KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Strong businesses remain strong thanks in large part to effective communications—both amongst their own staff as well as with their valued customers and vendors. Like it or not, nothing beats face-to-face communications, but such meetings do take time and are increasingly hard to pull off these days due to everyone’s hectic schedules that can oftentimes change on a dime.

It’s hard to imagine effective communications between managers, supervisors and workers on any plant floor that’s not done face-to-face in group or committee meetings. In recent years, I’ve been told by packing and processing plant management that routinely conducting group meetings daily or weekly is invaluable because so many good ideas for problem solving plus improvements are submitted during these get-togethers. A lot of “extras” are sometimes unexpectedly generated due to the synergies, such as suggestions on how to design a piece of equipment to make it safer or more effective or how to create better seals in packaging, just to mention a few.

“There’s not a day that goes by when I won’t call [not email] our R&D director or somebody from HR, media relations or an engineer… [communication] is always happening, it just flows,” Bruce Schweitzer, former vice president of operations, Refrigerated Foods, Hormel Foods Inc., who retired last year, told me during one of his last interviews with the trade press. Schweitzer had oversight of 14 Hormel Foods refrigerated food plants, including the flagship 1.1 million-sq.-ft. processing plant in Austin, Minn. “We make decisions better together and you’ll see a lot of collaborative decision making here. You’ll also hear about task forces and teams where we get input from all areas and try to make the best decision we can. We have a lot of resources and we try to use them.”

What a great philosophy. Hormel Foods and many other forward-thinking companies value the input generated during various plant meetings — input that would likely be impossible to get otherwise.

In recent decades, email has become the choice of communications for many time-stressed managers because it’s fast and can be effective — that is if the email messages are clear, easy to understand and do not lend themselves to interpretation. I greatly value email communications on many projects, but prefer phone discussions or face-to-face meetings on others. Emails can unintentionally be “silent assassins”—particularly during the back-and-forth that usually occurs on a topic resulting in different opinions being strongly made by different folks. Too many people get angered or hurt by some email responses they mistakenly interpret as being meant to anger or embarrass. Face-to-face meetings lend themselves to more complete exchanges of ideas and allow real-time opportunities to clarify statements or answer questions on the spot, as well.

One significant key to good face-to-face communications is ensuring that one person manage the meeting—a gatekeeper must keep the meeting on-topic, on-time and from being dominated by one or two participants. How many times have you sat through an uncomfortable meeting where two strong-headed people end up debating their side of an issue back and forth for an hour while everyone else in the group is forced to sit through as bystanders. In the end, a lot of valuable time is wasted and nerves get frazzled. Meeting leaders must be clear and present the meeting topic before the meeting starts, set a strict time limit for the meeting, keep it on track and prevent one person from dominating what is being said. Equally important, ask opinions of those too shy to voluntarily participate.

Care must also be taken in calling meetings. Never call a meeting if there really is no reason to have one. I once worked for a company that had Friday morning manager meetings that ran for an hour-and-a-half that really accomplished very little. The president of this company once called a meeting for his top managers to discuss how to conduct meetings.
So, the next time you’re tempted to fire off an email to QA, R&D or engineering with a question you have, why not phone or go visit that person instead? Not only will this help ensure more effective communications, it will also help to build stronger relationships between you and your fellow colleagues at the workplace.