I have been learning a lot about communication in my organizational behavior class and it got me thinking about a communication breakdown that happened to me at work. Our distribution center was handling a lot of returns due to a product recall and the volume was starting to overwhelm the receiving department. When the project began, the receivers would inspect the product, receive it into the warehouse management system, and would have it stocked onto a “recall” pallet. This all worked fine until we had to move specific lots from the recall pallet to a new recall location. The mishmash of different lots all in the same location made it extremely difficult and time consuming when it came to moving specific lots and quantities to new locations.
In my attempt to solve the problem, and keep the receiving dock and recall area more organized, I created 4 different recall pallets (one for each lot). I explained to the receivers that they should start separating the product by lot number and placing the cartons in the new locations once they’ve been received into the system. I got lots of nods and “Okays” and assumed that everyone understood the new process. Unfortunately, the receivers interpreted my message in a much different way than I intended. Instead of receiving the product then sorting it, they sorted it then received it. Normally, this would have been fine, but with the large volume of product coming in, different customer returns began to get mixed up due to the sorting.
I know it’s not the most exciting story, but it did give me some insight into how I communicate to employees. I was under the assumption that my message was being heard loud and clear. After all, there was a bunch of nodding, no questions, and zero puzzled looks. While I thought I did a great job communicating, I realized I did not communicate at all. Communication is the evoking of a shared or common meaning in another person. The receivers and I definitely did not share a common meaning when I discussed the change to the recall process.
There were several things that I failed to do as the communicator and that my receivers failed to do as listeners. Probably the most important communication tool we were missing was feedback. Sure, I asked “Do you understand?” but instead I should have asked them to repeat back their understanding of what I said. My trainees should have also practiced reflective listening by paraphrasing back to me what they heard to assure accuracy. I was also only seeing things through my perceptual screen. My perceptual screen was that the process change was very minor and simple and I assumed everyone could learn it through a quick verbal explanation.
The process change could have been planned and executed in a much better way, but the failures did prompt me to improve my communication skills. Good communication is vital for quality leaders. A communication breakdown can lead to disastrous consequences such as defective products, re-work, unhappy customers, or fines. Soliciting feedback and using reflective listening will create that mutual understanding between the management and employees.