Tag Archives: employee communications

The power of organization and ownership.

Sometimes, getting the workplace organized and orderly can have a bigger impact on performance than most people realize.  Recently, a team in the upholstery department of a client in the aircraft service industry took on the task of “cleaning up their act” and reorganizing their shop.  Part of the reason for the change was the increasing number of Corrective Action Reports they had been receiving.   Here are the “before” pictures:

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They started by learning the principles and practices of “5S” – sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain.  By the time the project was completed about three months later, every inch of the space and assembly process was changed around, producing results that surpassed everyone’s expectations.  Before the change, processes were highly irregular.  Now, the entire flow from sewing … to assembly … to gluing … to the foam area … is precise and consistent – and people aren’t stepping on top of one another anymore.


Organization Pays Off Big
Part of the resulting benefit has been faster, easier access to the tools and materials that everyone needs to do their jobs.  In the old layout, tools were scattered, and it was hard to find what people needed.  Not surprisingly, when they started pulling all the tools out of various places to get them organized, they found some they didn’t even know they had. Now all tools are in lockers with shadow boxes, and the team uses the sign-out/sign-in sheet whenever a tool is taken out or replaced.

The same approach is used for parts and materials that had been spread around and tossed into cardboard boxes before the redesign. Now everything is orderly, and items are placed in clearly marked, transparent plastic bins that are staged to minimize the time to access what people need.  Here are the “after” pictures:

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The results of the change have been nothing short of amazing. According to one person on the team, it used to take her a week to do four chairs.  Now she can complete the same work in two days. Another employee claims that it’s improved efficiency by 50% or more.  Productivity gains of that magnitude are almost unthinkable in most organizations – and that’s only half the story of this project.

In addition to dramatically faster production times, quality has improved, as well.  Before the change, foreign particles sometimes got inside the seats, and the team had to rip them open and start over.  That problem has been virtually eliminated, and they’ve cut down a lot of rework.

Ownership Pays Off Even Bigger
Aside from the tangible improvements in quality and productivity, the project has had a noticeable effect on the pride and professionalism of the team. It’s too early yet to determine the ultimate impact on long-term sales, but the effect on marketing is clear.  When customers and prospects visit the facility now, the upholstery area is always showcased on the inspection tour, and the team is making a highly favorable impression.

The director of manufacturing engineering, who provided support for the project, says that 5S gave the team valuable tools, but their success came mainly from one thing – ownership.  She told the team from the outset this was an opportunity to create a work space exactly the way they wanted – in a way that would be beneficial for them and their work.

At least three important lessons come from this project.  First, when employees are given a chance to create their own work space, and they’re given the tools to do the job right, their level of dedication and performance can be truly amazing.  Second, no one knows the details of a particular system or process – and what its potential might be – better than the people who work with it every day.  Third, no traditional marketing tool can surpass the impact of proud, fully engaged employees in making an impression on prospective customers.

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Right to know, need to learn.

Information overload can stunt your employees' growth
Information overload can stunt your employees’ growth.

The other day, I was re-reading an article by David Berlo – the mentor I’ve mentioned before in Inside Out.  I was amazed at how current his insights were – considering he wrote it in 1976.

The title of the article is “Right to know, need to learn.” One of Berlo’s key themes appears on the first page like the caution on a pack of cigarettes – “WARNING: Consumption of uncontrolled information is injurious to your health.”  His alarm stemmed from a problem that’s familiar to all of us – information overload.  And that was in the days before e-mail, social media and multi-tasking – a contemporary euphemism for organizational ADD.

What You Want to Know Can Hurt You
Naturally, no one likes being overwhelmed by more information than they can process.  But there’s a cruel irony in human nature that goes back to Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit from the “tree of knowledge.”  On one hand, we want to control the information flow so we can manage it.  On the other hand, we want to know everything, and we don’t want to be left out of anything that might be important.  What’s more, the expectation to know more and process more in the same finite timeframe is rising.

So what’s a body to do?

Start by understanding what Berlo called the “twin tyrannies of slavery and freedom.”  Everyone’s clear about the first one.  If I’m your slave, you’re in control of every decision and action in my life – short of basic bodily functions.  When it comes to information, you control it all.  I’m strictly on a “need to know” basis, and I don’t have a “right” to know anything.  That kind of tyranny may have been common in boss-subordinate relationships in yesteryear, but for lots of good reasons, it’s rare in organizations today.

Too Many Options Can Leave You Out of Control
What about the “tyranny of freedom,” though?  If slavery is bad, then freedom is good, and more is better, right?  The answer is yes – to a point.  And that point is defined by the limits of a person’s ability to process the options they have before them.  After that, people go into overload, and they reach a breaking point. When that happens, it’s a lot like being a slave – you’re out of control.  It’s just a different kind of master.

Plug that concept into organizational communication.  The flood of information that flies past employees these days can be overwhelming, and the expectations for processing it are unrelenting.  While there’s no perfect solution to that quandary, one way to manage it is to adopt Berlo’s policy of “right to know, need to learn.”

Let People Control their Information Consumption
As much as possible, operate on the basis that employees have a right to know virtually anything short of personal files and trade secrets.  But don’t use that policy to justify doing information dumps in the name of transparency and unbridled knowledge sharing.  Instead, send out only the information that everyone absolutely must have.  All other information is made available on a need to learn basis.  Then people decide for themselves what to download, and THEY are responsible for deciding when and if they’re going to “consume” that information.  Of course, they need to know it’s available and where to get it – and it has to be indexed so it’s easily accessible.  Otherwise, the “right to know” policy becomes essentially useless.

It won’t rid organizations of information overload once and for all, but it’s a step in the right direction for giving people greater control over how they process information.  It’s also a pretty good blow against the tyranny of freedom.

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Getting to the heart of people.

Most professionals who work in the people side of business have heard about psychologist Abraham Maslow and his renowned hierarchy of needs.  It’s simple on the surface, yet significant in its substance.  All human beings have needs that begin at the most basic level of survival and rise ultimately to what Maslow called “self-actualization.” What’s more, he stated, people must have their needs met at the lower levels before higher needs can be satisfied.

Even though I’m a fan of Maslow’s theory, I talk about it in simpler terms.  For me, it comes down to two main needs – security and self-esteem. If people have those things, they’ll usually perform well.  If they don’t – they won’t.  You can argue that one has to come before the other or one is more important, but that’s like arguing what’s most essential to driving a car – the motor or the steering wheel.  It’s a pointless debate.

Find Out What Matters Most

Still, it’s helpful to examine those two basic needs more closely when it comes to creating a high-performing workplace.  A study was done in 1999 by Dr. Kenneth Kovach of George Mason University that produced interesting findings.  He surveyed thousands of people nationwide to find out what they wanted from their jobs.  Then he took it a step further.  He compared their responses to what their bosses thought was important to the employees.  Take a look at how the responses differed.

Employees Ranking

Motivational Item

Bosses Ranking


Interesting work



Appreciation of work



Feeling “in on things”



Job Security



Good wages






Good working conditions



Personal loyalty



Tactful discipline



Sympathetic help with problems


Tune in to What Motivates

Who’s surprised, right?  Besides the obvious disparity in the responses between employees and bosses, Kovach drew two main conclusions from the data.  First, what employees want most from their jobs can be handled mainly by their supervisors; and second, they are pretty easy and cheap to provide.  Kovach also created a set of questions that managers should ask themselves if they want to create an environment that’s tuned into employee motivations:

    1. Do you personally thank staff for a job well done?
    2. Is feedback timely and specific?
    3. Do you make time to meet with-and listen to-staff on a regular basis?
    4. Is your workplace open, trusting, and fun?
    5. Do you encourage and reward initiative and new ideas?
    6. Do you share information about your organization with staff on a regular basis?
    7. Do you involve staff in decisions, especially those that will affect them?
    8. Do you provide staff with a sense of ownership of their jobs and the unit as a whole?
    9. Do you give associates the chance to succeed?
    10. Do you reward staff based on their performance?

It’s really pretty simple when it comes to understanding employee motivation.  Put yourself in their shoes, and you won’t even need Maslow to figure out what matters most to them.

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Are employees really an audience?

A few years ago, The Journal of Employee Communication Management published an article entitled “Employees Are Not an Audience.”  It was written by Glynn Young, who currently heads the Issues, Employee and Electronic Communications function for Monsanto Company.  His basic premise is simple yet significant – the job of organizational communicators should NOT be mainly to create and deliver messages to the employee audience, but rather to facilitate conversations within the employee community.

That distinction is more than an exercise in semantics.  It goes to the heart of why organizations struggle – and often fail – to generate meaningful employee engagement.  It also explains why organizations get caught in the wrongheaded notion that they need better “two-way” communication.  Seriously – is there any other kind?  Bottom line, if it isn’t two-way, it isn’t communication. It’s message distribution.

Community of Professionals
Even if we’re not conscious of it, we know in our guts that employees shouldn’t be treated as an audience when it comes to communication.  Just look at another metaphor often used for them – team.  Can you imagine how Michael Jordan or Tom Brady or Albert Pujols or other sports team members would react if their organizations communicated with them like an “audience?”  Pretty weird, huh?

But they’re different, right? After all, those people are “professionals.”  Consider for a moment, though, how an organization might run its business and communicate with its employees differently if they viewed employees as a “community of professionals” – professional accountants, professional order entry clerks, professional maintenance workers, professional production line workers — and so on?  You get the picture.

Sure, the challenges are different when you’re communicating with 12 to 50 people instead of 12,000 to 50,000.  But the need for people to feel that their organizations are communicating with them as professional members of a team is much the same.

Shifting from Messages to Conversations
Admittedly, logistics are more complex with larger groups, and the options for communicating differ from one organization to the next depending on numerous factors.  What’s more, truly interactive communication simply isn’t possible in all circumstances.  If the building is on fire, for example, that’s no time to engage an employee discussion group in considering various options on how to respond.  Still, organizations of any size and circumstance can and should shift from “sending messages” to “facilitating conversations” wherever possible by operating on two basic principles:

  • Stop using the phrase “communicate to,” and replace it with “communicate with.”  If the best you can do is send a message, say so – but don’t call it communication.
  • Where it’s feasible and appropriate, frame “messages” as “conversation points,” and create systematic ways for employees to converse and provide feedback on those topics.

While those principles are important for everyone in management to understand, it’s vital for people in charge of internal communications to follow them if they want to get employees truly engaged and strengthen working relationships within the “employee community.”

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Meanings are in people.

When I was a kid, I really wanted to learn to play the piano.  Weird, huh?  Unfortunately, we couldn’t afford it, and the apartment was too small for one anyway.  So when my youngest daughter decided she wanted to take lessons, I was thrilled.  I couldn’t wait for her to become good enough to enjoy the music more than she dreaded the practice.  That was three years ago when she was 10.  Luckily, she was persistent – and I was patient.  Now when she sits down to play, I stop whatever I’m doing to listen.

What Do You Mean, Dad?
The other day, she was playing something very moving, and I told her that when she plays, it makes my heart soar.  She looked surprised and asked me, “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”  I couldn’t believe the question, and I quickly assured her it was very good.  “Then why does it hurt your heart?” she asked.  That’s when I realized she thought I said her playing made my heart “sore.”

It was a vivid reminder of a lesson I learned years ago from my communication mentor, David Berlo – Meanings are in people, not in words or symbols.  That lesson is obvious when it comes to homonyms like “sore” and “soar,” but it’s more subtle and complex in other forms of communication, and professional communicators need to be highly sensitive to all of its nuances in everything we do.

Align People’s Meanings – Inside and Out
That sensitivity is especially vital when it comes to aligning the meanings that people inside and outside the organization have for the words and symbols that organizations use to communicate.  It’s common practice to do focus groups with customers to test promotional messages for interpretation and impact before rolling out a big advertising campaign.  However, you rarely see the same attention given to assessing how employees inside the organization interpret those promotional words and symbols. What’s more, the implications are seldom considered for how employees need to perform in order to deliver on the promises being made in the marketplace.

Inside or out, with one person or many, here are some guidelines to help you avoid the “meanings trap”. . .

  • Don’t ask what a word means – because IT doesn’t mean anything.  Instead, ask what people mean by the words they use.
  • Don’t assume people know what you mean when you tell them something or send out a message.  Check to make sure they’ve interpreted it the way it was intended.
  • Don’t ask people if they understand what you mean if you want to make sure they understand something important.  Ask them to repeat what you’ve said until you’re satisfied you share the same meaning.
  • Don’t expect to find common ground in a debate about the meaning of a word, but rather in a conversation committed to a common understanding of what is meant by the people using it.  As the famed communication theorist, Marshall McLuhan, once said, “Propaganda ends where dialogue begins.”

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