of channels (meetings and paycheck stuffers and conversations with supervisors and posters and training workshops and so on) to get her to that level of understanding.

Third, managers need to pay attention to the content and style of their communications. Several years ago, I had a client who did a good job of regularly reviewing company and plant metrics at quarterly meetings with its employees. During a visit, I asked employees about those metrics reviews:  “We appreciate that they tell us how we’re doing, but we don’t really understand those charts they show us. ”  I reported this feedback to management, who made changes to the metrics and the manner in which they were communicated.

As this example illustrates, communication effort can be undermined if the content of the communications isn’t understandable. Last year, I was helping a client launch its 5S initiative. Headquarters had sent some printed material to the operations that were intended to lay out the organization’s plan for implementing 5S. Frankly, even I had a tough time understanding some of the material. The moral here is not that managers should “talk down” to employees; rather, it’s that message content must be understandable or it’s of no use.

Finally, it’s not enough simply to send messages to employees and assume that they understand and retain the information. Managers have to follow up to make sure the messages that you’re sending and the channels that you’re using are working well. As in the example above, it’s important to regularly talk with employees about the effectiveness of communication efforts.

Studies show that the effort to improve communications is worth it:  higher returns to shareholders, higher market premiums, greater employee engagement, and reduced employee turnover have all been associated with superior communications. But good communication that actually helps the organization achieve its strategic goals doesn’t just happen. It’s not simply a matter of having good intentions. Effective communications requires planning and energetic follow-through.

Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors

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