Process Fun: The malfunctions of miscommunication




In a world with tightening budgets and shortened production cycles, time is precious. Unfortunately with added pressures and deadlines, human error naturally becomes a factor and therefore it is often the simplest of things that cause the biggest failures. One of the simplest to avoid, if you’re mindful, is miscommunication.

If you’ve ever been at one end or the other of miscommunication you know it can have hilarious results?

You might all be pulling in the same direction, but have you clarified which direction that is exactly?

Vanessa Lovatt, Managing Director – Commercial of IQPC, recently had her own miscommunication experience, when her husband's culinary skills were put to the test.

Whilst making dinner (a veritable feast of bacon and butternut squash), her husband (we’ll call him Mr Vanessa Lovatt for the purposes of the article) called his wife seeking help for his fast-burning squash. Vanessa suggested he should "put the bacon on top" to cover the squash and stop it from burning. Seems simple, and he followed her instruction to the letter, the only problem was that her instruction seemed to lack a little… detail, and so when Vanessa returned home, this is what she found in the oven:

Not exactly as was intended and yet still following the instruction to the letter!

This communication error was hilarious at the very least. Vanessa is still with her husband (I think), although she won’t be entering him for MasterChef this year.

However, similar missteps occur in business everyday. And in a business such a lack of clarity from either party can end with disastrous consequences!

NASA lost the $125 million dollar Mars Orbiter in 1999 due to exactly this kind of lack of clarity. Two pieces of software, one producing results in United States customary units while the other read them as metric, caused the craft to disintegrate in the planet’s atmosphere when the trajectory was miscalculated and the probe came in at a much lower altitude than anticipated – killing the mission on the day when engineers had expected to celebrate the spacecraft’s entry into Mars’ orbit.

The bacon example is light-hearted, but it and it’s Martian counterpart both highlight a known phenomenon which can cost millions in avoidable process mishaps every year – the curse of knowledge. Vanessa knew she meant wrap the squash in bacon, and because of her knowledge it never even occurred to her that she might need to explain that to Mr Vanessa Lovatt. Each software engineer knew they were using the correct unit of measurement, and so it never occurred to them just to ask one another – "you are measuring this in metric right?"

So what about in commercial business? A lack of clear communication or intent isn’t just costly, but also potentially fatal. One of the biggest commercial failures in recent history is the collapse of Lehman Brothers. And according to some accounts at least, salvation for the firm was hampered by none other than our friend miscommunication, leading to the biggest financial collapse in history.

Communication plays a huge role in every aspect of life, whether in the kitchen, outer space or in business, productivity will always increase when there is a mutual understanding. Better communication leads to a more efficient and effective workplace – or in Vanessa’s case, a more efficient husband!