FEATURE ARTICLE

Aligning key stakeholders to drive performance, compliance and productivity

Published: October 16, 2017
Gene Nichols and Laura Osifchin, managing partners of Lean Out Communications, explain how practical communications can drive performance and ensure compliance during times of rapid change in quality-driven industries.

The critical role of communication during times of change

Communication is critical to organizational effectiveness, particularly in quality-focused, heavily regulated industries that are undergoing significant changes.

Effective communication to all stakeholders allows manufacturers to foster innovation and productivity, build brands, and manage their reputation through consistent service performance.1 Importantly, communication is critical to project management, tech adoption2 and M&A integration;3 and it allows organizations to change and scale.

In the specialty chemicals industry, where regulatory bodies and exacting customers demand materials that consistently meet stringent specifications, communication aligns organizations around issues of compliance, quality and safety. These elements are crucial to meeting customer specs and ensuring service continuity, particularly during times of rapid change.

Few organizational changes are as disruptive as the productivity initiatives being implemented by chemical manufacturers across all geographies. These ‘leaning’ programs are designed to enhance profitability, eliminate waste and build cultures of innovation and continuous improvement. They impact every function and every process – from the plant floor to the back office – and all stakeholders, including employees, customers and investors.

Here’s the problem: in regulated environments undergoing significant changes, the need for consistent stakeholder engagement is more apparent than ever; yet, as manufacturers get leaner, Communications budgets and staff are necessarily shrinking

Practical steps to align stakeholders around compliance, quality and safety

Communicating less risks project failure and compliance or quality deficiencies, and is not an option. However, there are practical ways to ensure that chemical manufacturers can continue to communicate, even as budgets and teams are streamlined.

Prioritize critical stakeholders

Practical communication is about driving behaviours in specific audiences (make a change, buy a product, work safely, etc). A scattershot approach to communication is never effective, particularly in a lean environment; therefore, manufacturers need to prioritize their audiences. Before moving forward with any communication – be it a letter, a memo or a meeting – ask these questions: 

How does this audience influence the company’s financial drivers?
 
Focus efforts on customers who bring considerable current or potential revenue, influential or vital employees, investors, and preferred suppliers with leverage.

Does the audience have a role to play in the company’s future?
Focus not on legacy partners, but on stakeholders who will be important to the business over the mid-to-long term.

Can I target this audience effectively?
Focus on audiences you can target in the easiest, least costly way. For example, during change initiatives, cultivating relationships with existing customers may be preferable to embarking upon expensive awareness campaigns.

Eliminate non-value-added communicationOften, the Communications function becomes a repository for cultural activities that are not vital to business performance (e.g., planning employee events, writing filler newsletter articles or acting as photographers).

When a chemical manufacturer is undergoing significant change, all communications must focus on aligning stakeholders around strategic matters: regulatory compliance, meeting customer specifications, delivering consistent service, tracking progress, selling product, communicating the rationale for change and working safely.

During times of change, every word that is written, every e-mail sent, every graphic designed and every meeting held must be in the service of meeting corporate objectives. All other communications should be eliminated or minimized. 

Focus on the front lineAdvertising, digital outreach and social media can be effective tactics. Practical communication leverages existing resources to align stakeholders around change initiatives. By working with front-line personnel – Sales representatives, Customer Service, channel partners and the Quality team – chemical manufacturers can continue to grow sales and ensure compliance, even while changing and reducing costs.

Keep messages straight: Key stakeholders typically have multiple touchpoints with your organization (e.g. customers interact with Sales, Quality and Customer Service; auditors interface with plant managers, Quality and operators). Leverage these interactions by sharing consistent messages with internal groups, ensuring that each stakeholder hears the same message multiple times, thereby multiplying message impact at minimal cost.

Provide the right tools: Give front-line personnel the tools they need to share messages consistently. Rather than fancy literature, distribute talking points, FAQs and slides to keep everyone aligned.

Prioritize face-to-face outreach: During volatile times, in-person or phone conversations are more effective for critical audiences, so make sure you engage important individuals in the right way.

Rely on managersDuring times of change – especially when organizations are getting leaner and adopting new ways of working – managers are vital. Good managers model positive behavior, working with employees to demonstrate quality, safety and service performance, and advocating in favour of compliance and productivity.

Unfortunately, many individuals rise to the level of middle management because of technical expertise, and they lack the managerial capabilities to navigate major changes.4

Manufacturers must build middle management communication capabilities through training. To reduce cost, staff Communications or HR resources may be able to offer these development opportunities.

Importantly, managers also must be held accountable, via consistent performance management, for communicating with their teams and acting as positive change agents.

Apply lean principles to the Communications functionWhen implementing productivity initiatives, manufacturers rightfully spend much of their time streamlining processes in the plant and laboratory environments. They focus on training operators, technicians and others on their new ways of work.

But, when it comes to support functions, which are vital to making changes effective and sustainable, manufacturers take a one-size-fits-all approach. They ask functions to cut staff and budgets, but invest little time in process mapping, training or job design. 

To ensure continued communication and a focus on compliance, quality and safety, communicators need to apply the same rigor and process discipline seen in the plant. A few practical guidelines:

- Redesign communications work and establish pragmatic processes that can be replicated and scaled
- Make informed decisions about how time is spent and say “no” to requests that do not add value
- Prioritize communication effectiveness and messaging over design and aesthetics
- Have a bias toward action and remember that sharing an imperfect message is usually (although not always, when high-risk or legal issues are involved) better than not communicating at all.

By implementing these practical techniques, specialty chemicals manufacturers can mitigate compliance and quality risk posed by significant change, without incurring large incremental costs. Further, manufacturers can continue to align critical stakeholders to make changes that are sustainable and drive anticipated value.

For more information on applying practical stakeholder engagement techniques and managing change, visit www.LeanOutCommunications.com or follow @LeanOutComm on Twitter.

References

1. whatsnext.nuance.com/customer-experience/effortless-customer-self-service-key-customer-loyalty.
2. www-935.ibm.com/services/au/gts/pdf/ep1-transcript.pdf.
3. www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/mergers-acqisitions/us-ma-consulting-leading-through-transition-022315.pdf.
4. hbr.org/2017/06/how-managers-drive-results-and-employee-engagement-at-the-same-time.
 

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