Mistakes don't just happen. They arise from communication breakdowns.

Communication failure” is a catchall term that describes the cause of probably 90 percent of all business problems. Failures to communicate happen in many ways. Let's examine some of these.

1. Evading responsibility.

“It's not my department … that's not my job … it's not my responsibility.” How many times have you heard those lines? Worst of all is when nothing at all gets stated.

It may be an inspector who's annoyed about something, or a piece of equipment that's not working right, or an unexpected jobsite condition that hampers performance, or someone needing information. Someone is aware of the problem, but prefers to look the other way.

Make it a hard and fast rule in your company that everyone is responsible for either resolving such issues or notifying someone higher up in the chain of command.

2. “I assumed ...”

It's such common knowledge, we can assume everyone knows it, right? For example, everyone in my line of work knows that the “-30-” appearing at the end of a manuscript is journalism shorthand for “end of story.”

Oh, you didn't know that? But it's common knowledge among all the people I work with. I just assumed you knew!

No doubt there are a thousand details about your business that are imbedded in the brains of everyone in the construction trades, but which most outsiders don't have a clue about. So you throw around jargon and acronyms that are second nature to you but Greek to everyone else. The best thing to do is ask for clarification, but human nature is such that most people will pretend to understand out of fear of being considered stupid. And that's when assumptions become a costly failure to communicate.

3. “I think so.”

“I think the order was shipped … I'm pretty sure we did that.” Which is it, do you think you know, or do you know? Are you pretty sure, or are you certain?

What's behind this failure is nothing more complicated than laziness. People won't make an effort to take whatever steps are necessary to verify something.

4. If it's not in writing, it's not real.

You say something, perhaps many times, until it seems reasonable to assume - there's that word again - that everyone gets it.

But don't expect anything you say to register unless you put it in writing. This is especially true for company policies and procedures.

Even that isn't enough. Once written, the documentation has to be posted or disseminated in thorough and timely fashion. A policy statement buried deep in an employee manual won't do much good.

5. Lack of follow through.

The business world wastes countless time and money because people fail to get notified of rescheduled appointments. Job quotes and materials requisitions get sidetracked for months because nobody thinks to follow up on them. Meetings cover the same things over and over because nobody bothers to take notes and publish minutes.

Don't assume everyone will remember commitments made weeks or months ago. Get into the habit of confirming appointments, following up on important paperwork and documenting meetings.

6. Imprecision.

Here's a message that came to us several month's ago through PM's Web site. “Can't find any info on your Web site about copyright policies. Please explain.”

Beats me what he means by that. I assume (uh-oh) he would like permission to reprint something that appeared in the magazine, but if that's the case, why didn't he just come right out and tell us that?

Imprecise communication stems from fuzzy thinking, and fuzzy thinking sometimes stems from inarticulateness, i.e., people just can't think of the right words to express themselves. But it's not a problem associated only with folks of limited vocabulary. My world is filled with people who have degrees in journalism and English, but who nonetheless have trouble communicating exactly what they mean.

Vagueness wastes time. Instead of communicating something once, it causes both the sender and recipient of the message to go back and forth trying to clarify what's going on.

Even worse, they'll be too lazy to clarify, and simply act upon what they think the request is about, what they assume is being asked for.

So mistakes happen, except they don't just happen. Most mistakes arise from failures to communicate.