Scott Sedam examines why home builders and other businesses have communication problems and how to address them.
Landing at the beautiful new terminal, I exit the airplane and follow the crowd, assuming we are all trying to get out of there by some means, mine via rental car. I spy the sign for baggage claim but nothing about ground transportation of any kind. I carried my bags on but since rental cars are usually in the same general direction as baggage claim I push on with the crowd. After a hundred yards or so, I exit past security and begin my scan. Okay, baggage claim is down the escalator straight ahead, nothing left, nothing right. Sigh. All right, down we go I guess. Then the man right before me stops abruptly, as the guy in front of him steps onto the moving stair, swears, and points toward something as his female companion shakes her head. I hold up and just avoid running over the man in front of me when I get bumped from behind by a college-age girl on her cell phone. The lead guy exclaims “Ground transportation!” I follow his point to a well-disguised sign on a round pillar that is off at an angle from the upper level and like drunken lemmings we all lurch that way, rolling bags in trail.
At this point, my phone buzzes and seeing it is the office I pull aside to answer. While my office manager Jean gives me an update, I watch the awkward dance continue at the head of the escalator as more passengers make the last-second discovery—or not—that ground transportation and baggage claim are not co-located. It turns out that at this terminal, after venturing downstairs to retrieve your bags you have to go back up another escalator and over a road, then drop back downstairs again to ground transportation. With no need to pick up bags, however, you can go directly to ground transportation and skip two escalators in the unlikely event you catch the sign. My initial frustration over the awkwardness of the design and how much extra time and effort it takes quickly gives way to the even more aggravating realization as I watch the escalator collisions continue, that just a wee bit of visible signage would eliminate all of this confusion.
Designer option or decorator whim?
How hard can this be to fix? Pondering that, my thoughts jump back to a recent builder visit where the models were full of expensive upgrades and designer options alike that were not clearly marked as such. I listened to the salesperson trying to explain to a prosperous-looking young couple what was standard, what was optional, and what was apparently just “decorator whim.” The salesperson worked hard to deal with a difficult situation as the pair grew more and more frustrated. “That counter upgrade is how much?” “We really love these bookcases, and you’re saying we cannot get them?” “Why is this in your model if we cannot buy it?” On and on it went. Why would a builder throw up obstacles making it difficult for the salesperson to manage this couple’s experience in the model and move toward a sale?
As I put the phone away I am brought back to the present when I arrive at the proverbial fork in the road. I stand at a big Y where two large hallways diverge, left and right. The “Ground Transportation” sign effectively straddles them both. Once again people slow and bunch up, looking in each direction, contemplating the 50/50 chance they have to get it right. More people move to the right as do I and maybe 50 feet down that hall stands a security guard at a small podium. About half the group slow to ask her a question, after which the majority of them reverse course and head back toward the fork, shaking their heads and muttering. Still nothing about car rental specifically so I too stop to ask and before I get “rental car” completely out of my mouth she points straight ahead. Stay the course. I have what I need, but I just cannot let this go. I put on my kindest, most supportive face and ask exactly what the setup is here. She explains that some parts of ground transportation such as passenger pickup and parking shuttles are to the left, while others such as hotel and car rental vans are to the right. I then ask how often people are confused and have to ask directions. Her simple answer, “Almost everyone, all day, every day.” Of course I have to inquire about any efforts to fix the signage and with a withering look she replies, “We bring it up in every meeting and in every one they say they are working on it, but hey, it’s only been a year.” Her eyes tell the real story, and she is near her breaking point.
What is a house plan but a structural way of communicating?
As I contemplate this one, an airport that spends tens of millions on a new terminal but shows no regard for its passengers and a security guard doing everything except providing security, I am again struck by how just a small bit of timely information can eliminate an incredible waste in time and frustration. I thought back to another client visit. We were working on a plan review that the builder thought was, “Pretty tight.Won’t find much on this one.” That depends, I guess, on how you define “much.” After all the suppliers and trades made their inputs, the plan had more than 75 specific improvements to make it better, easier, faster, and less costly to build. What is a plan but a structural way of communicating? I think this through as I make my way down the corridor passing over the road and down the single escalator, relieved to not have to make a choice this time. Arriving at the bottom, I see rental car and hotel shuttles all mixed up together, in no apparent order, lurching forward, braking, and then lurching again every which way. The Hertz bus miraculously shows up right in front of me sparing me, no doubt, another ten minutes figuring out how easy it is to organize this particular communications mess.
They are not always so easy. I drift back to a young purchasing manager I met who arrived at a new job to find that 80 percent of the options and selections were either wrong or missing. That’s a prescription for chaos. This builder had gone through a parade of design center managers the past few years. As each one brought in her personal preferences and “style,” senior management constantly changed plans and designs. Soon the entire system fell out of control. From the bid package to the sales contract to the selections to the start package it was an utter mess, and those paying the highest price were the field guys—construction superintendents and their suppliers and trades. This had a massive impact beyond the obvious, the constant phone calls, clarifications, waiting for material, rework, and schedule delays. The back office staff of the builder, suppliers, and trades alike constantly dealt with the fallout and again we are talking about a basic breakdown in communication.
You are probably hoping that at this point I have my rental car and escaped the airport property, but I experienced two additional communication snafus that have their parallels in home building. A gold member, I leave the bus, check the board, walk out to the car, load up, and get in. All is well except for one critical piece of information—no contract. Sigh. I walk back to the kiosk, wait in line five minutes and it is all I can do to remain calm and polite while the nice young woman explains, “Oh no, Mr. Sedam, we have a new system now, and you pick up your contract as you exit!” I stare at her, wanting to scream, but I know it is not her fault in any way. Finally in a steady voice, I ask if, since every other rental outfit including the ones from this very brand put the contract in the car for advanced reservations, might it not be a good idea to let the customer know about this “improvement” so that the customer does not walk all the way out to their car, spend time searching for the contract, walk all the way back to the kiosk, wait in line, only to be told ... And of course she says to me, “Yes sir, I am very sorry. We have been telling management the same thing ever since we started this last month. People are getting upset.” We do a couple’s sigh together.
Process improvement collateral damage
Having been in the business of continual improvement with home builders for more than a quarter century, so many instances of this same scenario flood my mind I feel overwhelmed. Someone improves a process—often a genuinely good improvement—yet they either fail to consider how it impacts customers and other staff, or they are not empowered to do anything about the ancillary impacts. The result is PICD. You have heard of that, haven’t you? Process Improvement Collateral Damage? OK, I just made up that term, but you have lived with the consequences. We change the schedule upstream without considering the impact of trades coming two weeks out and now they are on top of each other. We rework the truss layout and save $100 without realizing we just created $200 more work for the HVAC contractor locating the air handler and running ducts. We buy a new program to track warranty without determining its compatibility with our current data base. We could name hundreds of examples. Make a list of your own and ask yourself this simple question. “Would timely communication with the right person or parties have eliminated this problem?” More often than not you’ll find the answer is yes.
I may have figured out the thinking behind the “pick your contract up at the exit gate” improvement. It gives the gate monitor a chance to lean on you to buy their uber-profitable options for insurance, premium road service, and fuel pre-purchase. Those customers without reservations get this drill at the counter but when you get the contract in your car, it is simple to check no, nein, nada, nyet! Exactly who was this improvement for, anyway? Whatever, as I drive through the gate I am fully ready for my next 50/50 proposition which in my 35 years of constant travel I have just come to accept as part of the deal. What do 95 percent of those who rent cars at airports want to know when we leave the gate and come to the inevitable T-road? “Which way to the interstate?” Of course, those who work for Hertz, National, Avis, Budget, or Uncle Joe’s Discount Cars live there. They know the way so it rarely occurs to them that anyone from out of town may not. Only about half of the time do you find a sign that advises left or right. I claim I have learned to accept this but ask anyone who travels with me and they’ll probably suggest otherwise, having experienced my inevitable lectures about communication, waste, and lean thinking.
Most builders never miss anything that obvious, right? Just recently on a cloudy day I rode through a project and saw three guys standing outside a house being framed, holding the plan up over their heads and pointing. The problem was obvious ... not enough sun! I looked at my construction vice president driver and suggested, “There’s a thousand dollar bill right there.” He sighed and asked, “Will you explain that to the boss?” Sure I would and I did, but the frustration was that I had to. With today’s CAD systems, high-speed printers, and iPads in the field you can mirror-image a plan for less than $50 if you have your own staff, maybe $100 if done on the outside. There is simply no excuse for not reworking a plan you decided to flip to fit a lot, meet community design standards, or answer a customer need. Even on a sunny day holding that plan over your head, trying to visualize all of the changes required to make it work is impossible and with at least 20 or more suppliers and trades impacted, it’s not if mistakes will be made; it is just how many and how costly they will be.
“Communication is never the problem, it’s merely a symptom.”
I have watched one of our TrueNorth Associates, Hal Peller, ask this question many times when he checks into hotels, “I’ll bet you have communication problems here, don’t you?” This is something I do not do, because at the end of a long day I don’t have the patience to listen to the emotional dump that counter clerk is preparing to lay on me. Besides, I am still mad at the rental car company. But Hal is nicer and more patient than me, and he does listen. Hal says he has never had a single hotel clerk say anything but, “Yes, let me tell you about it!” and it’s no different at restaurants, car dealers, airlines, or builders. Is this simply the human condition?
One of the great professors I had is now-retired Dr. John Douglas at Miami University, Ohio. Among his many great sayings was this: “Communication is never the problem; it’s merely a symptom.” So here I laid out a litany of communication issues that at least on the surface appear easy to solve and now Dr. Douglas informs you that these are not the real problem. If we step back a moment, we know this is true because the same things, apparently easy to fix yet seemingly always present, keep happening over, and over, and over. So what’s the problem? The title of this piece came from the sadistic warden known as the Captain in the seminal film, “Cool Hand Luke.” After beating Luke (Paul Newman) half to death, he lectures the prisoner work gang on rules and behavior, summing it all up with the phrase, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate!” as if this explains it all away. Simple as that. Yet we know in the movie and in our workplaces that the real problems are much deeper. So as we go about the process of the myriad fixes to our daily communication problems that waste all of our time, let’s not forget to dig deeper for the root cause. Perhaps many of the symptoms could thus be eliminated. As for the airports and car rental firms, the real problem is they don’t listen to their customers. Ah, but maybe that’s just a symptom as well? PB
Scott Sedam is president of TrueNorth Development, an internationally known consulting and training firm based in the Detroit area. Scott welcomes your comments, questions, and feedback at email@example.com. Find Scott’s LeanBuilding Blog on www.ProBuilder.com or www.TrueN.com, where you will find archives of past articles. You can also join “The LeanBuilding Group” on www.linkedin.com.