Say what? The Trouble with Communicating About Process

John Macdonald

Does your CEO look at you like you’re speaking an ancient form of Klingon when you explain all this process stuff to him? Are you more comfortable talking about run charts, histograms – or for our more technically minded – real-time event processing? If this is you, John MacDonald, Global Manager Business Processes at logistics company TNT Express, has one piece of advice for you: STOP!

You’re sabotaging your own efforts at process improvement says Macdonald. In this interview, he explains why process talk is so damaging and how you can better win friends and influence people in the quest for the hearts and minds of your business.

Editor's note: This is an edited transcript of a video interview. Watch the original interview: Tips for Better Communication: Why You Shouldn't "Speak Process"

PEX Network: Do you think that process professionals sometimes have difficulty communicating with the rest of the business?

John Macdonald: Yes, I do. I’m one and I’ve run into communication difficulties first hand. We tend to sometimes use abstract descriptions. We sometimes can come across as academic. And when we’re actually talking to people at the operational coalface, you get sometimes get this disconnect in communication and they put their barriers up because you’re not talking their language. So, from personal experience, I’ve learnt how to change how I approach them and change the language and the content that I use.

PEX Network: Why do you think it is that process professionals use abstract language or don’t really speak the language of the people at the coalface?

I think it starts when certain people take process improvement courses like Lean Six Sigma (among others) and they learn a lingo and a language. They then talk it amongst themselves at Steering Committee level but that language doesn’t permeate down to the shop floor. So, they turn up saying Kaizen and things like that.

What it comes down to, for me, is the maturity of Process Management within the company. The communication problems begin to get less as you go forward and the language becomes common to everybody. At the beginning, you do come across as a bit of a nerd – "what is he talking about?" Then two or three years later - as more and more people go through the various courses - the language becomes part of the culture. That’s been the experience for me within TNT Express.

PEX Network: Can you give me an example of where you think Process professionals go wrong when they’re communicating with the business, say about BPM or other process related initiatives?

I think it’s how we get inducted into the subject matter. I remember about three or four years ago, we were given a folder, about 100 pages full of every single statistical tool you can think of - very abstract and very number driven. And they take that on board and start to use it.

I think if you actually stood back, thought about your target audience first, then avoided the jargon and spoke in everyday language, both the staff resistance we encounter and some of the time that we lose with poor communication could be avoided.

PEX Network: And what would you say works best to really get that communication across? How do you approach it?

I think if senior level leaders talk about it enthusiastically even months before a change improvement is coming in, in ways that employees understand - using terms that resonate with them - then there will be productivity efficiency gains. And if they communicate the value of the future change, then when the Change Team comes in, they go into an environment that is already set up. It’s understood why they’re coming and when they start using the symbols and the languages, it will resonate quicker. So, I think the key is upfront - and constant - communication from the top down.

PEX Network: And really remembering your audience and translating the message for them?

Yes, because especially in Europe, where I predominantly work, people might speak English. But if you start using academic terms, they'll have more trouble understanding if it's not their first language. So you’ve got to learn as you go across the borders in Europe, English in the Nordics is very good, but it’s not as good everywhere, especially as you go East and South. So, you’ve really got to use very simple language to get that across.