Communication Gap or Fault Line?
I have a small manufacturing business, and my company is in the middle of the process of becoming certified to an AS-9100 / ISO-9000 Quality Standard. For those not familiar with this, it’s a way of organizing the processes within a company to make sure that everything that needs to be done is carefully documented and those instructions are then passed on to everyone involved in any particular product.
So, I’m sitting at my desk, trying to catch up on all the paperwork that mysteriously multiplies when one is on vacation when I get the call from Jim, a young brother currently serving as my Junior Warden and as the Secretary for our Temple Corporation. In Connecticut, most lodges have a separate board that manages the affairs of the building and grounds. Because I didn’t use the word “No” in time, I happen to be the President… but that’s another story waiting to be written.
“Tom, you’ll never in a million years believe what just happened.”
Knowing that Jim is involved in local politics, I resist the urge to tell him that I’d never believe anything a politician tells me anyway. “What’s going on?”
“You know how they were supposed to dig up the area for a little footing wall on the side of the building?”
Of course I knew. But hearing the question phrased that way made me jump to several possible outcomes too horrible to contemplate. I could feel myself wincing as I asked him “Do I even want to know?”
“They dug up the entire section, all the way to the front of the building,” he said.
“For some reason they thought that they were doing the foundation for an entire handicap access ramp. They tore off the steps to the side door, and it looks like they might have broken the sewer line, and …”
His cell phone cut out. I waited a few minutes and dialed back.
“Yeah, there’s definitely a broken sewer or drain line or something, and they might have cracked a gas line, too,” he continued. “And we can’t get into the building now because they dug right up to the front door, and we don’t have keys to the back door, so we’ll have to get a locksmith down here.”
Well, at least they didn’t run the backhoe through the side of the building, right?
Confident that things couldn’t get much worse, we spent the next hour and several phone calls getting information and trying to straighten out the apparent miscommunication.
Like many small New England towns, Southington has a number of small buildings built close together around the town green. Friendship Lodge is located in the old home of former Gov. Marcus Holcomb, a 3 story house built in the mid 1800s and bought from the family in the late 1930s. The old building on the left (to the south) was replaced by a small brick office building years ago, and the current owner has been remodeling the outside to add a drive-thru window for the new tenant – a local bank. Our lodge is leasing the little strip of land between our buildings to him in exchange for his doing some remodeling and repairs on our admittedly deteriorating home. He did a great job with the back entrance, which is the one that we tend to use. Our next project was to make a small footing wall on which we would – eventually – build a handicap access ramp. Since the drive-thru area was right next to that section, it seemed like a good idea to make the wall while the bank was under construction. When they put in the driveway, on the edge of it they were supposed to dig a narrow, shallow trench in order to place some footings.
Apparently the communication broke down somewhere.
Now, knowing that my business is in a very quality conscious industry, one might think that I rarely see such huge mistakes and that I’m taking this opportunity to rant and rave about how good communication is imperative.
Hah! Were that only true.
I don’t blame the construction crew for this. I don’t blame the contractor, the bank, nor the owner of the building. Hard as this may be to believe in these lawsuit conscious times, I really don’t blame anybody at all. Stuff simply happens.
Recently, one of my customers in the aerospace industry sent me a print for a part that they needed made. The print was originally drawn in the 1960s, and some of the dimensions were not specifically drawn in; one needed to calculate several critical dimensions from the information given about certain others. While anyone with decent math skills could do it, I had to ask myself why it would even be necessary. My own math skills, honed by years of reading similarly vague prints, is very good, but even I’ve been known to mistype a number on a calculator or to miss a line on a sine table. We spent a couple of hours with our customer to make sure that everyone would measure and interpret the drawing in the same way. So, why didn’t our customer – another AS-9100 certified company – simply redraw it to be more clear? Simple: the print was fine back in 1966, so why change now?
We machined the part and sent it out for a complex electroplating process in which a type of plating had to be deposited on one section and other coatings applied to another section. Our supplier was an ISO-9000 company and was approved by a dozen other aerospace companies for their electroplating processes. Naturally, when the part came back to us it was wrong. They claimed that the drawing wasn’t clear enough.
Keep in mind, now, that we have three companies, all with a professional commitment to better communication to ease the process along and to ensure that there are no mistakes. The thing that constantly amazes me is that the sheer number of screwups in everyday life aren’t bigger and more frequent than they already are.
Of course communication is important to us; without it, we couldn’t have a culture, let alone a civilization. But despite the wonderful modes of expression in our language, we so often fail to communicate our essential meaning. We can paint glorious verbal pictures but can not manage to create drawings that are easy to understand. As Masons, we acknowledge the importance of our symbols and ceremonies; indeed, most of our degree work is taken up in explaining the meanings behind various tools and implements of our craft, and we explain that we believe that communicating through symbols is the best way to pass along knowledge. Even our meetings are described as “Stated Communications”, at which we have “trestle boards” and “tracing boards” to help us explain and teach each other those esoteric truths.
So, why is it so much easier to communicate ancient wisdom than to explain where and how to dig a ditch?
When I left work a few hours later I stopped by the lodge to see the damage. Fortunately no sewer or gas lines were broken – the workers had dug through some old drainage lines that are no longer in use. But I did see the huge misunderstanding in the form of a trench 5 feet wide, 5 feet deep and 30 feet long (3 and 5 being important Masonic numbers); enough to bury several Hirams, and with nary a sprig of acacia in sight with which to mark the spot.