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How to calm the troubled waters of change.

What could be better than serving as the voice of calm and stability during uncertain times? Isn't that what being a communicator is all about?

That's where many of us enter the picture during organizational upheavals. We're there to explain or justify management's decisions and to deal with the aftershocks.

But wouldn't it be nice to be involved as those decisions are being made? Even better, wouldn't it be great to help management involve the work force in those decisions?

That's what happened at AT&T Microelectronics' printed circuit board manufacturing plant in Richmond, Va. For three years, I've served as the communicator for a high-tech factory that now employs more than 1,900 people, mostly explaining or justifying decisions made by managers who are unquestionably qualified to make them. But something wonderful happened last fall when the senior management team emerged from a retreat with the news that a Major Change Program was about to be developed.

Some background may be helpful at this point. AT&T's Richmond plant was part of the Bell System's Western Electric manufacturing division before the court-ordered break-up of 1984. Up to that time, the plant had a captive audience for its circuit boards. Suddenly, the rules changed. Bell System assembly plants began looking for other suppliers and the Richmond plant began looking for other buyers in an environment where quality, service and costs are all-important. In the late 1980s, the competition from overseas became more fierce and fearless, even building manufacturing facilities on US soil.

All of this was traumatic for a work force raised under the comfortable security of Ma Bell. The apron strings had been cut and AT&T's printed circtuit board plant was thrust into the cold realities of the competitive world.

Rather than curl up in a comer and wait to be devoured, the management of the Richmond plant used a series of programs to prepare the people for life in a new world. First came a "Bold Initiative" project to change the structure of the factory, creating internal business units and focused factories. Then came a "Turnaround Plan" to put the plant on better financial ground. Communication played a vital role in these program-sprimarily after the fact.

Then, in the autumn of 1990, the idea of a Major Change Program was unveiled to a largely skeptical audience. Why, people wondered, do we need another program? Didn't the others work? Much progress had been made. Quality had improved 88 percent in 18 months. On-time customer service had jumped from 60 percent to 95 percent. Investments had been slashed by 50 percent. What could possibly be left to do?

The answer from the senior management team was that, while great improvement was evident, the Richmond printed circuit board business still needed to make some major changes to be a world class supplier in the eyes of our customers-behavioral changes, mostly. People had to move from a restrictive, red-tape-bound, complacent state of mind to one in which creativity is unleashed, ideas are free flowing and the power to make decisions comes with any job. The barriers to being a world class supplier had to come down and the task had to begin inside the AT&T facility.

About the same time this vision was born, the plant's communication plan was updated. Many of our COmmunication tools were enjoying success: the monthly magazine, continuous messages on closed-captioned TV, frequent letters from the plant manager and a network of Employee Involvement representatives in the internal business units, among other things. Our people, however, were asking for something more. Most of the communication was one-way. They wanted a chance to complete the communication loop by talking back.

People were saying a series of quarterly "Eye-to-Eye" dialogues with senior managers had run its course. The gathering of 200 people at a time afforded little opportunity for the real issues to be discussed in true dialogue. The reluctance of most people to take the floor and raise issues meant most of the discussion came from the general manager.

Based on this perception, "roundtables" were introduced. The idea is nothing new. The format of "Eye-to-Eye" dialogues was simply shrunk so that up to 18 people had 90 minutes to talk with senior managers. This time, however, the senior managers were instructed to do a lot more listening and less talking. Their opportunity to talk included the other communication tools used throughout the plant.

The response to this bottom-up communication surpassed our wildest dreams. Given the opportunity, people at all levels-production specialists, shop supervisors, engineers and office workers-were honest and earnest. They said exactly what was on their minds in talks that were more like conversations and less like gripe sessions.

Our general manager was enthusiastic about the roundtable format. And the timing was perfect. What if roundtables were built into the foundation of the Major Change Program? What if, instead of guessing about the barriers to success and customer satisfaction, we went right to the source?

Fifty roundtables were held in 10 weeks. Participants were scheduled from every employment level and with careful consideration of race, sex and shift. In the end, about one-third of the entire work force told senior management exactly what was keeping our facility from being the best in the world. Patterns began to emerge. The same issues were being raised by people across the organization. Managers listened and I took notes, compiling and analyzing them.

Meanwhile, teams began the work of planning our Major Change Program. The starting point for almost every team was what emerged from the roundtables.

Sound simple? It is. Again, the concept is not new. Focus groups are used by businesses every day to get the work force's pulse. Surveys provide scientific glimpses of what's on people's minds.

What made our 50 roundtables so unique was how we used them. Rather than simply providing a way for people to blow off steam, they were the starting point for our Major Change Program. As the program's development began, people could see their words being turned into action. That involvement continued with a biweekly newsletter created for the Major Change Program. It's called InterAction and every two-page issue includes space for people to make suggestions to the senior management team.

We were so pleased with the success of roundtables that we will continue to use them, although at a slower pace than the original 50 in 10 weeks. Certainly, one day this format will wear itself out and we will find another.

If you'd like to have the same positive experience with small group dialogues, here are some suggestions:

Complete buy-in from senior management is imperative. If the boss thinks of small-group dialogue as just another chance for people to gripe, that's what it will be, and nothing more.

Don't pay lip-service to participants. The worst mistake your senior manager could make is to tell the participants that their words will become action and renege on that commitment. On the other hand, your senior manager should not promise that everything people suggest will become policy.

* As a follow-up to the above, remind your senior manager that his or her role is to listen, not to deliver a state-of-the-business address.

Coach your senior manager so that the dialogues become conversations. Encourage him or her to be genuine and to be unafraid of breaking the ice with some small talk.

Be present in all the dialogues so your senior manager can concentrate on conversing with people. Melt into the background; be as inconspicuous as possible. If participants are uneasy with your presence, urge your senior manager to explain up front why you're there.

Don't betray the trust of your participants by discussing or publishing the text of dialogues for the general public.

* Remember to have a demographic balance of participants.

* Encourage your senior manager to use what he or she has heard. Build it into your organization's policies and actions.

If one lesson emerged from our experience with roundtables, it was that excellent writing or speaking is just the beginning of excellent communication. Excellent listening closes the loop. Robert J. Holland is associate public relations specialist, AT&T, Richmond, Va.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on feedback
Author:Holland, Robert J.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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