Q: How can an upholstery manufacturer improve internal communications and overcome the tribal knowledge in some areas of its operation?

A: The fall of the Tower of Babel wasn't the end to communications problems.

In manufacturing plants, the languages remain confused. I worked with a plant a few years ago that had more than seven nationalities. The minority was English. Needless to say, based on the reverse of the above, "Everything was impossible to them." Tribal knowledge was in abundance.

Tribal knowledge can be described in this scenario:

Me: "Why do you have these unfinished products sitting all over the floor?"

Manager: "Joe is out sick."

Me: "Who is Joe?"

Manager: "He knows how to build them."

To improve communications, the first thing we did was to make a policy that the language in the company would be English. A second policy was that no one would be promoted unless that person could speak and understand written English. We then offered English as the Second Language (ESL) courses after work and during lunch break. Those who completed the classes would be eligible for promotion with higher pay.

Eliminate the Joe factor

Being a realist, I understand that only a certain percentage of people will attempt to improve their lot in life. Consequently, to eliminate the "Joe" factor, we revamped the new product (prototype/engineering) area. Digital photos were made and identified for all purchased component parts. These were identified in English. All cutting patterns, sewing drawings and frame parts were also digitized and stored in a secure "read only" file named for the specific product. Digital videos were made for the methods of assembly, where critical uncommon methods were used, and placed in the same product file.

Monitors connected to the company's secure network were placed in certain areas of the plant so a person could review a procedure for assembly, or check the quality of a part or assembly. It's important that your network be secure. No USB keys should be allowed to copy information from your network, nor should information be attached to e-mails, etc. In addition, these files must be backed up and stored off-site in case of a disaster.

Your reaction might be to think that this solution to communication is just too expensive. I urge you to consider that if you don't have these standards carved in stone, you can never produce a given product to look like the original, or the same product produced a few weeks before or after. Your customers tire of waiting for Joe to heal, and buy from a non-Joe manufacturer. And, if Joe ever believes he has you over a barrel, it's continuous bribery. Joes never earn enough!

Pompous leadership

So much for the plant, let's turn to administration. Ever attended meetings where a "Mr. Pompous" summons his overworked minions to "cast of thousands" meetings where a huge amount of time is wasted listening to him regale his people with an ever higher level of pomposity?

Meetings are expensive. Every meeting should have a written agenda listing the topic of discussion, those who will facilitate and add to the decision to be reached, and the estimated cost of the meeting.

Minutes should be kept and the decision published. The question is, "Did the decision reached warrant the cost of the meeting?"

E-mail overuse

E-mails are good when used as a letter or when a formal document needs to be created to record a discussion or decision, but inter-office e-mails in general should be curtailed. People should be encouraged to talk directly to each other.

And, speaking of cubicles, get rid of them. They are a huge hindrance to both communication and productivity. Group together, in open areas, specialists by function. You'd be amazed at how much internet usage drops, while communication and productivity improves within the group.

Last, if you really want to grow your company, eliminate the "Hub and Spoke" communication system where you, as the CEO/COO or department manager, must be at the hub of communication at all times. This makes you the bottleneck! If you don't trust the people working for you, you either have the wrong people working for you or you're the wrong manager. Growing companies are built on equally competent communicators who respect and trust each other.

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