Keeping everybody in the loop
The communication loop is easy to picture. We all know what happened as kids when we played the game — sharing a message around a group and listen to how it sounds when it returns to the beginning. It’s never quite the same.
When you started out in business it was easy. You give an instruction to your counter person. You see her perform the task. End of story.
Then the business grows. The cleaner tells you that the tags require two staples to stay on, you tell the counter person. No problem.
Then the cleaner tells you that cashmere sweaters need to be bagged separately. You tell the lead counter person, she tells the other counter staff. A few problems emerged.
You grow some more. The presser tells the cleaner that she needs a flag tag when pants are not to be creased. The cleaner tells you, you tell the lead counter person who tells the rest of the staff.
You finally pull yourself out of the loop and now the inspector tells the spotter that ink marks are not being properly removed. The spotter tells the cleaner that the counter staff needs to inspect and tag existing spots, the cleaner tells the lead counter person and we’re not sure what happens next.
Do you think it was the same story at the beginning with the inspector as the one the part-time, evening counter staff heard?
Communication is not a one way street but it is frequently treated as such. The owner/manager provides an instruction to an employee. The employee nods. The manager walks away assuming that the instruction has been heard, understood, and will be implemented as requested.
Following a period of time, anywhere from 30 seconds to weeks or months, the instruction needs to be provided again as the requested action is no longer being taken.
This is not, in fact, anything close to the definition of communication.
These examples are of basic, one-way commands. They are generally ineffective in a drycleaning environment involving various levels of education among the staff, multiple languages, varying degrees of motivation to follow the instruction, and even appropriate disagreement to the validity of the instruction.
For instance, spots can no longer be identified at the counter when Express or VIP bags are used so frequently with no opportunity to communicate directly with the customer.
What’s the result of this command process? Problems don’t get fixed. They continue to repeat themselves. Sometimes they even get worse.
Drycleaning is a detailed business, but every day the details don’t get handled the same way. Tags are not applied in the same place on the same type of garment by every employee. The same number of staples are not used to tag the garment. The same amount of heat is not used to apply the bar code. The same price for a cream-colored sweater is not entered for each similar type of garment. And these are just examples at the counter.
As a business grows, the challenge of accurate and complete communication grows. An instruction is given to the counter staff to place all garments promised today into the orange bags, those promised tomorrow into the green bags and those promised for later into the brown bags.
The driver only picks up the orange bags. The plant runs out of work as they can not work ahead with the green and brown bags. Sounds silly? Yes, but it’s true. Nobody told the driver.
Is there a “fix” for these types of issues? Is there a way to accurately and consistently close the loop in the day-to-day communication process?
Well, there is no guarantee, but there are certainly ways to get a lot closer to a real, two-way, continuous communication loop, even in the drycleaning industry.
A communication process
The first step is to understand that everyone must be involved in the process; that it is a process, and that a feedback loop must replace the simple command structure.
The solution that the owner, the presser, the inspector, the spotter, the cleaner, or the counter staff may have to a problem may not be the only solution nor even the most appropriate solution. The most appropriate solution will only be discovered when everyone is involved in a discussion of the problem.
Can you imagine involving everyone? Nothing would ever get done. But consider what would happen in an operation if it could be done? If problems, not just the big ones, but also the little aggravating ones, could go away? How wonderful would that be?
One of the most complicated issues is scheduling the shuttle pick up from dry stores. The plant workers want lots of work in front of them first thing in the morning. They don’t care how they get it.
The busy evening counter staff wants to go home as soon as possible and doesn’t want to stay and mark in the evening drop off work.
The owner doesn’t want to pay for additional time after closing to finish the tagging.
The morning counter staff is busy with morning drop offs, but often faces piles of untagged work from the night before.
The driver picks up whatever is available even if it is not the work due for that day and often not enough work to keep the plant busy.
The plant begins bringing staff in later to compensate for low morning volumes, but that results in late deliveries in the evening.
Every company has solved this problem in their own way, but continues to deal with it whenever new staff arrives. You can see the loop that interconnects all of the participants. A discussion among all departments builds an understanding of everybody’s issues and often comes up with the best alternative for the company as a whole.
Dealing with these intertwined issues takes time. Time must be allocated for staff from different departments to meet, discuss the issues that impact them, understand how these items impact other departments, and learn how to solve these problems from a broad company perspective.
Are there costs associated with this plan? Yes. Are there savings and even additional revenues associated with this suggestion? Definitely.
The development of lead staff members is key to the development of an organization that can flourish on its own, that can grow without command and control at the top, that can truly allow an owner to move to other projects without being in fear of problems arising from the day to day activities of the company.
Deborah Rechnitz has been an independent management consultant to drycleaning industry members since 1980. She also held the position of chief operating officer of one of the largest USA drycleaning operations in 2008. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Finance and Personnel Administration; a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interpersonal Com-
munications; and an MBA in Operations Management from Case Western Reserve University. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at (253) 405-7043.