Lessons learned from the Tower of Babel

By Joe Limbaugh

It happened again this week, and it rendered my already-short attention span in disarray. During a long and tedious meeting, someone used an acronym that I was unfamiliar with. To make matters worse, others repeated it as part of the discussion. Fixated on trying to decode the letters (I do the same thing in traffic when I see a vanity plate), I missed about 10 minutes of the discussion. In the interest of full disclosure, I have been in some of our own supply-chain meetings and the same thing has happened. We’ve said things like:

“The impact on FTE won’t be known until we get the CO and the MHE is operational.” 


“The impact on full-time equivalency (headcount) won’t be known until we get the certificate of occupancy and the material handling equipment is operational.”

And have you ever been in a meeting where they speak in numbers? I have, and I quote:

“If we price the 856 then we won’t need an 810 and we can pay from the 824.”


“If we price the advance ship notice, then we won’t need an invoice, and we can pay from the application advice.”

This reminds me of when I am reading a book and I come across a word that I don’t recognize. If I keep reading, I will struggle to retain anything from that point forward, as somewhere in the back of my brain I am trying to understand what I just read. This also reminds me of the Tower of Babel. Remember that story? According to the Bible, in short, some people were trying to build a tower in order to reach heaven. Sensing this, God confused their language so that they could not communicate and complete their mission. Confused their language…I’m not suggesting for a minute that our supply-chain department is doing anything on the scale of building a tower to heaven, but we are trying to do some pretty cool things.

In any pursuit where more than one person is involved, communication is key. Communication is enhanced when all parties approach one another with genuine respect and politeness. Perhaps, then, when one the departmental language one speaks in his or her job is loaded with acronyms, one should provide the meaning of each acronym as it comes up in conversation.  

This would have saved me some time back when I was making a round through our Birmingham warehouse. As I was approaching the small-package area, I noticed two of our superstars having a discussion. Their body language was unmistakable – they were squarely facing each other, arms crossed, no movement or smiles. They looked like two terriers trying to figure out how to divide a single bone. When I approached, I heard:

“This is the third time that Pam hasn’t worked. And the other day every other label was off-center.” From the conversation it was clear that one of the men didn’t approve of Pam’s performance, and the other needed some convincing. I was just about to ask about Pam’s tenure and training when one of them looked at me and asked, “Have we had any issues with the print-and-apply machine at the other DCs?” Pam was actually PAM. That was close.

As cross-functional teams widen into more departments and disciplines, I think it’s more important than ever that we do all we can to provide for the best environment for communication.   

So moving forward, I plan to make the following changes in the meetings in which I have influence: 

  1. When hosting a meeting, I will make sure that all acronyms are defined.
  2. When sending correspondences, I will do the same.
  3. I’ll take special care to make sure that cross-functional participants and interns understand the basics of our conversations.

The other thing that I will do will require some bravery on my part. When I am in a meeting as a part of a cross-functional team and I hear an acronym that I don’t understand, I will ask that it be defined for me. (I will bolster my bravery by thinking that I might not be the only one who needs clarification.)

There are two basic definitions for communication. The first is pretty well-known: the imparting or exchanging of information or news. But it’s the second that intrigues me: a means of connection between people and places in particular. It follows that communicating alone doesn’t necessarily cut it; a connection must be made. Like the bricks in the Tower of Babel, all must be connected and work in unison to reach new heights.