The View From The “Gray” Side; Not All Silos Are Bad

Phone Communications

A friend and I recently stopped for a bagel and a chat. What we ended up with instead was a bird’s eye view of a communications problem going downhill. One that could have been avoided with better communication.

First, one definition. You’ll see the word “silo” throughout this piece. For our purposes, a silo is where an individual or an entire team can hide from the world while trying to do their job. They can see out. You can’t see in. Sometimes it works. Sometimes not so much.

It started simply enough. We both ordered toasted bagels from the first silo. Check. Bagel guy pushes them over to the slicer. Check. Slicer silo then passes them on to what we thought was the final stop at toaster silo. Toaster guy pops them on to the conveyor belt and leaves. And this is where the chain starts to collapse.

Toaster guy splits and the bagels are soon sitting at the end of the conveyor getting cold. A fact the teams all ignored. My friend asks the sandwich making guys – standing a couple of feet away – if we can have our bagels. They look at us like we’re from another planet. And then go back to ignoring us.

The entire chain collapsed when toaster dude walked away and no one apparently had the authority to hand us our warm-for-the-moment bagels. The “team” opted to wait for toaster guy.

Silos, like life, come with missteps. Good leaders train their teams to be ready to step in and fix a problem. Bad silo teachers train their teams to stare at their shoes until someone else comes along. They embrace the philosophy that if you don’t do anything then it won’t be your fault is it crashes.

As a retiree, I marvel at the communication options most companies have at their disposal. But I also shake my head at how so many of them ignore the tools waiting to be used.

Today, people communicate with the other side of the world in a blink. Getting them to talk to each other and do something as simple as handing a customer a bagel is getting lost in an electronic mire of Zoom meetings, Instant Messaging, E-mails, or god-forbid, an efficiency study.

We have to start talking to each other again. Enough with sending up electronic flares.

When I was a kid in the 50’s, a telephone was originally attached to a wall not your head. I can remember when it was a big deal that extensions were moved to a table and you could take the phone into a closet for privacy.

Young people today have grown up with the phone as an additional brain. You text, you e-mail, you order flowers, you book a trip. But can you explain to the boss why customers are annoyed their bagels are cold?

It’s too easy to blame young people. We are not only losing the ability to communicate because of our ubiquitous Dick Tracy phones, we’re losing the emotional intelligence to deal with other people.

Dealing with people is tough. If you brush off an employee with a short text that might be efficient, but did it help? Get ready to roll your eyes – life is full of teachable moments. Deal with, don’t ignore, the emotions your team brings to the table every day.

Silos are here to stay and are important. As technology improves it increases specialization, which in itself promotes silos. That’s good. But information needs to flow between silos. Not only does it promote throughput, it sparks innovation.

Consider the Empire State Building.

The original skyscraper is likely the best example of what may have been near perfect communications. The world’s first 100-story building was started in 1930 and finished in 15 months. Today, you’re lucky if you can buy a car in 15 months.

Crews, workers, builders and engineers talked constantly, and changed plans more than a dozen times before one of the world’s greatest buildings was finished. And it worked because people dealt with challenges by talking to each other instead of texting for help.

Explain to me why the Empire State Building could be built in 15 months and my friend and I couldn’t get a toasted bagel in ten minutes? The Empire State Building went from the drawing board to the sky in figuratively less time with less sophisticated equipment and then non-existent technology.

Covid has pushed all of us, almost simultaneously, to the precipice of success or failure and I’m still waiting to see which wins. I vote for more communication. Your boss might yell when you explain cold bagel. But I’ll bet next time you do the right thing because you “talked” to the boss.

My fear is that if we don’t start communicating, more and better, we may not like the results. And the fault will be ours alone.

Jim Zelem spent most of his career in operations for international publishing and is the author of Stepping Stones of Leadership. Zelem is also host of the podcast “You are just a Number”. A podcast regarding leaders, leadership, teamwork and the passion people display.

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