The Communication Blitz – Delivering Key Messages
By Patricia Landry, Noranda Alumina and Joe Mikes, Life Cycle Engineering
The communication blitz is a proven approach to communicating key messages effectively throughout an organization. Anyone looking to improve communication within their organization and improve employee engagement can adopt the easy-to-use process introduced in this article.
During a large project, when many things are changing, there is an increased need for ongoing communication to all employees. When implementing a continuous improvement initiative, effectively communicating the changes is essential to success. Change management during a big project is just that; managing the change itself. The communication blitz provides proactive messages to help manage the change within an organization.
A large project like an implementation of Reliability Excellence (Rx) requires a master plan that includes major tasks and milestones, and a well-designed change management plan. The change management plan needs to include a comprehensive communication plan. The communication blitz, a subset of the communication plan, is a series of communications delivered face to face from the leaders who sponsor the change all the way to the hourly employees working at the site.
Prepare to Follow the Sequence
The approach is simple. First, senior leaders develop a succint, short message. They then divide up the front line supervisors into equal groups. The leaders go out into the work areas of the supervisors and discuss this message, seek open discussion, and check for retention with the supervisors. This can be done individually or in small groups.
Next, the supervisors go out and meet with their employees in small groups and deliver the same message. After a short period of time, usually around two to four weeks, the leadership group interviews a sample of the hourly employees to determine if they can explain the message. They develop questions specific to the message delivered so that there is a standard approach to talking with the hourly employees. The goal is to have 40% retention, meaning that 40% of the employees can clearly articulate the message. After attaining 40% or better, the next message can be developed and the cycle begins again. See Illustration 1.
40% is a minimum number of people that should have a strong understanding of the messages to make sure the communications are getting through. This dramatically improves the likelihood of the changes taking hold. When scoring the retention, it is a good idea to develop a matrix of the key questions and the list of employees that received the message. See Illustration 2.
It is important to document how well the employees have retained the message. Talking to a few people to get a gut check is too subjective to make sure the message was well received. Using this simple matrix helps to make sure that the desired outcome has in fact occurred. When actually scoring the retention, three levels of response should be expected: full recall, some recall, or no recall. Two people are usually involved in conducting the review: the top site manager and the project leader. This typically requires two, two-hour sessions carrying a clipboard with the questions and any additional information that you would like to leave with each person interviewed.
From this example we can analyze how well the message has been retained and communicated back during the evaluation. Reviewing this scorecard example (the totals per person down the right side and then totals per question across the bottom) reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the results. Reviewing the scores of the people indicates the “operator” has low understanding. Further review with other operators should be conducted to determine if it was a single person that missed the content or if all operators were missing the main points. The totals across the bottom illustrate that discussing “How long will this change take?” had the lowest score. It was not clearly communicated and needs to be repeated. Every round of the blitz has to have a judgment call regarding the need for a partial or whole message to be repeated. In this case repeating the details around “how long this change will take?” is necessary but the rest of the message in round two can be new content.
It is important to avoid a common mistake with organizational communications: measuring the success of a communication from the sender’s point of view. Leaders frequently feel that “we told them,” or “we have communicated this with a town hall meeting, sent e-mails, and put out posters regarding this message, they must know what we’re talking about.” In fact, they are assuming the employees got the message because of their high confidence in the development of the message and channels selected to deliver it. There are always opportunities to improve the effective delivery of a message, yet the only way to avoid assumptions of retention, is to monitor retention with the receiver. See Illustration 3.
The effectiveness of a communication should always be monitored by conducting face-to-face evaluations with the hourly employees, seeking to understand how much can be recalled. This has multiple positive effects: site leaders are seen out in the work areas, leaders are following up on the message illustrating the importance, employees feel valued when they are asked these questions by top leadership, supervisors feel valued by having direct face-to-face time with the top leaders, and the top leaders end up learning things about the employees and supervisors from their time together.
The cost to perform a communication blitz is the leadership’s time. It is much more efficient to send an e-mail and expect the employees to get the message. The most efficient approach is also typically the least effective. The investment in time is well worth the return. How many times has a big change been rolled out with minimal training and poor communication? When only the efficient methods are used, the results are usually meager at best.
Another important concept is that the communication blitz is intended to be a series of messages, not just one round. When the leaders are out checking the retention of the second and third messages, different employees should be approached. For each round that this is performed, a new message and subsequent questions need to be developed.
Including the top site leader during retention checks sends a significant message about the importance of the project at hand. When the hourly employees are approached by the top manager and the project manager, they get a clear message about the importance of the change and how they need to make sure to engage any information coming out about this project going forward.
Patricia Landry was leading the Manufacturing Excellence (Mx) implementation at Noranda Alumina processing plant in Gramercy, Louisiana over the last couple years. Here’s how she reflects on her experience using the communication blitz approach.
How important is it to focus on clear concise communications during a big project?
It is the #1 aspect that a management team must do to implement a change. Depending on the change, once employees understand the nature and the reasons behind the change, they typically will be more accepting of the project/change.
How would you rank the ability of the leadership team to communicate with employees before this approach was used?
The management team here at Noranda Alumina would be the first to admit that communication is not our strong suit. The communication blitz offered us an organized way of communicating to our 400(+) employees.
What was it like developing the first communication blitz?
Developing our first blitz taught us to focus on our audience. We understood the specifics of the project and did not need to communicate that in detail. We needed to let them know the basics and how it was going to affect them. We learned to keep it simple!
How long did it take to roll out the message to all employees?
The blitz was designed to take a month to communicate to everyone that we needed to reach. It actually took us a couple of weeks longer.
How did you get the leadership team to divide up and go out and speak with the supervisors?
We split the plant into segments and each person volunteered for the areas that they wanted to be responsible for.
Did supervisors embrace or resist the communication effort?
They embraced it.
Did hourly employees embrace or resist the communication effort?
I wouldn’t describe their reaction as embrace or resist but more of a “wait and see” attitude. It sounds good, but they are skeptical.
What kind of feedback did you get during the message evaluation step?
It was positive. Most people had to be prompted. Once they were reminded of what Mx (Manufacturing Excellence Project) was, they remembered the communication.
What did you learn from the whole process of developing, rolling out, and auditing the effectiveness of the first communication blitz?
We learned that we have to remember our audience. The follow-up is also very important. What employees understand and what you intend to communicate can be two different things.
Do you foresee this blitz approach playing a role in your communications going forward?
Yes, the Mx Steering Team intends to continue communicating using the blitz method. It was even suggested as a communication tool corporate-wide at a leadership conference in September of last year.
Improving communications within an organization is not as difficult as many leaders may believe. Adopting the communication blitz process can bolster your change management strategies and improve both employee engagement and the sustainability of the changes at hand.
About the Authors:
Patricia Landry is Maintenance Manager of the Noranda Alumina processing plant in Gramercy Louisiana. As project manager over the Manufacturing Excellence project, she was responsible for implementing over 25 major process changes this year to drive up the reliability and reduce production losses without changing the asset or employee base. She was also accountable for all change management efforts, including project communications with 400+ employees.
Joe Mikes, CMRP, is a Senior Consultant with Life Cycle Engineering. He was working directly with Patricia throughout the project. He has also helped numerous other companies launch and sustain continuous improvement initiatives. He can be reached at jmikes@LCE.com.
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