COMMUNICATION FAILURES

—-CASE STUDY—
COMMUNICATION FAILURES
Herb had been with the company for more than eight years and had worked
on various R&D and product enhancement projects for external clients. He
had a Ph.D. in engineering and had developed a reputation as a subject matter expert. Because
of his specialized skills, he worked by himself most of the time and interfaced with the various
project teams only during project team meetings. All of that was about to change.
Herb’s company had just won a two-year contract from one of its best customers. The
first year of the contract would be R&D and the second year would be manufacturing. The
company made the decision that the best person qualified to be the project manager was Herb
because of his knowledge of R&D and manufacturing. Unfortunately, Herb had never taken
any courses in project management, and because of his limited involvement with previous
project teams, there were risks in assigning him as the project manager. But management
believed he could do the job.

Herb’s team consisted of fourteen people, most of whom would be full
time for at least the first year of the project. The four people that Herb
would be interfacing with on a daily basis were Alice, Bob, Betty, and Frank.
● Alice was a seasoned veteran who worked with Herb in R&D. Alice had been with
the company longer than Herb and would coordinate the efforts of the R&D personnel.
● Bob also had been with the company longer that Herb and had spent his career in
engineering. Bob would coordinate the engineering efforts and drafting.
● Betty was relatively new to the company. She would be responsible for all reports,
records management, and procurements.
● Frank, a five-year employee with the company, was a manufacturing engineer.
Unlike Alice, Bob, and Betty, Frank would be part time on the project until it was
time to prepare the manufacturing plans.
For the first two months of the program, work seemed to be progressing as planned.
Everyone understood their role on the project and there were no critical issues.
Herb held weekly teams meetings every Friday from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m.
Unfortunately the next team meeting would fall on Friday the 13th, and
that bothered Herb because he was somewhat superstitious. He was considering canceling the
team meeting just for that week but decided against it.
At 9:00 a.m., on Friday the 13th, Herb met with his project sponsor as he always did in the
past. Two days before, Herb casually talked to his sponsor in the hallway and the sponsor told Herb
that on Friday the sponsor would like to discuss the cash flow projections for the next six months
and have a discussion on ways to reduce some of the expenditures. The sponsor had seen some
expenditures that bothered him. As soon as Herb entered the sponsor’s office, the sponsor said:
It looks like you have no report with you. I specifically recall asking you for a report on the cash
flow projections.
Herb was somewhat displeased over this. Herb specifically recalled that this was to be a
discussion only and no report was requested. But Herb knew that “rank has its privileges” and
questioning the sponsor’s communication skills would be wrong. Obviously, this was not a
good start to Friday the 13th.
At 10:00 a.m., Alice came into Herb’s office and he could see from the expression on her
face that she was somewhat distraught. Alice then spoke:
Herb, last Monday I told you that the company was considering me for promotion and the
announcements would be made this morning. Well, I did not get promoted. How come you
never wrote a letter of recommendation for me?
Herb remembered the conversation vividly. Alice did say that she was being considered for
promotion but never asked him to write a letter of recommendation. Did Alice expect Herb to
read between the lines and try to figure out what she really meant?
Herb expressed his sincere apologies for what happened. Unfortunately, this did not make
Alice feel any better as she stormed out of Herb’s office. Obviously, Herb’s day was getting
worse and it was Friday the 13th.
330 MANAGEMENT FUNCTIONS
The Team Is Formed
Friday the 13th
No sooner had Alice exited the doorway to Herb’s office when Bob entered. Herb could
tell that Bob had a problem. Bob then stated:
In one of our team meetings last month, you stated that you had personally contacted some of my
engineering technicians and told them to perform this week’s tests at 70°F, 90°F and 110°F. You
and I know that the specifications called for testing at 60°F, 80°F and 100°F. That’s the way it was
always done and you were asking them to perform the tests at different intervals than the specifications
called for.
Well, it seems that the engineering technicians forgot the conversation you had with them and
did the tests according to the specification criteria. I assumed that you had followed up your conversation
with them with a memo, but that was not the case. It seems that they forgot.
When dealing with my engineering technicians, the standard rule is, “if it’s not in writing, then
it hasn’t been said.” From now on, I would recommend that you let me provide the direction to my
engineering technicians. My responsibility is engineering and all requests of my engineering personnel
should go through me.
Yes, Friday the 13th had become a very bad day for Herb. What else could go wrong, Herb
thought? It was now 11:30 a.m. and almost time for lunch. Herb was considering locking his
office door so that nobody could find him and then disconnecting his phone. But in walked
Betty and Frank, and once again he could tell by the expressions on their faces that they had a
problem. Frank spoke first:
I just received confirmation from procurement that they purchased certain materials which
we will need when we begin manufacturing. We are a year away from beginning manufacturing
and, if the final design changes in the slightest, we will be stuck with costly raw
materials that cannot be used. Also, my manufacturing budget did not have the cash flow
for early procurement. I should be involved in all procurement decisions involving manufacturing.
I might have been able to get it cheaper that Betty did. So, how was this decision
made without me?
Before Herb could say anything, Betty spoke up:
Last month, Herb, you asked me to look into the cost of procuring these materials. I found a
great price at one of the vendors and made the decision to purchase them. I thought that this was
what you wanted me to do. This is how we did it in the last company I worked for.
Herb then remarked:
I just wanted you to determine what the cost would be, not to make the final procurement decision,
which is not your responsibility.
Friday the 13th was becoming possibly the worst day in Herb’s life. Herb decided not to
take any further chances. As soon as Betty and Frank left, Herb immediately sent out e-mails
to all of the team members canceling the team meeting scheduled for 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. that
afternoon.
Case Studies 331

————-
QUESTIONS
1. How important are communication skills in project management?
2. Was Herb the right person to be assigned as the project manager?
3. There were communications issues with Alice, Bob, Betty, and Frank. For each
communication issue, where was the breakdown in communications: encoding,
decoding, feedback, and so on?

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