We are all suppliers of goods, information, or services. In another moment, we are customers. From the end user, the purchaser, the sales contact, customer service, design, prepress, and manufacturing, to shipping, we are a chain of suppliers and customers. Within our company walls, our roles can change by the minute. As a machine operator, I am a customer of all prior processes, and their speed and accuracy will allow me to be a good supplier, producing a quality product on time to keep the promises they have made. So, most of us fill the role of customer and supplier at different points of the day. A key to effective communication is remembering your role in the moment and acting responsibly.
In day-to-day experience, the tyranny of the urgent often blurs what should happen in the service of what needs to happen right now. In these times, we face problems with a fighting stance ready to argue for the priority of a particular job, defending our position, and even seeing those who complain or disagree as a part of the problem.
Consider the construction of a date of delivery. How many fudge factors were really added by the purchaser, the salesperson, or the CSR? And why did they game the system? Most often, the answer is that they were trying to avoid disappointing someone. But what would happen if they just told each other the truth?
The supply chain has been completely disrupted, and no one is happy. In blurry memory of bygone pre-pandemic times, we experienced isolated interruptions to the supply chain. When delinquent materials or tooling caused a delivery promise to be broken, we had choices. We either assigned blame to those people, whoever they might be, or we took responsibility with weeping and gnashing of teeth while vowing that it would never happen again. Under current conditions, we are tempted to throw up our hands and say, “Yep, it’s gonna be late, and oh by the way, so will your order for next week.”
I will not propose a one-size-fits-all solution or pretend that any order is easy today. However, I will point out the futility of waiting for things to calm down before taking time to focus on improving the process. While we cannot fix the world supply chain, we can address the parts of the problem that we do influence. Toward that end, I will propose an alternate strategy to the fighting stance: a productive stance.
To employ the productive stance, new habits must be formed. To get us out of the old habit, it might be helpful to invite members of the daily production meeting to come early. Over coffee, we could discuss and commend our fierce loyalties while agreeing to beta-test the productive stance. If we give it 30 days, we can always go back. Even if the team refuses to try a new method, an individual can choose the productive stance and influence change.
Three aspects of a productive stance are: (1) remember who you work for; (2) tell the truth; and (3) face the problem.
Remember Who You Work For
Folks in sales and customer service spend a great deal of time and energy trying not to disappoint a customer. The inherent problem is that a CSR may be conflicted trying not to disappoint the end user, the salesperson, or the production scheduler. Under normal circumstances, this has a very low payoff; now, it is impossible. This is often a silent struggle in which we comply with the spoken rule to promise dates that are based on machine backlogs, until we come up against an unspoken rule such as to prioritize the jobs sold by the person whose name is on the building. It is OK to speak openly about this conflict, asking for guidelines to aid decision-making. Given the example above, many owners enjoy the benefits of priority without noticing. If asked to clarify the decision-making strategy, most would provide guidance based on customer importance and what is best for the company. It may be uncomfortable to speak openly about thewhatever they may be in your case, but it will result in greater clarity. If you are not working for the productivity of the team, the entire string of internal customers, then you will continually find yourself in fighting stance.
Tell the Truth
No matter the past practice required to prioritize the jobs you expedite, make an announcement: “Henceforth, and for at least 30 days, I will not exaggerate the urgency of a job. Rather than shave a day off the actual lead time required by the customer, I will tell you when the job needs to be at the customer’s dock. I will redouble my efforts to negotiate the date it is needed and try to reduce their fudge factor as well. That is my plan, and I hope you will join me, but either way, it is what I am doing.”
Face the Problem
The productive stance requires that we stop seeing other customer priorities (internal or external) as the problem. For example, envisioning the upset scheduler as being on the other side of the problem assumes that he or she has a conflicting goal. The key to problem-solving is to first define the problem and then get everyone attempting to face it together. If the salesperson and scheduler take a moment to gain perspective, they can agree on a common goal (i.e., to please as many of the right customers as possible). Then, they can define the current problem, which might be, “We have three important customers who have been promised delivery of large and complex jobs on Friday, and we have neither the machine capacity nor the staffing to please all three.”
Though you have taken a productive stance, the problem has not been simplified; someone—perhaps everyone—is going to be disappointed. The difference is that now both people are on the same side of the problem, using the facts as they understand them (truth) and working for a solution that will serve the productivity of the company. This will allow a fighting chance to please more customers and raise productivity in the long term.
Scott Ellis, Ed.D.,delivers training, coaching, and resources that develop the ability to eliminate obstacles and sustain more effective and profitable results. He recently published Dammit: Learning Judgment Through Experience. His books and process improvement resources are available at workingwell.bz. AICC members enjoy a 20% discount with code AICC21.