“I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” — Richard M. Nixon

By Jim Longshore (VP at SBTI) and Mike Turner (Global Quality Mgr, DFSS at GM). Jim and Mike have coached or led several hundred improvement projects over their careers, and their experience indicates that most business process problems will be addressed through improving Communication Flow. After spending time comparing our notes, we decided that our collective experience should be communicated with a broader audience.

At SBTI, we define the improvement process in three steps:

LISTEN to the process and customers, DESIGN improvements and finally EXECUTE them!

The LISTENing session (usually a ½ day) is focused to observe the problem process described by the leaders who engaged us. This is where we start to see the communication issues that may be present. 

We go to Gemba – to go and see the process, to capture its interactions, to talk to the customers and employees and look for what to measure (flow, communication, timeliness, accuracy, etc…)

We like to sketch the process (keeping it high level) and, if we can do this unobtrusively, video tape or audio record scenes and take pictures. Nothing beats being able to “see” the process again and again and capturing the “moment” something happens! We use these scenes to garner support for change. Showing a customer struggling with something or excitedly describing how to fix your process is a great motivator to fix his process and highlights any obvious communication issues.

To wrap-up the “Listen” stage, we pull together the team that will work on the improvement to review the process map and discuss our observations and recordings from the day.

Visualizing the process and Communication flow gives us POWER. It is the cornerstone to Continuous Improvement! If we can “see” the process, we can understand where it works, where it is broken and who is responsible.  

When handoffs occur in a process, a Swim Lane process map (Figure 1) will highlight when this occurs. This captures who is engaged in the transactions (e.g. Starting on left and going to the right – X hand-off to Y).



Figure 1 – Swim Lane Process Map depicting process steps and their owners

Figure 2 – Swim Lane Process Map with “Kaizen Bursts” noting where Failures occur


We interrogate the process that we mapped during the day. This gives the team a chance to visually note where we observed or historically encounter failures (Communication flow / Waste / Struggle) with symbols that we call “Kaizen Bursts” (Figure 2).

We ask many questions as we go step-by-step through the process map focusing on communication:

  • How well did the hand-off between lanes or decision points go?
  • Was a clear request made?
  • Did the information transfer? Was it on time? Was it accurate?
  • Did one person “Hear” what the other person said? 
  • Did the receiving person acknowledge receipt or ignore the request?

Look at the diamonds (decision points). Did a decision get made and not communicated or delayed?

Is this supposed to happen between colleagues or up and down the “ladder”? How many times has your boss’s boss communicated to you about a decision? Alternatively, is there a forum or open path for you to tell your boss’s boss that you need a decision?

From here, the team forms hypotheses (communication failures between X, Y and Z result in…), define project ideas around the Kaizen Bursts and prioritize which of these to work on using a Heat Map of relative Benefit to Effort. We consider the customer impact, corporate priorities, and financial analyses (cost and savings opportunities) given relative effort to resolve the identified problems (Don’t do – High Effort and Low Benefit, Must Do – High Benefit and Low Effort).

When we have identified what to work on, we move to the Design phase focusing on communication issues.

This will be the topic of a future blog.

If you would like to request a listening session for your business, you can contact me, Jim Longshore, by email at jlongshore@sbtimail.com.