The point behind common understanding

May 27, 2009
Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, contributing editor, says its absence leads to a defective communication pipeline.

A short time ago, I was facilitating a session on performance measures at a municipal utility when the topic of measuring preventive and predictive maintenance arose. One of the crew supervisors seemed irritated because he and I were using the same word, but we obviously had different definitions.

Like many in today’s workforce, this fellow had been with the organization for more than 25 years and no one was going to tell him what was meant by preventive maintenance. His belief was that all planned maintenance was preventive maintenance: as long as he was fixing something, he was preventing further damage. My definition of preventive maintenance, on the other hand, included only planned periodic tasks intended to identify defects or perform minor replacements based on an equipment maintenance plan.


At the beginning of the discussion, my friend was cordial, but he had a look on his face that said, "This hired hand has no idea what the heck he is talking about." After a few minutes of escalating frustration on both our parts – frustrated because the other still hadn’t “seen the light” and capitulated – we began discussing what each of us meant by preventive maintenance. He didn’t completely agree with my definition, but in the interest of time and to avoid boring everyone else in the group to tears, we came up with a definition to use for the measurement of preventive maintenance.

Common understanding is the foundation upon which we build structures. We all come from different backgrounds with different experiences, cultures and social influences. That understanding is important. Driving a car on public roads is much safer because we all (or most of us, anyway) have a common understanding about the meaning of green, amber and red traffic signals. Because each color has a meaning, we can be reasonably close in our understanding of that meaning. Red means stop in most regions; although in Boston it seems to mean “two more cars can go,” yet I’ve not found that anywhere in writing.

Any organized activity requires common understanding. Whether it’s driving, setting up measures or developing rules and responsibilities for work-management processes, we need a common language. People must understand what’s expected of them before supervisors or managers can hold them accountable.

If we had no common understanding of what green, yellow and red lights mean, it would be difficult to get from here to there by following our own unique rules. In a similar way, it‘s not possible to measure performance of preventive maintenance in any meaningful way if we don’t come to terms about definitions.

I’ll bet that in both your job and personal life, there are many examples of problems that arose because of a lack of a meeting of the minds. When working with companies or municipalities to improve organizational reliability, I often ask workshop participants to think of three things at work or at home that caused them stress in the past week. Then, I ask them to think about each of these issues objectively; not as a person involved in the issue. I then ask them to identify any gaps in understanding between the two parties. Most often, the audience members come up with at least one example of a misconception or lack of understanding that could have been solved through better communication.

The best way to improve your ability to establish common definitions is to think about the times that something fell through the cracks. Once you’re aware of the potential for these gaps to exist, it’s easier to prepare for and avoid them. An excellent tool to ensure understanding is to ask the other person to paraphrase, in their own words, the point you’re trying to get across.

Both supervisors and team members have a responsibility to understand each other clearly, and to provide clearly understood responses. Achieving that common understanding is particularly important when English isn’t a person’s native language.

Discuss with others your meanings and intentions. Clarify as needed to ensure understanding. Use your awareness of the importance of common understanding to reduce stress, improve morale and boost productivity with lower accident rates.

Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, is president of Alidade MER Inc. Contact him at [email protected] and (321) 773-3356.

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