Communicating with a manufacturing plant
William Douglas Reith, PMP
Project managers communicate project status, progress, and other issues to many different people in many different working environments. Project managers are also change agents who need to “make things happen” through these communications. Unfortunately, what communicates well with product engineers in an office setting does not necessarily work well for manufacturing people in a plant. A manufacturing environment is unlike an engineering product development office in numerous aspects. The pace at manufacturing plants is faster and the focus is more short-term. Project management itself is often new to manufacturing operations . Their past experience with project managers may have been only as “beaters and trackers.” So, how can you “get through” to the critical manufacturing people on your project team? Here are several proven ideas and methods for communicating effectively with the manufacturing members on your project team. I believe the use of these methods will greatly enhance your skills as a communicator and leader and also help ensure the success of your projects.
Manufacturing Plant Environments
To effectively deal with people at any plant, we must first understand their world . The main, No. 1, highest priority of a manufacturing plant every minute of every day is to keep production going. Nearly all measures of individual and plant accomplishment are geared toward meeting these production requirements. Though this may seem overly stereotypical, it is the heart and soul of the plant. Your project's new product or process may rank very low on plant employees' list of priorities. Recognizing this aspect of the plant and working with it is critical to communicating with them. Although we may acknowledge this difference, we rarely modify our ways of dealing with or communicating with people at plants.
At plants, meetings are more focused, attention spans are shorter, and emergencies are the rule, not the exception. People often spend more time out on the plant floor than at their desk or in a conference room. Even people located at plants who are supposedly disconnected from the day-to-day production requirements are often subjected to the priority of production. Rarely is someone located at a manufacturing facility immune to the pace and priorities.
In addition to understanding the environment, we must also recognize that what we, as project managers, are doing most likely will cause a change in their products, jobs, and day-to-day activities. Change is difficult for an operation whose highest priority is stability (production). As project managers, we more than nearly anyone, represent future changes that cause stress and uncertainty. The focus of this article is not how to make change occur or how change impacts people: there is considerable published material on implementing change. Rather, it is to offer some communication ideas that greatly increase the likelihood that actions which cause change will occur.
Examples of poor communications include multi-page tiny-font Gantt charts, long action item lists, several-page letters asking for comments or action, phone calls at inconvenient times, and lack of personal interaction. Any document that looks time-consuming or complicated most likely will end up in a stack on a desk or in the “round file” .
Common communications fail in two ways. First, the letter or call does not cause the desired action to occur. Consequently, follow-up is required, which is time-consuming and costly. When a manufacturing engineer receives a long, complicated, hard-to-read letter, the likelihood it will be given much time is greatly reduced. Few people have the time, or take the time, to scrutinize a long timing chart for items for which they are responsible. Second, there is the hidden feeling that you don't understand and don't care to know what the plant people deal with every day. If you don't understand them, why should they try to understand what you want.
Effective communication that informs or causes action to occur must work with, rather than against, the manufacturing environment. Communications should be well-timed, short, and to the point. Change is also easier to accept if it is in smaller doses. Consequently, conversations and letters need to be short and to the point. Reports need to be concise and easy to understand. Phone calls and visits need to be properly timed. In many cases, extra effort is required to culture the communication to fit the needs of those in the plants. The extra effort required, however, will have a major positive payback in efficiency. Here are 31 suggestions, grouped by written, verbal, and interpersonal communications, that have worked well and repeatedly for me over many years.
Don't Use Gantt Charts. Timing charts that show tasks, dates, and responsibilities don't necessarily need to have Gantt bars adjacent to the tasks. A simple table with tasks, names, and dates is enough. Most project management scheduling software packages (such as Symantec's Timeline and Microsoft Project) let you turn off the Gantt portion. Although Gantt charts are greatly beneficial to help communicate order in timing, they aren't always necessary. Unfortunately, few people really know how to read a Gantt chart anyway. Also unfortunate is that the addition of the Gantt bars causes the font to get smaller and much harder to read. Try a simple table of tasks, dates, responsible person, and other relevant information. Ask yourself: Can we do without the Gantt portion of the chart?
Provide Focused Timing Reports. Provide a list of tasks and timing for only the person, group, or facility you are sending it to. Most scheduling software allows you to “filter” or “select” the resource or person responsible and only show tasks they have. I have provided focused reports like this where the recipient took the timing chart into the manager and was able to get additional needed resources. An entire project timing chart with hundreds or thousands of tasks on numerous pages would not have provided the impact a focused listing did. Ask yourself: Are we making it easy for each of us to find what we need to do?
Use Monthly Charts. Even better than lists of tasks and dates are monthly calendars that show events and tasks. These are just like the single-month calendars we have on our walls and in our daily planners. Events or meetings show time and location. Longer-duration tasks show as bars. Many scheduling software packages create these automatically. Don't try to show all the tasks. As in the idea above, select only the task that affects or occurs at a particular plant. The best schedule calendars don't even come from project management software! Software like Calendar Creator Plus from Spinnaker Software makes outstanding monthly schedules that can show all tasks or only those of a particular person or group. On a recent project where both these monthly calendars and Gantt Charts were used, several people had the monthly chart up on their wall right next to their calendar and had marked-up tasks when they were completed. The Gantt charts were nowhere to be seen. Ask yourself: Could we improve how we communicate the project schedule?
Use Weekly Look-Aheads. Publish a letter or chart that shows what has been planned for only the upcoming week. Highlight or enhance or color the major events. Provide these the week beforehand. These help us see very clearly what we need to do in the next several days. Some software can print this by facility or by person. Ask yourself: Does everyone know what they need to do next week?
Use Flow Charts. Ironically, task sequence flow charts (misnamed PERT charts), are better communicators and are more welcomed in plants than Gantt charts. A possible reason is their similarity to process flow charts used frequently by manufacturing engineers. Plant people live “process.” They make products through a well-defined process. So, presenting a sequence of activities on a flow chart works. They can generally quickly understand the objective, make comments, and better utilize these charts. Project schedules as flow charts find more usability in plant conference rooms than do Gantt charts. Ask yourself: Would a flow chart help people understand why tasks need to be done as scheduled?
Use Focused Action Item Lists. In the same vein as focused task lists, “Action Item Lists” or “Open Issue Lists” can list only the tasks for a particular individual. These are much better than multi-page lists where the reader must search through the whole document to find tasks assigned to them. Generally, most people won't take the time to find their tasks. When the list is only their tasks, they can post the list on their wall or put it in their daily planner. As above, most software can easily do this selecting tasks based on some criteria. Ask yourself: Is it easy to find what I am responsible for?
Send One-Page, One-Issue Letters. Any letter that goes over one page is too long. If the information is more than a page, it is better to have a one-page letter and an attachment, or you are trying to do too much with one letter. Try to focus your letter on one topic. Try to put all the status information on one page . Letters that cover many issues or ask for several actions are less successful than focused ones. When a letter covers a breadth of material, responding to it is harder to do. Delegating is harder to do. Single-page, single-issue letters can be easily forwarded by the recipient to someone who will do the task. Single-page, single-issue letters can be commented on and returned. Single-page, single-issue letters can be used as a tickler note on a wall, desk, or in a daily planner. Ask yourself: Are my letters short, concise, and to the point?
Start Letters With What You Want. The first sentence in a letter must be what you are asking the recipient to do. Do not build up to what you are asking for. Do not apologize or caveat what you are asking for. Start with what you want them to do, then amplify, explain, and clarify afterwards. This rule holds for nearly every letter you write. Most people do not have time to read a great deal before they get to your point. If they only have ten seconds to look at your letter, let them read the gist of it first, then explain more. Have you received letters that you read through a page or more, constantly asking yourself: “What is it they want from me?” Put yourself in the reader's shoes: is the request immediately evident, short, and concise? Ask yourself: If they only read the first sentence, do they know what I want?
Describe In Detail What Is Needed. Vague letters get vague responses, if any response at all. Vague letters may cause action you don't want or not accomplish what you do want. Be clear and concise in asking what needs to be done, describing what the results of the actions will be. On one project team, we asked a plant engineer to “investigate” a problem. After a week, we heard nothing. When we were able to contact the engineer, we were told: “You asked me to investigate it, you didn't ask me to do any thing with what I found.” True story. Ask for action that resolves, initiates, or communicates. Be clear in what you expect to get as a result of the action. Ask yourself: Are we sure they know what we are asking for?
Avoid Abbreviations and Acronyms. Our jobs have become awash in acronyms. Aren't you irritated when half the words you see in a sentence are only acronyms? Don't assume someone else knows what you mean . The potential problem here is that your abbreviation or acronyms may mean something different to a manufacturing person. Manufacturing people use acronyms just as much as you; however, just as their world is a different one, so too are their abbreviations. Spell out the words, then use the acronym parenthetically afterwards. Ask yourself: Could they misunderstand my acronyms?
Use Colored Paper. Try using a particular color of paper for your action requests (such as light yellow or pink). This can help someone spot your communications amongst many other papers on their desk. Be careful though. Ask ahead of time what color would work and not be confused with another type of document. Also avoid dark colors such as goldenrod or dark blue. These colors can be hard to photocopy. For yourself, consider using a light yellow in your own office's plain paper fax machine! The faxes will jump out at you from all the paper on your desk. Ask yourself: Could color paper, color stickers, or color print help draw attention to what's important?
Don't CC: Everybody. Some project managers “complementary copy (cc:)” everybody on everything. They do this to somehow encourage people to do what is needed by telling everybody else what they are doing (especially their manager). This is not only wasteful, but counterproductive. We all already get so much mail, from key letters to junk mail, it is hard to find what is important. Send letters only where necessary. If you are communicating to the whole project team, address the cover letter to everybody on the team. Don't cc: everybody as a rule. Ask yourself: Do these people really want or need a copy?
Don't CC: Everything to the Plant Manager. Copying every letter to the plant, department, or general manager is like crying wolf. Soon they will only glance over and file (or discard) all these letters from you. Consider only sending them letters when the letter is to them personally and asking for their action, involvement, or comment. Ask yourself: If I were the plant manager, would I need this?
Call to Confirm Receipt of Faxes. If you send a facsimile copy, call to confirm it was received. Have you ever been asked why you didn't respond to a fax you didn't receive? Have you ever mistakenly sent a fax to the wrong location? Call to confirm they received it and ask them to call you if they have any questions. Not only does this confirm delivery, but it also creates a sense of importance and urgency to the fax. This takes a little extra time, but is very effective. Ask yourself: If the fax doesn't get to them, what would happen?
Be Careful With Electronic Mail (e-mail). Many plant people either do not have access to their companies email system or have only infrequent access to it. Before you assume it is used because someone has an account name, ask your plant people if they use it and how often they access it. If you use email regularly, print a paper copy out and fax it to the people at the plants. This is more efficient because they will nearly always get it sooner than through the e-mail system. Ask yourself: Is email really the fastest or best way to communicate with them?
Write Thank-You Notes. Thank you letters to people who accomplish tasks and to their managers work wonders. Ask yourself how you felt when someone wrote your manager a short note mentioning your efforts. Handwritten ones are more personal and heartfelt. Never be insincere in thanking someone, especially not sarcastically. It will undermine your relationship and can even backfire on you. Ask yourself: Did I thank them?
Good Communications Tips
For all your communications, with manufacturing plants or with anyone else, use these rules to guide you:
- Use we liberally. Helping those you communicate with feel part of the project team and avoiding the you-me alienation is vital. The project is not yours, it belongs to the team or company. Avoid saying “I need this done”; instead use we or the project needs your action.
- Don't tell, ask. Always ask people for the actions you require. Courtesy is essential to long-term relationships. Say please, even if the request is, so-to-speak, an order. People still like to be asked.
- Avoid profanity. Never swear. Even if the people in the plant use profanity as a way of life, do not swear or use inappropriate words. Just as when your spouse criticizes his/her own parents or relatives, you put yourself in great danger if you do the same. If swearing is normal for you, find funny non-profane substitute words to use in place of swear words.
- Avoid racist or offensive terminology. Just don't use it. Project teams of the future will be more culturally diverse than ever before. Project managers can be leaders in eliminating racism and cultural stereotypes.
- Use non-gender-specific terminology. All engineers are not men. All receptionists are not women. Start using they—or an appropriate non-gender-specific term—in place of him or her. Learn to use words like labor-hours instead of man-hours. This is another place project managers can be leaders: in eliminating gender stereotypes.
Find Out When They Are In, When to Call. Most plant people's lives run a regular schedule. Often they are in their offices by 6:00 to 6:25 in the morning (because the production meeting starts at 6:30 a.m.), and all over the plant until 10:00 a.m. (break time). Then they are out of the plant from 11:15 to 11:45 for lunch, and are then at their desks until noon, when they go back out on the floor or to meetings. Knowing when it is convenient to call them, and being reasonably sure they will be there, is very effective. Merely asking someone when it is convenient to call on non-emergency issues builds relationships. Ask yourself: How would I feel if they asked me?
Limit Your Use of Plantwide Public Address System Pages. Paging someone in a plant for non-emergency reasons is also counterproductive for relationships. Use paging sparingly and only if you really need them now. Paging someone out of a critical staff or production meeting can be extremely irritating to them, especially if the need is not great. Find out when regular meetings (production, staff, safety) are scheduled and don't call or page during these times. If you use pages only for emergencies, they will respect you for that. Ask yourself: Is it really necessary to interrupt them?
Say Please and Thank You. Simple words to say show sincerity. Use them. Ask yourself: Am I treating them the way I would like to be treated?
Follow-up With Faxes or a Letter. After a phone conversation, write or type a note confirming what was discussed and who will do what. This is especially true and essential if you are talking to someone out on the plant floor in a very noisy environment. They may misunderstand or simply forget what you agreed on as soon as you hang up. Confirmations help ensure concurrence and help ferret out “that's not what I said.” Ask yourself: Am I really sure everybody remembered what was said?
Go Look, Go See. Physical presence gets action like no other form of communication. Further, seeing the environment your team members live in each day will aid tremendously in your understanding of how best to work with and communicate with them. Never go unannounced. Best practice is to be sure the key people in the plant know you are coming, who you need to see, and what you hope to accomplish. Ask yourself: Do I understand what it's like to work there?
Wear What the Romans Wear. When visiting a plant, wear what is appropriate for that location and what you will be doing. Wearing a three-piece, double-breasted suit to a manufacturing process review will illustrate to everyone how much of an outsider you are. If in doubt, ask what is appropriate to wear. Are you there to criticize, watch, or work? Your clothing will speak for you. Ask yourself: How can I be most believable and effective?
Use a Plant Liaison. As you probably cannot go to the plants or facilities every day, is there someone in the plant who can be designated by the plant or general manager to be your project coordinator or liaison? This can work wonders in communicating to all the various functions you will work with in a plant (manufacturing, quality, process, purchasing, etc.). Having a person who can be your primary focus for communications and distribution of information can save time for yourself and many people in the plant. You send them information, which they take to individuals, production meetings, and staff meetings. Put a great deal of your time into this relationship. Ask yourself: Who at the plant could work closely with me?
Use Plant Staff Meetings. Most plants have regular weekly staff meetings where all the key plant people meet. Get on the agenda in advance. Be prepared to be brief, have your material written down, and know specifically what you are asking them to do or what you want to tell them. Stick to your allotted time, asking if you can meet with some of them afterwards if you begin to run over. Be sure too that the staff meeting is the only or best way to obtain a decision or cover an issue. If you can accomplish what you want individually, don't use this forum or you may not be able to use it again. Ask yourself: What am I asking them to do?
Use Production Meetings. These meetings generally occur every day, very early in the morning or shift, with lower level managers and supervisors. They are short and cover critical issues of that day. If you have a critical issue to cover or something to inform everyone, come early, be ready to speak on a moment's notice, and be very brief. If you have more than a few minutes of material to cover, hand it out, but don't cover it all. These meetings and hand-outs can be very effective if your project is affecting their production or if there is an emergency they all need to be aware of. Ask yourself: Is it worth their time to hear what I have to say?
Periodically Meet With Plant/Other Managers. Set up regular or special meetings with the plant management to review for them the impact of your project on their operation, share the progress made, and obtain commitment from them for work yet to be done. Be prepared and stay focused on their needs. Look to a Saturday or evening to do this if their schedules don't allow a more convenient time. Ask yourself: How can we ensure commitment of resources?
Get to Know the Receptionist. Sound silly? Not at all! The plant receptionist is your most critical person for helping you get to the right person in the plant. Also, the receptionist has amazing knowledge about where everyone is at any given time. The receptionist can tell you the best time to call and when not to call, and can even deliver an urgent message for you. The individuals who act as receptionist are key people. Know their names, be patient with them, and thank them for their help. Better yet, find a time (other than regular holidays or regular occasions) to send them something to say thanks. Ask yourself: Why should they give extra attention to me?
Work Out the Plan With the Plant. If you want buy-in on a project schedule, develop the schedule with those who will carry it out. Develop your plan on drafting paper, dry erase boards, 3x5 cards on a wall, or with Post-it notes with everyone present. Nothing will work more against you than a plan created by upper management cast down upon the manufacturing facility. Ask yourself: How can we get people's commitment to our plans?
Bring People to Them. Hold meetings periodically at your manufacturing facilities. Although they may be pulled out at a moment's notice for a plant emergency, you will get more of their time and more of them to be involved. You can invite key production workers or supervisors to meetings who could never attend if the meeting were out of town. Ask yourself: How can we get the most out of the people in the plant?
Use Off-site Meetings Close to Plants. Project meetings in plants are prone to frequent interruptions and people jumping up and running out. That's their job, accept it. A simple compromise is to have a meeting at a motel or hotel where you are staying, at a fraternal organization building, or other facility within a short distance of the plant. This ensures that plant personnel are available for emergencies, but generally limits the interruptions to true emergencies. Ask yourself: Where would be the best place to meet with the people we need and keep them focused on the project?
Shake Hands and Say Thanks. Heard this before? Nothing speaks more highly of your sincerity and concern than a handshake and a smile. Use them often. Ask yourself: Do people want to be on my team?
Overall, these ideas can save you considerable time in follow-up on tasks not completed. Poor communication causes inefficiency. Inefficiency causes delays and frustration. Delays and frustration causes stress and distrust. Stress and distrust can ruin projects. Good communication is critical.
Critical to successful communication is an understanding of the environment of the people we communicate with. Adjusting our communication styles and methods to their needs is a win-win opportunity.
One more idea from the plants for you. Plant safety talks are five-minute to half-hour gatherings of everyone to discuss some aspect of safety. These short meetings are held regularly and have prevented countless injuries and saved many lives. Consider using these communications ideas, or others from PM Network, in staff meetings or project team meetings. How about a five-minute “Project Safety” talk during your next team meeting to help prevent project failures?
1. Bellman, Geoffrey M. 1992. Getting Things Done When You Are Not In Charge. New York: Fireside, Simon & Schuster.
2. Kandt, David B., and William Douglas Reith. 1992. Assumption Management–Improved Project Management for the ’90s. Proceedings of the Project Management Institute, pp. 451–458. Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.
3. Khadem, Riaz, and Robert Lorber. 1986. One Page Management – How to Use Information to Achieve Your Goals. New York: William Morrow.
4. Nunn, Philip. 1995. The Transition to Project Management in Manufacturing. PM Network (January), pp. 7–10.
William Douglas Reith, PMP, PE, is a senior program manager with Atoma International. He has a degree in industrial and operations engineering from the University of Michigan. He is a Certified Quality Engineer and a Certified Manufacturing Engineer.
PM Network • August 1995