iSixSigma

You’re Coming in Broken and Unreadable

The phrase “you’re coming in broken and unreadable” is military speak for telling someone that their communication is breaking up and you cannot understand the message they are trying to send. This could be disastrous for one or both parties. The message could be a call to warn of an imminent attack on your position or it could be someone calling for support (backup) due to an attack on their location. One of the values drilled into my head from the time I went to basic training until the day I left the military was that communication is vital for accomplishment of the mission. My drill sergeant in basic training always used to say “poor communication leads to poor performance,” meaning that if we could not effectively communicate with each other, we were doomed to fail.

In the Army an AAR (after action review) is conducted after every training event or mission. An AAR is a continuous improvement tool the Army uses to make sure they are capturing lessons learned. These are conducted to ensure that any mistakes made in training are corrected before actual deployment to a combat zone or before you leave for another patrol. During these AARs one of the opportunities for improvement that always comes up is communication. No matter how well a team, squad, platoon or company knows each other and trains together, it always seems like one piece of information is left out or does not get relayed to someone. Even if everything went smoothly, communication is always mentioned; it is something that leaders know can always be improved.

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Effective communication classes are taught at all levels of the military and are an essential part of grooming leaders. Knowing how to communicate is something that all veterans take with them when they leave the military. We are taught not only how to communicate, but how to communicate concisely. This is a skill that can be very helpful in the civilian world whether it be in a government agency or a private company. Government agencies and private companies could take a lesson from the military when it comes to communication. I have seen, firsthand, the detrimental effect that poor communication can have on a company. A third-party logistics company was having issues between managers and employees as well as their first and seconds shifts. Employees were rushed to work on the next hot item and were left in the dark as far as the expectations of their managers. Each problem resolution ended in finger pointing as the first shift blamed the second shift for their failures and vice versa.

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The lack of communication between managers and employees and communication among the shifts led to delayed deliveries of product, the misunderstanding of work priorities and an overall degradation of their abilities to satisfy customer demands. All of these failures eventually led to the loss of one of their bigger clients. Most of their issues could have been rectified with managers who could effectively communicate. This means from the plant manager, to the operations manager, to shift supervisors, to the leads and back up the chain. Communication among the shifts could have been improved by implementing a shift change brief (military and police use these daily for information exchange as well as continuity between shifts).

A shift change brief, or shift handoff as it is commonly referred to in the military, is a brief that occurs in the overlapping time between both shifts. It is normally attended by at least one representative from each staff section (administration, intelligence, current operations, future operations, logistics and signal are normal key players) from the outgoing and incoming shift. This briefing gives a broad view of what has happened during the outgoing shift and what is supposed to happen during the incoming shift. There are different variations of this briefing style and can be adapted for different logistical or time constraints. It can be detailed and last 30-45 minutes with each section giving a brief pertinent to their section. It can also be down and dirty, in which each member of the outgoing shift finds their counterpart on the incoming shift and gives them a position specific run down of what has happened, what is currently happening and what is expected to happen during the next shift. These briefs are normally posted on a knowledge management platform and can be referenced during the incoming shift. This information exchange is crucial for operational continuity and is easily adaptable to the manufacturing setting.

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If the logistics company I spoke of earlier would have put this briefing to use, they would have shored up their communication issues and the continuity between shifts would have never been questioned. During the 30 minutes they had in between shifts they could have gathered their main players (operations manager, shift supervisors and shift leads) from the outgoing and incoming shifts. Each person from the outgoing shift  could have given a position-specific rundown of what was accomplished, what is currently being worked on, what needs to be worked on next and any special instructions. If any questions were to arise they could be answered at that time, prior to the second shift starting. Once the meeting breaks up the counterparts could meet up and go over any additional details specific to their positions or answer any questions that may not have been asked during the briefing. This also gives each person a nice view of how their specific job ties into the overall operation (success) of the company.

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Communication can make or break a relationship, an organization or even a company. The next time you are writing a mission statement for your new project remember to think about how you plan to communicate. The ideas and information exchange pipeline needs to be set in place and utilized. Mentor your team on how to communicate and show them how by leading by example.

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Comments 2

  1. Diane Camerer

    Nice article James and so true… I have seen the repercussions of bad communications many times in my life. Good communication takes time, and for some people a good amount of effort. Not everyone has the skills to be a good communicator… But it is and would be an advantage to all to make a good honest effort. Thanks.

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  2. Juanita Mitchell

    Very informative and well written.

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