Communications planning vital to CMMS success

Contributing Editor David Berger, P.Eng., explains how communications planning is vital to the success of your CMMS project.

By David Berger, P.Eng., contributing editor

The success of any major change initiative, such as implementing reliability-centered maintenance, a CMMS or a lean maintenance program, is contingent on how well you are able to manage the key stakeholders’ expectations, from conception to long after implementation. In turn, expectations can be managed only through constant, well-planned communications with affected parties. This, of course, doesn’t guarantee success, but it increases its probability significantly.

Many large organizations have a communications department that’s responsible for helping other departments prepare external documents such as news releases or marketing materials, as well as internal documents such as newsletters, FAQs, policies and procedures. The communications department also can help project teams plan for an appropriate level of intra-company communication with those people affected by the project.

However, you don’t require a formal communications department to become more effective at communicating. Simply preparing the proper communications plan is a major step in the right direction.

The plan

A detailed communications plan provides a step-by-step breakdown identifying which communications tools will be used when, for what target audience, with what objective and what key message. Because there are so many perspectives to consider in a typical project, it’s critical to answer questions for each stakeholder, such as, “What’s in it for me?” or, “Why should I participate/cooperate?”

Although there are variations on this theme, I use a three-part communications plan for any major project:

Key messages: The first part of the communications plan provides the project’s core theme from the key stakeholder perspectives. For example, a CMMS implementation or major upgrade might evoke the following questions:

  • What difference will the CMMS project make to the customers?
  • What difference will the CMMS project make to the company?
  • What difference will the CMMS project make to staff?
  • What is required to make this project a success?

Communication guidelines: The second section outlines communication guidelines for team members. Sample guidelines for a CMMS project might be that team members should:

  •  Act as champions and coaches
  • Solicit open and honest feedback
  • Honor confidentiality

Communications matrix: The third and most comprehensive part of the communications plan is a spreadsheet that summarizes what needs to be said to whom, in what way and how often. The matrix should answer these five questions:

  1. What are the key stakeholder groups that this project affects?
  2. What vehicles are available to reach each stakeholder group?
  3. How should this vehicle or method be used to keep people informed?
  4. What are the differences in messaging among different groups?
  5. What’s the timing and frequency of communication?

The columns of the matrix are the key project’s stakeholder groups, such as executives, front-line operators, maintainers, etc. This responds to question 1 above. Responses to question 2 form the rows of the matrix, that is, the different vehicles or methods of communication, such as town hall meetings, videos, formal department meetings, newsletters, etc. Each cell in the matrix provides a response to questions 3 to 5, where relevant. A cell is left blank if a particular communication method (a given row) isn’t applicable to the corresponding stakeholder group (a given column).

Methods of communications

One of the difficulties project teams have is understanding the strengths, weaknesses and applicability of different communication vehicles. Knowing which method is appropriate for which stakeholder group at each stage in the project can make a big difference in getting buy-in. Here are 10 practical tools that can be inserted into your communications plan, depending on your requirements.

Town hall meetings: This is a favorite communications tool of senior management because it’s an efficient way to convey lots of information, in a polished and consistent fashion, to a large number of people. However, it’s not ideal for seeking feedback and determining how each stakeholder group perceived the intended message, especially if there are language issues.

Road show: A variation on the town hall meeting is a series of smaller town hall meetings with a number of key managers presenting. This is especially useful for multiple locations or shifts. The advantages and disadvantages are similar to those of the standard town hall meeting, with the added caution that the rumor mill might become active after the first meeting, especially if the message appears inconsistent from one meeting to the next.

Video: A video adds to a road show in that it conveys a clear and consistent message in a highly professional manner. The downside, however, is the expense of doing it right, the fallout if it’s done poorly, and the potential for senior management to be viewed as impersonal and unapproachable.

Memo to employees in a newsletter, on a Web site or by e-mail: A written version of the message should accompany any audiovisual tool so employees can better digest the implications, especially if it’s printed in multiple languages. Be careful that what goes in writing is consistent with the message conveyed in other tools, otherwise confusion or mistrust results.

Supervisory meetings: Following numerous industrial psychology studies published during the past two decades, this is viewed by experts as one of the most effective means of communication. First-line supervisors have the highest credibility with their front-line employees, so any words or body language they use in one-on-one or small group meetings will go a long way to convince the shop floor of the relative merits of the project. It’s a top priority for senior management to provide supervisors with adequate support, training and tools, so they are able to manage the expectations of the shop-floor and office staff throughout the project.

Training: Training sessions and support materials can serve as a means of communication. Be careful, however, that this doesn’t replace properly managing the expectations of participants well before they begin training.

Press release or targeted mail-out: Depending on the size, scope and possible project outcomes, it might be important to communicate in writing with suppliers, customers, business partners and the general public to ensure message consistency.

FAQ or Q&A: A written “Frequently Asked Questions” or “Question and Answer” communication piece makes an excellent adjunct to any of the tools above, because it can address likely questions in a manner appropriate for each stakeholder group. It’s also a great support tool for first-line supervisors in dealing with questions from their staff.

Voice mail/e-mail/suggestion box: Many companies provide a means for employees to ask questions, provide feedback or interact directly with the most appropriate manager, using a special voice-mail box, e-mail address or physical suggestion box. Anonymous communication is possible with these tools, although many companies prefer a more open-door policy.

Postings: Progress can be communicated throughout the project using posters, charts, graphs, calendars and the like, posted throughout the facility. This generates excitement and helps manage expectations about achieving project objectives. Similarly, you can use electronic tools such as Communities of Practice (CoPs), a project status Web page on a company intranet, or an electronic bulletin/discussion board.

(Editor’s note: The Plant Services CMMS/EAM Software Review, at www.PlantServices.com/cmms_review, provides a side-by-side comparison of more than a dozen popular software packages.)

E-mail Contributing Editor David Berger, P.Eng., partner, Western Management Consultants, at david@wmc.on.ca.