# 9 Think! An Effective Communication Technique
“Getting people to think and take the initiative is the key” to effective LEAN leadership, according to John Shook, Senior Advisor to the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) and a former Toyota manager.
That advice jumped out at me as I was re-listening to an old podcast of John and Jim Womack, the LEI founder on Lean Management & the Role of Lean Leadership. In fact, it started me thinking that this credo applies to what we employee communications professionals should be doing.
Our role is to challenge employees—especially knowledge workers using their brains not their brawn. We want them to think hard, deep and broad about important things and encourage them to act. Their actions can take many forms…putting extra, discretionary effort into their regular job… pondering what their customers would like next…mulling over ways to make improvements in products and work processes…imagining new things to do and make… connecting people who can create new ideas…and on and on.
And just like the Toyota leaders who are told, “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught,” we communication pros should be concerned if employees aren’t thinking and taking the initiative.
Well, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have a stellar track record on getting people to think. In fact, I got a rude reminder of this fact just a couple of hours after listening to the podcast. My DIRECTV client e-mailed me a link to photos from the Huntington (WVa) Herald-Dispatch. Earlier in the week, the newspaper had covered the ribbon-cutting event at DIRECTV’s newest customer care center.
Years ago, I had tried to get people to think in Huntington when I was a general assignment reporter for the Herald-Dispatch’s sister paper, The Huntington Advertiser, which no longer exists. (Not surprisingly to those who know the journalism industry, The Advertiser was the evening paper.) Either my editor or I had the brilliant idea that I would ask registered voters what they thought of the job Governor Jay Rockefeller (now Senator) was doing for the state of West Virginia.
Lots of people told me they couldn’t answer the question. “Why not?” I asked, ever the budding investigative reporter. The common response was: “Well, I don’t think anymore.”
This answer so startled me that I did a bylined editorial about my poll called “What do you think?” (Yes, even as college student who was working for credit from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in lieu of pay, I was already leveraging story ideas.)
This experience—along with being stuck in small town America for an entire quarter—influenced me to pursue another type of communication career. (My next job was doing employee communications for a Fortune 500 energy company in a Chicago skyscraper.)
Even with these almost repressed memories resurfacing, I’m even more committed to encouraging employees to think and take the initiative. Enterprising people and processes are how successful companies differentiate themselves in the marketplace and keep happy customers.
To support employees, I suggest we as LEAN communicators take these three actions ourselves:
1. Help managers and other leaders be better listeners by providing them with tips for listening, including persuading them to share air time with employees.
2. Provide discussion questions for managers and employees to jump start dialogues on important issues for the organization.
3. Streamline our communication about daily operations and maintenance stuff to show our respect for people’s time so they can spend time and attention on the big issues.
Effective streamlining involves making our basic communications simple to use, understand and apply. In other words:
Use lots of bullets (or steps); avoid flowery prose and dense paragraphs
Keep the language clear; drop the jargon and the complicated terminology
Be short; try to use no more than 500 – 600 words
Make things (articles, podcasts, videos, etc.) easy to find
Explicitly state what actions people need to start doing, stop doing and continue doing.
Use as your mantra: Be clear, be quick, and be gone. Those of us who want time to think will thank you.