Troubles can be avoided by being thorough and precise.
A bizarre incident
occurred last winter that was a big story in our local news and holds lessons
for everyone in the business world. A suburban commuter train filled with
hundreds of passengers during the morning rush was delayed for almost two hours
while local police searched for a man aboard with a gun. Not only that train,
but all others following on the same line were backed up, causing thousands of
commuters to be late for work or other appointments. Police located the man
with a gun, who turned out to be a U.S. Secret Service agent.
It all stemmed from a cascade of misunderstanding. The agent normally drove to
his office in downtown Chicago, but hearing radio reports of snow turning that
morning’s traffic to a crawl, he decided to take the train instead - the first
time he had ever done so. Being unfamiliar with the system, the Secret Service
agent asked a ticket agent at the train station whether there were metal
detectors on the train, because he had a gun. That shook up the ticket agent,
who notified police after the gun-toting passenger had boarded his train.
Police armed with automatic rifles intercepted it at the next station. They
evacuated and searched several cars worth of passengers before locating the
Secret Service guy based on the ticket agent’s description. It took them awhile
to check him out, causing further delay as well as considerable anxiety among the
Let’s examine what went wrong here.
1. The Secret Service agent failed to identify himself as a
law enforcement officer when casually informing the ticket agent he had a
2. The startled ticket agent failed to question the man
further. You would think most people would
say, “Huh?” and get some clarification. Fear may have played a role here,
although I suspect the Secret Service agent didn’t look like a thug and a
criminal gun-toter is unlikely to volunteer that he is packing.
You can’t really blame the police for the way they handled it, given the
sketchy information provided them. So what we have here is a classic example of
how a small communication breakdown can have oversized consequences.
Sound familiar? Don’t things like this happen almost every day in your business
How many times have the wrong products been delivered because someone neglected
to specify whether the faucet was for a kitchen, lav or bar? Or wrong
horsepower pumps, wrong color fixtures, wrong this and wrong that, simply
because either the buyer or seller left out some information. Or maybe the
right product got sent, but to the wrong place because someone forgot to
mention an exception to the normal delivery location.
Imprecise communication runs rampant
throughout society. There’s a reason why the phonetic “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie …”
system is used instead of alphabet letters by the military, air traffic
controllers and other occupations where a failure to communicate can have
deadly consequences. They know it can be hard to distinguish the “C” sound from
D, E, G, P, T, V and Z amid radio static and chaos.
Even when things are clearly understood, there’s that issue of context. The
English language is filled with ambiguities in which words and expressions can
have more than one meaning. Consider the following:
A distributor called a vendor to order two truckloads of pipe. Business
suddenly took a downturn, and just before delivery the distributor called to
tell the vendor, “Cut the order in half.”
Sure enough, when the two trucks
arrived, each piece of pipe was cut in half!
I don’t know if this incident really happened, but it serves to illustrate
the concept of ambiguity.
Vagueness is another communication breakdown that can have drastic
consequences. That’s basically what happened in the conversation between the
Secret Service agent and the railroad employee, who was told someone was
carrying a gun but not why. Vagueness leads to many communication failures.
Imagine making an appointment to meet someone “after dinner.” How useful would
that be without telling the person at what time you finish eating
Contractors and everyone else in the business world must develop an instinct
for when certain things just don’t “feel” right. Maybe it’s a material order
that’s uncommonly large or small, or a strange looking product code number, or
just something that doesn’t make sense to an experienced trade worker.
In these cases it’s always better to ask questions or double-check rather than
risk the consequences.
Editorial Opinion: Failures To Communicate
February 1, 2010