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The Best-Laid Plans Need Effective Communication

Photonics Spectra
Nov 1998
Kevin Robinson

Actions speak louder than words, or so the saying goes. A recent study by researchers in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Lally School of Management and Technology and DePaul University's department of management in Chicago suggests that managers in industry could stand to listen to this nugget of wisdom passed down by grandparents the world over. The study points out the need for management to communicate its goals clearly to the workers who are expected to carry out the goals.
Christopher McDermott of Rensselaer and Kenneth K. Boyer of DePaul conducted the study, which is to be published soon in the Journal of Operations Management, to find out if the strategic planning that takes place in corporate boardrooms makes it to the plant floor. What they found might surprise some managers. "What we were trying to assess was how effective communication was in organizations," McDermott said. "We suspected that the messages upper management was sending weren't getting through; to a large extent, that was what we found."
Although management can chart the course of a company, the company itself moves by the labor of its employees. If these employees don't know where they are going, they may make choices that are counter to these goals. For instance, if management fails to communicate clearly to a shipping foreman that quality is the company's primary objective, the foreman may ship flawed goods because he believes that cost or delivery is paramount.
Most of the problems seem to come from poor communication on management's part. Many managers, McDermott said, "seemed to think that making strategies in the upper levels was enough. They didn't seem to realize that part of the job in coming up with strategies is communicating them in an effective way to the people who would implement them."
Company structures also can undermine management's objectives. If management decides that quality is most important but continues to reward the shipping department based on shipped quotas, the shipping department may send a flawed product to avoid being penalized for missing a quota.
The most important thing for managers to take away from this study, McDermott said, is that they need to assess whether their strategies are making it to the plant floor. "They should go out and take stock of what other levels of the company think is important," he explained. "What they find may surprise them."

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