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LEAN Techniques: Improving Interpersonal Communication on Your Team [part 3]

BY Bruce Tulgan, excerpted from Bridging the Soft Skills Gap

This is part three in a four-part series on LEAN Techniques. You can read Part 1 and Part 2 here.

One of the main focuses of a LEAN practitioner is to reduce waste of all kinds within the organization. Of course this includes wasted time, and one of the biggest culprits of wasted time in any work environment is poor, ineffective communication. As the prevalence of social media, texting, and email becomes even more pronounced in the workplace, in-person, face-to-face communication suffers, particularly among the youngest employees entering the workforce today: Millennials.

Are Millennials’ relatively weak people skills simply the result of becoming so accustomed to communicating with their devices that they are losing the ability to communicate well in-person and on the phone?

That’s surely a big part of the story: Communication practices are habits and most Millennials are in the habit of remote, informal, staccato and relatively low-stakes interpersonal communication because of their constant use of hand-held devices and the mores of social media and instant messaging.


The crux of people skills is “other orientation,” paying close attention to the signals of those with whom one is interacting, without getting distracted, and then responding to those signals effectively and appropriately. But Millennials are very self-focused. Plus, they are often distracted. And they are so unaccustomed to engaging in-person and on the telephone that their powers of perception are often not well developed. No wonder they are not very good at reading people.

Think of it this way: Have you ever had a big misunderstanding (or fight) with someone via text messaging? Often that happens partly because words alone, especially informal staccato messages, are very easy to misunderstand. That’s because tone, expressions and gestures are a very big part of how human beings communicate. So much meaning is lost or misconstrued in texts. Now throw in the social media dimension – in which communication is an interactive performance among peers (or not even peers, but the virtual personas of peers). This is the information environment in which Millennials honed their interpersonal communication practices. Even their in-person interactions – especially with their peers – are almost always underwritten and mediated by their social media network relationships. No wonder they so often say the wrong things at the wrong times.

Building relationships in the relatively formal high-stakes real world of the workplace is a brand new challenge for Millennials. School is probably their closest analogue. But in school, Millennials have been largely spoon fed the structure and substance of their important formal communication. In the workplace, they are less likely to be spoon fed. Yes, there is structure in most workplaces. Nonetheless a shocking amount of the important communication in most workplaces is largely ad hoc, hit and miss: There is a lot of ‘touching base’ and ‘call me if you need me’ and mediocre meetings and long multi-recipient email chains, but there is usually way too little regular, structured communication. This is one reason why Millennials don’t treat interpersonal communication in the workplace with greater formality. No wonder Millennials don’t realize that the burden is on them to ensure their interpersonal communication at work is more structured and substantive.

If you’re looking to jumpstart better communication among your team, you can try the following exercise:

Ask your employees to consider the following ‘interpersonal communication’ best practices and what they mean to them. For each best practice, use these questions as a brainstorming guide: What are the business reasons for this best practice? What are the reasons why it is in my best interest as an employee to follow this best practice? Are there good reasons to NOT follow this best practice?

My 12 Interpersonal Communication Best Practices:

  1. Listen twice as much as you talk.
  2. Never interrupt or let your mind wander when others are speaking.
  3. Empathize: Always try to imagine yourself in the other person’s position.
  4. Exhibit respect, kindness, courtesy, and good manners.
  5. Prepare in advance before meetings or one-on-one conversations so you are brief, direct, and clear.
  6. Never speak of a problem unless you have thought of at least one potential solution.
  7. Take personal responsibility for everything you say and do.
  8. Don’t make excuses when you make a mistake.
  9. Don’t blame or complain.
  10. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  11. Always take your commitments and responsibilities seriously.
  12. Always give people credit for their achievements, no matter how small.

Like any other habits, communication habits can be changed, but it is not easy.

If you’re a LEAN leader, then you should really take on more of the burden of making sure that your communication with your Millennials (and all of your employees for that matter) is high-structure and high-substance. Engage every single Millennial in a regular structured one-on-one dialogue – scheduled one-on-ones at least once a week. The one-on-ones with you will give them the chance to practice interacting in a more professional manner – at least with you. As you fine-tune your ongoing dialogue with each Millennial, they will become accustomed to your one-on-ones. Over time, you will help them learn to prepare better and better agendas for your one-on-ones; increasingly organized, clear, and focused. These skills will then translate to all of their interpersonal communications at work, resulting in less wasted time and improved collaboration with everyone in the organization.

About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), and It’s Okay to be the Boss (Revised & Updated, 2014). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website