Five signs of communication failure — and how manufacturers can take control

July 16, 2024
Digitizing, standardizing and centralizing communication for shift handover, equipment inspection rounds and other key processes can go a long way toward addressing communication challenges.

What’s the leading cause of workplace failures? It’s not technology or equipment problems. It’s poor communication. Communication failures cost companies trillions of dollars annually and are a leading cause of safety incidents and product quality issues in process manufacturing. When we break down communication silos and enable efficient information transfer across the organization, we not only safeguard our processes and products but also enhance employee morale, boost productivity, and position the plant for long-term success.

The direct and hidden costs of poor communication for process manufacturers

Breakdowns in communication have both direct and indirect costs for any organization. In process manufacturing, the impact can range from mild (irritated employees and lagging productivity) to catastrophic (unplanned downtime and reportable safety incidents). It is estimated that U.S. businesses alone lose $1.2 trillion annually due to poor communication. In manufacturing, a published Gallup poll study revealed that only 25% of manufacturing employees are engaged, which is 8% lower than the overall U.S. employee national average.

Direct costs of poor communication manifest in several ways, many of which can be easily quantified. These include:

  • Unplanned downtime due to unexpected problems that impact production timelines, leading to revenue loss.
  • Costly production delays result in missed production targets, delayed delivery schedules and lower customer satisfaction.
  • Product quality issues leading to costly recalls and damage to brand reputation.
  • Dangerous safety incidents that endanger employees and lead to potential legal liability.
  • Fines or sanctions related to regulatory non-compliance.

Indirect costs are harder to measure but can have a prolonged and cascading effect on a company’s profitability and reputation. These may include:

  • Lost business opportunities due to inefficiencies in operations or delivery delays.
  • Decreased employee morale and engagement, often leading to reduced productivity and increased employee turnover.
  • Wasted resources because of redundant tasks, avoidable mistakes and misallocated assets.

Five signs of poor communication in processing plants 

How do you know if communication has broken down in a plant? The signs are there if you know where to look. When you pay close attention to employee feedback, behavior and operational results, the impact of poor communication becomes evident. 

1. Day and night shifts aren’t fully aligned

Ineffective handovers between shifts are more than mere oversights; they can point to systemic communication failures. When key information, like the status of a safety system, isn’t consistently conveyed between shifts, it’s evident that there’s a lack of standardized handover procedures. You might notice:

  • Absence of detailed handover logs or documentation.
  • Variance in priorities between shifts.
  • Night shift teams seem caught off-guard by ongoing issues.
  • Higher rate of accidents or incidents in the time period immediately after a shift handover.

2. Routine compliance tasks often fall through the cracks

Routine tasks form the backbone of plant operations. When they’re consistently missed or delayed:

  • There might be an evident backlog of uncompleted compliance-related inspections.
  • Field observations either don’t get recorded or are left unattended for successive shifts.
  • Discrepancies are noticeable in the methods different shifts use to carry out the same tasks.
  • Paper logs with vital observations remain unprocessed or get lost amidst a pile of documentation.

3. Monthly production targets keep getting missed.

Continually missing production targets is not just an efficiency issue but also a communication concern.

  • Frontline operators may appear uninformed or confused about the monthly or weekly targets.
  • The reasons given for target misses might vary widely between different teams.
  • Feedback from frontline workers seems to rarely reach the decision-makers.
  • The same production problems repeat across shifts without a clear resolution in sight.

4. It takes too many shifts to solve process upsets

A plant’s ability to swiftly address and resolve process upsets is indicative of its communication efficacy. Watch out for:

  • Recurring unresolved issues that span multiple shifts.
  • Long durations before critical process anomalies get addressed.
  • Absence of a clear action plan during crisis scenarios.
  • New shift teams appear to be starting from scratch in diagnosing a problem rather than building on previous insights.

5. There is distrust between departments and teams

Inter-departmental cohesion is a litmus test for overall communication health. Signs of distrust include:

  • Blame games or finger-pointing sessions following a mishap instead of collaborative problem-solving.
  • Information hoarding and silos where teams or departments seem to operate independently without mutual updates.
  • Infrequent inter-departmental meetings or discussions.
  • A palpable tension or lack of camaraderie between different plant teams or departments.

Solving communication challenges in processing plants

Clear, timely and complete communication can help process manufacturers prevent avoidable accidents, reduce production delays and product quality problems, and ensure smooth operations. The growing complexity in the industry makes effective communication more critical than ever—and also harder than ever. A large chemical manufacturer may need to coordinate thousands of shift workers managing dozens of machines and processes across multiple locations, in addition to suppliers, service providers and clients. At the same time, workers are dealing with a deluge of data coming at them from all directions, including automated reports and equipment readings. While face-to-face communication has been the gold standard for most of human history, it is simply not always feasible or sufficient in today’s complex process manufacturing environment.

Digitizing, standardizing and centralizing communication for shift handover, equipment inspection rounds and other key processes can go a long way toward addressing communication challenges between shifts and across teams and areas of responsibility. A centralized digital platform for knowledge management and transfer safeguards vital information and makes it readily available, fostering efficient communication, collaboration, and information sharing.

One good place to start is improving communication between shifts. Much of the current shift transition communication is fragmented, whether it’s through short handover meetings, handwritten logs, basic spreadsheets, or individual emails. Enhancing this communication offers a straightforward solution with the potential to substantially influence process manufacturing results.

Effective communication is the cornerstone of organizational success. In fact, better internal communication can improve organizational productivity by as much as 25%. And companies with good communication and an effective corporate culture achieve revenue growth 4x higher than their peers.

As communication quality increases, all other facets of an organization flourish. For process manufacturers, that translates to measurable gains in productivity and performance as well as enhanced safety and compliance. Better communication also leads to higher morale among employees, greater trust between teams, and a positive working environment that can help manufacturers attract and retain talent. The right communication tools drive success across the entire organization.

Andreas Eschbach is the founder and CEO of the software company eschbach, which helps production teams stay safe and work smarter through better information sharing and collaboration. Holding a degree in computer science, he draws his practical experience from leading a variety of international software consulting and implementation projects for leading chemical manufacturing companies, focusing on production, continuous improvement, EHS and maintenance. His company is a provider of manufacturing solutions and headquartered in southern Germany and has an office in Boston, Massachusetts.


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