Staff discussing how to communicate better to improve operational performance

Communicate better to improve operational performance

In addition to your traditional communication role, you can make your presence felt by improving operational communication and therefore operational performance of your organization. Therefore, it is worthwhile for you to communicate better to improve operational performance.

You may ask why you should become involved in operational communication. After all, it should be an operational responsibility. The answer is that workplace communication is probably the most important communication of all—because it directly affects profitability, or in the case of government entities, their efficiency and effectiveness. And if operational managers aren’t addressing operational miscommunication problems, then it is legitimate for communicators to initiate action in everyone’s interests. You can easily demonstrate the practical reasons why managers need to communicate better to improve operational performance.

It would be wise to first get clearance from your CEO and senior management to follow up such situations, or you may be perceived to be interfering in operational areas outside your responsibility.

Operational miscommunication is widespread with unnecessary costs

Operational miscommunication is widespread. Staff, especially frontline staff, in any workplace will offer many examples of delays, duplication and unnecessary cost. Public relations staff would also have observed many examples of workplace miscommunication. The bigger the organization, the bigger the waste. The most common occurrences take place during changeover of shift, between divisions, and between head office staff and branch staff or field staff.

Workplace communication issues identified in the past may have been ignored by comms pros because they perceived that the issues didn’t relate directly to the PR department’s job responsibilities. But working to initiate practical solutions to this problem will allow you to show that project staff need to communicate better to improve operational performance of your whole organization.

The high costs of poor workplace communication

According to the 2022 Grammarly State of Business Communication Report, the 1,001 US knowledge workers, including 251 business leaders, estimated poor communication in the workplace accounts for a loss of 7.47 hours per employee per week. “For the average full-time knowledge worker on their team, who makes an estimated salary of $66,976, the wasted 7.47 hours each week [almost a day’s work lost each week!] amounts to a sunk cost of $12,506 per employee per year…For an employee with a salary of $133,952, the sunk cost is $25,012 per year.”

[By showing these figures in such fine detail, Grammarly implies how professional and comprehensive the work was done in this survey, but in reality these figures should be rounded – (7.47 hours per employee per week??). The sample size is actually much too small to enable the figures to be extrapolated into national results in such fine detail. However we can still draw general conclusions from the data.]

Image: Grammarly State of Business Communication Report, 2022.

Poor communication is having a tremendous impact on the workplace, was the key finding from a survey of 403 US senior executives, managers and junior staff, conducted for The Economist Intelligence Unit in 2017-18. (A very small sample, unfortunately.) Anyhow, the communication problems were found to be:

Unclear instructions from superiors, pointless meetings and other stressors can snowball into larger issues with widespread impacts on the business. Respondents say communication barriers are leading to a delay or failure to complete projects (44%), low morale (31%), missed performance goals (25%) and even lost sales (18%)—some worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The repercussions of poor communication in the workplace can be severe and widespread: 44% of respondents indicate that miscommunication has caused a delay or failure to complete projects. As for the direct impact on business, 18% say miscommunication has led to the loss of a sale, nearly a third (30%) of which were valued between US$100,000 and US$999,999.

Communication breakdowns also contribute to less tangible issues, such as stress (52%) and low morale (31%). Employees of all ages and seniority levels must consider a number of factors in order to improve workplace communication and, as a result, productivity, morale and the bottom line.

The survey shows that 78% of respondents think having clearer goals for every scheduled meeting would have a significant impact on improving workplace communication, including 39% who say the improvement would be very significant. Moreover, six out of ten respondents say firm-wide training (62%) and having a wider range of communication tools to use (63%) would significantly improve work communication.

Poor communication in commercial projects

What about commercial workers – contractors and subcontractors? A 2023 survey by PlanRadar asked clients about their relationship with contractors, with the following results:

Almost 60% of general contractors feel like they can’t get a full picture of what’s going on on-site. Also, 80% of general contractors have experienced misunderstanding and disputes all thanks to a breakdown in communication with subcontractors.

US project management professionals, William Dow & Bruce Taylor, wrote a great (800-page!) book, Project Management Communications Bible. Their conclusions from many years of managing projects is that “In most cases, poor communications by the project manager, team members, or clients of the project [is the main reason for project failure]. Someone is not communicating effectively on the project such as deadlines missed, budgets overrun, team members not talking, and clients not receiving the information they need nor communicating their requirements clearly.” And:

…communications problems represent 90% of the reasons why projects fail…It is common knowledge that it is easy to resolve technical problems.

Although the book was published in 2008, most of the content is still relevant, subject to the areas in which technical advances now aid efficient project communication and management. Bill Dow continues to write a blog and provide resources in his website, if you are interested in finding out more about project management communication.

Become a catalyst to solve operational miscommunication

You can help to solve these miscommunication problems by acting as a catalyst—conducting interviews and focus groups to identify the problems with potential bottom-line impact that seems to have communication gaps.

The next step is to quantify the cost of the operational waste caused by the miscommunication. You can gain approval to observe relevant operational processes at close range and to talk to the operators about their communication as they do their work. It would be prudent to seek approval from the relevant managers and supervisors in these activities and to discuss solutions with them. Their experience would be important in assessing the worth of the proposed changes and they are more likely to support the changes if they are part of the solution.

Quantify the costs of inefficiency and wasted staff time

With the help of the local management or supervisors, the operational problem can be defined along with its cost in higher expenses or lost revenue each time it happens. If the main inefficiency is wasted staff time, the cost can be calculated by multiplying the hourly wage or salary rate of the relevant staff (including indirect costs such as employer contributions to their superannuation or pension fund, etc) by the amount of their lost time for each episode. By multiplying the cost of each episode by the number of times they happen, the total cost can be calculated for a given period of time and can be communicated to senior management.

You can easily calculate the financial improvement in efficiencies created by better operational communication

Then the cost of solving the problem by applying communication techniques can easily be calculated against the improvements achieved to give a very high rate of return for the PR effort.

All operational improvements resulting from such communication improvements can be quantified in financial terms by simply calculating the dollar impact of increased sales, higher productivity, improved safety, better quality, etc. The improvement can be calculated in terms of lower cost or higher revenue.

In every instance, the annual potential improvement would be far greater than the cost of PR staff who may be involved in the project, thus creating a very high and measurable return on investment (ROI). These figures build a strong case for senior management support for the communication role as well as increased respect from all management, which is evidence that we can communicate better to improve operational performance – a win:win result!

Further reading

You can read more about this topic in my article, “Unveiling the root cause: Poor communication causes most project management failures.”

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

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