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Communication in the New Normal – and Waffles

By AICC Staff

July 15, 2020

“The world changed in February. I knew we were in trouble when the Waffle House closed. The Waffle House Index is an informal metric used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to determine the effect of a storm and the likely scale of assistance required for disaster recovery. Though the global storm came in the form of a virus, it affected the economy with similar impact.

The index has three levels, as designed by former agency head Craig Fugate:

  • Green: Full menu—restaurant

    has power, and damage is limited

    or no damage at all.

  • Yellow: Limited menu—no power, or power from a generator only, or food supplies may be low.
  • Red: Restaurant is closed, indicating severe damage or severe flooding.

So, while Waffle House is likely at the green level, business in general will be at yellow for some time. In the midst of the storm, we reconfigured teams, asking many people to work from home. Prior to this, we had resisted the idea of telecommuting, fearing loss of productivity and accountability. Here in the new normal, many have embraced the flexibility the practice creates, though the best practices for communication are still being worked out.

Among the communication obstacles found in telecommuting are communication context and lack of social involvement. What I am calling communication context includes the nonverbal and tonal cues, as well as shared experiences, that come with being in the room. The social involvement at the proverbial water cooler gives us clues about alliances and the cultural climate. Working at a distance limits our ability to gain the perspective needed for optimal communication.

To overcome these obstacles, we have employed online meetings in which participants may see one another, which helps in part. I suggest we go further and intentionally inquire about context, taking time in person or online to talk one-on-one about the quality of communication. If possible, periodic in-person collaborative work sessions, when combined with a meal, will provide the opportunity to gain a degree of social and cultural effectiveness. There may also be benefit in standardizing communication methods for project planning and status updates, as well as proposals for problem resolution. For this purpose, the A3 report is an excellent tool.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This great tool has a dumb name. The title is based on the paper size (29 cm x 43 cm) typically used to create the plan. The tool is used to communicate a project proposal or status. I believe companies that use the A3 as a standard way of communicating save a great deal of time. As important is the great value gained in teaching individuals a process for speaking with data. There is no more potent teacher of judgment in problem-solving than this. Many great ideas have been cast aside because their presentation lacked confidence or enthusiasm. Unfinished ideas have been implemented, only to be short-lived because they were not supported by data.

The steps involve clear definition of a problem, the current conditions, well-defined goals, thorough analysis, proposed solutions, a plan, and follow-up to test the plan’s effectiveness. This is a critical-thinking guide. If an inexperienced problem-solver were assigned the completion of an A3, that person would likely be lost and intimidated. However, if the A3 format is used regularly in group investigations and problem-solving, it will become second nature. Having done this, you will find it easy to stop the next person who wants you to think for them. “Boss, I wonder if you could help me with this problem?” is the way it normally begins. The first time they ask to borrow your brain, you may spend 30 minutes asking the A3 questions together. The next time the request comes, just say, “Sure, fill out your A3, and then I will be happy to discuss it with you.”

More about the many uses for this great tool are found in John Shook’s Managing to Learn, published by Lean Enterprise Institute. Also, a class on AICC’s Packaging School describes how to approach Proposals, Problems, and Projects With A3.


Scott Ellis, Ed.D., of Working Well provides the brutal facts with a kind and actionable delivery when a leader, a team, or a company needs an objective, data-based assessment of the current state of operations and culture. Training, coaching, and resources develop the ability to eliminate obstacles and sustain more effective and profitable results. Working Well exists to get you unstuck and accelerate effective work. Scott can be reached at 425-985-8508 or scott@workingwell.bz.