Why Are Communications So Difficult?

May 29th, 2014
successful leaders make communications a priority

Communications can get muffled in a busy work environment, but effective leadership makes information delivery a key component in daily operations.

In my almost 25-year career in manufacturing and distribution, I’ve yet to see a company with “perfect” communications. I’ve seen a few stars (unfortunately the 20% of the 80/20 equation, if that!), MANY poor communicators and several “so-so” communicators throughout the years. On the other hand, I’ve seen the significant bottom line impact communications can have on business performance. Why are communications so difficult?

My assessment is that communication begins and ends with leadership and often isn’t an area of focus. Let’s take a manager, director or even CEO of a mid-market manufacturing company. How many do you know who are exceptional communicators? What does that even mean? Think about this situation: If you need to ship an order to your #1 customer or answer an email for your boss or talk with your #1 employee, which do you focus on first? What do you tell the others? Is it any wonder leaders are considered poor communicators in almost every survey completed?

Do the executives institute the values and culture to support communications? Or is it happenstance? For example, I’ve seen “good” and even “great” people with “good” style and content fail if the values and culture of the organization didn’t support communications. And, the reverse is also true – “so-so” communicators can become quite successful in a communications-rich culture.

No matter how bleak the situation, don’t give up as you can always do something to improve it. The good news is that the vast majority of executives want improved communications. (If not, get out!) Thus, start by focusing on communications and consider a few key factors: 1) the person, 2) style, 3) content or lack thereof.

1.  The person:  When it comes to communications, the key is to have people listen, contribute and follow. Thus, a few personal traits are vital to success – trust and credibility. For example, I’ve seen leaders who say “all the right things at the right time with perfect style” fail miserably. In every case, it is due to the lack of trust. Do you believe the leader?

A few years ago, I performed a survey of successful executives to find out what they saw as the keys to success with supplier management. I was surprised that every one of them mentioned trust as #1. Of course, in retrospect, it makes sense; however, it isn’t what pops to mind in conversations with my clients about quality issues, customer service challenges, machinery roadblocks etc. Shouldn’t it be?

2.  Style:  Have you ever been to a presentation or meeting where the speaker droned on about a topic? I’d be surprised if you haven’t. Have you noticed that the same topic can seem fascinating in one setting and absolutely boring in another? It goes back to style.

Take note the next time you are in a meeting at work. Does the leader seem interested? Passionate? Excited about the progress? If not, how likely are the participants to care? For example, I worked with a plant manager who spoke in a slow, monotone voice. He could have really exciting topics to cover but the meeting participants would be yawning as it seemed mundane. On the other hand, I’ve also worked with leaders who seemed to make performing physical inventories seem exciting. Hard to believe!

Style isn’t just tone of voice. Think about your presence – your appearance, how you sit, whether you ask questions to demonstrate that you are listening, what you do with your hands, eyes etc. There are countless items to consider; however, do not become overwhelmed. Just pick one or two to improve and start there.

3.  Content or lack thereof: What you say matters as well. Do you convey why the topic is valuable to the company, the department, the team, the person? Do you tell people “bad news” and corrective feedback upfront so that they know they will never be surprised? Do you provide examples so that folks can understand? Do you ask for feedback? Do you seem like you want feedback when you receive it?

For sensitive topics, do you tell people upfront that you will “tell them what you can tell them” and as soon as information is available and OK to communicate, they’ll be the first to know? This clearly communicates the truth – as every leader knows, there will be some topics which cannot be communicated upfront. I find that if you follow this approach and people see that you “do what you say you’ll do”, trust will build. They will understand that you’ll tell them as soon as it is feasible. Don’t ignore issues and leave folks to wonder. One of the worst blunders is leaving gaps in your communications. I guarantee you that employees will make up worse things to fill the gaps than reality. Remember the old game of telephone? It’s amazing what we make up or think we hear.

Communication is cornerstone to any successful organization. Without it, you might as well close up shop. Thus, isn’t it worth spending a few minutes to ensure success?

Did you like this article?  Continue reading on this topic:

Communications Rule! 

Want to Improve Communications?


Sustainability – Who Knew That It’s Common Sense?

May 27th, 2014
business sustainability

Liken sustainability to reducing waste, which in turn respects the environment and makes business financial sense.

Sustainability is gaining traction in today’s cutting edge discussions. Whenever a topic pops up in multiple places suddenly, I take notice. I’ve read multiple articles in trade publications and magazines, attended a keynote at an international trade conference devoted to the subject and even read how my alma mater has developed a leading program in sustainability (of course!). So, what’s all the fuss?

Several years ago, when the subject first started coming up in conversations, I wondered how this topic made business financial sense. Then, after a bit more research, I discovered I’d been working sustainability aggressively for many years and just didn’t realize it – in essence, it is common sense!

I thought the University of North Carolina Business magazine defined it best – “Sustainability is about doing what’s best for everyone involved – from shareholders to customers to employees and the community – in a way that respects the environment while ensuring financial returns for the company.” Thus, who wouldn’t want to be sustainable? Given this premise, I thought we’d discuss a few ideas of sustainable strategies a company could consider: 1) Optimize packaging. 2) Reduce waste. 3) Optimize freight.

 1. Optimize packaging. When I was in my role as VP of Operations for a mid-sized manufacturer, we were relentless on sustainability – known to us as packaging optimization. Since we were in the midst of two major initiatives, redesigning our product for a new product launch and redesigning our product as a part of a cost reduction project while maintaining product performance, it made sense to include packaging in the process.

There were countless opportunities in packaging. A few examples include: 1) Compressing the product so that it fit into smaller plastic packages (or more items fit into the package) which then fit into smaller boxes (or more of them fit into the box). 2) Partnering with suppliers to develop new materials or tweak materials so that we could have a thinner material which still met product performance expectations and manufacturing expectations. 3) Taking a cross-functional view of packaging with logistics to optimize the number of boxes on a truckload, minimizing potential damage and optimizing storage and warehousing efficiencies. And the list goes on…. Each of these initiatives helped to improve the bottom line. 

2. Reduce waste. Sounds simple and is the mantra of not only lean, the Toyota Production System and just good common sense but also sustainability. Each dollar of waste reduction = sustainability.

Since there have been mountains of data written on lean, my preference is to “keep it simple” – look for ways to reduce waste in your organization (ranging from reducing scrap on the manufacturing floor to reducing the number of steps required to process an order to reducing inventory levels), and then put plans in place to address the opportunities. It is as simple as that. In my experience, common sense was the 80/20 of reducing waste. Of course, you’ll run into technical issues etc., but there are always ways to resolve if the appropriate people are involved. 

3. Optimize freight. Certainly anything you can do to optimize transportation costs will achieve the desired end result. Therefore, consider some of the following – Can you optimize your routes? Implement milk runs? Utilize pooling? Implement transportation optimization software to improve transportation efficiencies? Combine rail and over-the-road? Consider redesigning your transportation strategies (sourcing study)? Again, there are many options. Improving your transportation processes will likely reduce costs, gas, etc. – and, many times, you can do it with improved customer service!

These are just a few sustainable ideas. They are largely common sense and do not require significant capital/ cash. As you can see, there are countless strategies which will drive the triple bottom line – people, planet and profit. Why not start with one that fits with your company and then tackle them one at a time? It is likely to not only drive results but also create an engaging teamwork environment.

Did you like this article?  Continue reading on this topic:

How Can We Implement Sustainability?

Emerging Supply Chain Trends


Synthesize for Results

May 22nd, 2014
project management, track project progress, milestone metrics

Successful project management is contingent on being on time, on budget and exceeding customer expectations.

In my recent speech to a project management special interest group in Silicon Valley, a few participants raised some intriguing questions about how to ensure your project is on track.  As it’s a timeless topic yet vital to success, it seemed appropriate to discuss a few key strategies to tracking project progress.

There’s no doubt that those companies who successfully execute projects will be in a dramatically superior position to their competitors.  In today’s new normal business environment, there is no margin for error; you must deliver project results on time, on budget and with exceptional customer service.  So, what are the keys to success?  1) Rigorously track the critical path.  2) Track objectives AND milestone metrics.  3) Ask questions.

1. Rigorously track the critical path – Undoubtedly, the best and most common way to ensure success is to track progress on the critical path.  Not all tasks are created equal. So long as the critical path remains on track, the project will remain on course. In my experience, if you spend the 80/20 of your time tracking the critical path, you’ll deliver results.

Once you’ve identified the critical path, it isn’t important to be a project software tracking guru.  I’ve found that simple “works”. Check in with critical path task owners ahead of schedule. Remind them of the importance. Remove roadblocks. Follow up. Protect the critical path as your prized possession.

2. Track objectives AND milestone metrics – It’s quite common and relatively simple to track project objectives/ outcomes; however, it is not enough. By the time the project team figures out there is a problem in achieving the objective, it is often too late to resolve. Instead, focus attention on determining milestone metrics.

Now the challenge – often, it is not easy to determine how to set milestone metrics. For example, in many of my clients’ projects, the objectives are crystal clear: launch a new product, reduce inventory by 50%, implement organizational change without customer impact, etc. And, once progress begins, it is obvious as to how to track progress – if we’ve reduced inventory by 10%, we are 1/5 of our way to our goal. The issue arises in the timeframe prior to tangible progress.

For example, in inventory projects, there can be 4-12 weeks prior to tangible progress. So, how do you know whether you’re on track?  Typically, I’ve found that asking the folks involved in the day-to-day process and/or tracking of the project outcome yields milestone metrics. They might not realize they have the answer but they do! And, if they still are unsure, provide guidelines and/or categories based on best practices related to the project topic, and it will spur ideas. Milestone metrics will emerge.

3. Ask questions – If you manage the critical path with rigor and develop milestone metrics, you’ll almost ensure success. The only missing link is to ask questions of the subject matter experts.

For example, halfway between milestone metrics, ask the subject matter experts about progress. It is amazing how accurate their perceptions can be about progress. If a subject matter expert is uncomfortable with progress or thinks there might be a better path, listen!  Even if they are not correct 100% of the time, the worst case scenario is that you’ve minimized risk by taking notice. I’ve found that once they see that you value their opinion and are listening to their concerns, you’ll not only get more feedback but you’ll also make quicker and smoother progress.

Too many projects fail to deliver the intended results. For example, merger and acquisition integration projects typically succeed 20% of the time.  Thus, it makes sense for us to not only become a metric fanatic but to also be smart in tracking the “right” metrics to ensure we’re part of the 20%!

Did you like this article?  Continue reading on this topic:

Spicen Up Your Project Management

A Hidden Key to Project Success


Deliver Project Results by Engaging Employees

May 20th, 2014
project success, project management

Achieve project success by engaging employees through a clear vision, attainable goals and positive feedback.

In today’s new normal business and manufacturing environment, sales are lackluster, cash is tight and material prices are squeezing margins. Thus, those projects which will increase sales, reduce costs and/or improve customer service levels/ loyalty are quickly becoming #1 priority within the organization.  The companies who can deliver project results consistently will succeed.  And those who can accelerate the results while maintaining the quality of results will have the opportunity to leave the competition in the dust.

What is the secret to success?  Engaged employees!  Have you noticed that those organizations with engaged employees not only perform better than the competition but attract top talent?  What could be more important in the new normal but to have engaged employees leading your projects – and to have access to top talent during the timeframe when long-standing talent is leaving the workforce as the baby boom generation begins to retire?

So, what are a few strategies to effectively engage employees?  The top three include:  1) A compelling vision.  2) Translate the vision into individual goals.  3) Become a feedback fanatic.

  1. A compelling vision – Engaging employees must begin with a compelling vision.  Although a paycheck is required, it is by no means a motivator.  So, what motivates employees to engage beyond the minimum requirements of their job or latest project?  It begins with the vision.For example, does the company help improve the human condition in some respect?  If you work for an adult diaper manufacturer, could the diaper you produce or ship more efficiently be delivered to your grandmother? Or, if you work in aerospace, does your project somehow contribute to the successful flight of an F-17?  However, even if the vision is compelling, it is useless if not communicated effectively.Of course, there will be industries that seem less obvious in terms of benefits yet there is always a reason for being in business – find out and make sure to communicate it.  Your employees want to be involved with a company and a project team that is going somewhere and provides value.  Begin with a clear and well-articulated vision.
  2. Translate the vision into individual goals – Once the vision is in place and communicated, employees will feel better about where they work but will not be engaged.  The next critical strategy is to translate the vision into individual goals.  This is much easier said than done – leadership is vital to success.It is not always obvious how each person on the project team can contribute to the vision yet this is where the “rubber meets the road”.  Begin at the high level as it’s always easier to tie the vision to high level objectives.  Expand from there.  Dig into how each person’s core responsibilities can affect the next level objectives.  There has to be a purpose for your project; otherwise, you should stop doing it.  Then, similar to the vision, it is useless if not communicated.  Make sure each person understands how he adds value and contributes to the vision.
  3. Become a feedback fanatic – As simple as this sounds, providing feedback rarely occurs. The best practice for providing feedback is to give consistent and immediate feedback – both positive and constructive.  Do not wait for the end of the project or the annual performance review!  Who remembers so far into the future?  No one.Be visible and proactive.  Look for opportunities to provide positive feedback.  Amazingly, I’ve yet to find an example where well-thought out and specific positive feedback doesn’t motivate employees more than a raise or bonus.  Don’t forget to say thank you!  Simple yet often missed.  And, do not put off constructive feedback.  Be respectful and collaborate with the employee on how to improve.  Sometimes constructive feedback can motivate more than positive feedback as the employee understands you are invested in his success


Engaged employees will deliver dramatic project results.  Have you ever seen unhappy employees deliver exceptional customer service?  It requires zero capital investment yet can have a profound impact.  Give the top three strategies a try, and watch your employees become engaged.

Did you like this article?  Continue reading on this topic:

The Bottom Line to Project Management…

Project Failure: How to Avoid the Top Causes


Speed is King: How Do We Leverage for Project Management?

May 15th, 2014
In the race for increased profits is speed leaving vital priorities behind?

In the race for increased profits is speed leaving vital priorities behind? Assess all factors before jumping the gun.

In today’s new normal business environment, customers want products and services delivered quicker. Investors want month-end numbers faster. Customers expect new products yesterday. Executives are expected to sift through an immense amount of information and make rapid decisions. Boil it down – speed is a differentiator.

In my experience as an operations strategist and global business consultant and with hundreds of projects of all shapes and sizes behind me, I find that there can be hundreds or thousands of moving parts in any project or program. In these situations, it’s hard enough to keep track of all the pieces and tasks, let alone find ways to leverage speed. So, what should we do?

1. First, be clear on speed’s priority: Although speed is in the top 3 conversation pieces of every executive I’ve talked with in the last year, it doesn’t mean speed is a priority in every situation. I’d be surprised if every executive didn’t say “accelerating progress” was important; thus, just confirming this desire is not enough. Instead, you must probe further to better understand speed’s priority vs. other priorities.

Just having a conversation is a great place to start. In many of my clients, assumptions are made as to what the executives prefer, yet no one wants to ask/confirm. After all, who wants to take a risk and look dumb? You must! Be willing to ask clarifying questions.

For example, in one of my client projects, I’m partnering with my client to implement a sales and operations planning process. It is a corporate priority and can have a significant effect on whether the facility will meet its budget goals, and so it’s obvious that accelerating progress is critical. However, how does it compare with quarter-end results in terms of importance? Or with safety and quality goals? How about overtime pay? Have a discussion with the project sponsors and executives. Make sure they understand their choices and tradeoffs. Gain clarity in advance.

2. Start with the right mindset: Once the project leader has clarity on the priorities, it is important to take the time to frame the mindset with the project team. It might sound like the opposite of what you should do on a project where speed is vital; however, taking an extra few minutes, days or weeks upfront will accelerate progress in the long run.

For example, I’m working with a client on better leveraging their ERP system. The right mindset can take weeks to obtain yet it is one of the most important ingredients to gaining speed. What is the right mindset?

In this case, the project team could think we need to replace the old processes with an improved process upfront since we spent a considerable amount on the new system. Or, the team could think that because we didn’t have solid processes in place that we should implement “best practices” and go 100% with whatever the new system requires – should we do that regardless of our employees’ preparation? Or, on the other hand, the team might think they want to get back to their normal jobs (which align with their performance reviews), and so they just want to get the system done rapidly, even if they sacrifice a little in terms of quality.

Did you like this article? Continue reading more on our blog or check out these other production scheduling topics:

Can You Prevent ERP Implementation Chaos?

The Power of Relationships