Effective Communication is Explicit

By John Hunter, author of the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog (since 2004).

Incomplete communication often creates problems. You often don’t have to ask why 5 times to figure out the weaknesses in communication that lead to trouble. Over and over again, most organizations find problems were created, or grew, because someone that could have helped didn’t know what others knew. Making communication explicit and obvious so that everyone that needs to know, does, will reduce problems and reduce the damage that the problems caused.

Making communication explicit creates a process that is less likely to result in problems that stem from communication failures.

photo of tools with explicit design for where each goes
5s for tools. Every tool has an explicit place. At a glance it is obvious if any tool is missing and where to put back any tool to be replaced. Photo from wikipedia.

For example, when a provider believes an action has been completed, they should notify the interested parties. If those parties don’t believe it is complete, they can speak up immediately. Otherwise, people are left in the dark as to the actual state of outstanding issues, and often one party is waiting for the other to get it fixed while that party considers it finished. This seems obvious, but I am personally having a problem with a property manager that doesn’t notify interested parties when they think a problem has been addressed, only updating the status when an invoice is processed, which can be weeks later.

When I was responsible for program management of a software development team, we would not close a ticket until the product owner considered it completed. In practice, I used my judgement to close obvious items myself, but if there was any question, I required confirmation. And when I did so, the product owner was explicitly notified that I had closed the ticket, and they could let me know if they still had an issue. It is easy, when busy, to become so concerned about closing one issue to get to the next that we convince ourselves that it is close enough to what is needed. Making sure that the communication is explicit makes sure that everyone agrees. Otherwise, we often find those facing pressure hoping that no one notices if they just don’t make explicit what they are doing.

Mistake proofing is often a matter of making an error obvious. I really prefer thinking of mistake proofing as preventing an error (such as not being able to insert a USB stick the wrong way up because it is physically designed to only fit in the right side up). But at times, errors are not really prevented, but instead are made very obvious so that they are not likely to be overlooked. Most people consider mistake-making-fairly-obvious as good enough to be considered “mistake proofing.” So for example, a zip lock bag that, when zipped up, creates a green color where the seal is complete and doesn’t become green where the seal is not complete. This is the same concept as making communication explicit.

Writing on a flip chart what was decided in a meeting, along with all the action items, including who is responsible, is another example of a practice that makes communication explicit. It is easy for those in a meeting to have an unclear idea of what each other thinks was agreed to. Write it down. Make it explicit, and potential communication errors are reduced.

Visual management is about making communication explicit. This requires that systems are designed so that the important information for people to know is made obvious. A kanban system makes explicit when more materials are to be pulled. The photo shows a storage design that explicitly shows where each tool belongs, making it obvious to everyone where to replace tools that were used, making it obvious if anything is missing, and making it easier to find items than if they were just in a jumble in the drawer.

Checklists are another form of making communication explicit. We have a clear record that shows explicitly that the items deemed critical to the process have been taken care of. And in another way, they make explicit what is expected to the person carrying out the tasks mentioned in the checklist. Standardized work instructions are yet another tool in which this practice is embodied. The number of quality tools that put making-communication-explicit into practice provides evidence that this is an important concept to consider when examining how to improve the performance of your organization.

Related: Employees need to understand how customers actually use their product or serviceImproving Processes Helps Innovation EffortsInspection is too late. The quality, good or bad, is already in the product.

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