Operations Management

The International Language of Business

Written by Andrew Goldman for Gaebler Ventures

Managing a workforce that speaks many different languages can be a challenge. Set up your operation with the international language of colors, shapes and symbols. You'll be amazed at the results you can get from these simple communication tools.

In today's international melting pot, we can see many different people from many different countries working side by side.

The International Language of Business

This can be extremely challenging for the small business manager if the workforce is comprised of employees speaking several different languages.

I often see frustration on the faces of small business owners when they explain the challenges of communicating when languages differ.

To help alleviate this problem and improve company communication, the use of colors, shapes and symbols are a tremendous help.

There are many important factors that need to be communicated to the workforce. It could be new design specifications or special instructions for a new customer. It could be a matter of instructing employees what jobs to do and in what order. A new task may have to be explained and language barriers can create problems if instructions are misunderstood. Jobs can wind up taking longer to complete due to the language barrier, resulting in higher costs. As a result, it is crucial that the small business owner take steps to streamline communication by using the international language of colors, shapes and symbols.

I consulted for a company that delivered decorative gift baskets. Each day the workforce would have a variety of different jobs to complete, and many of the gift baskets were customized depending upon the individual customer. The production planner had a difficult time communicating, which jobs should be completed by which employees and in what order. The production supervisor spent a good deal of time each morning, moving employees around to proper stations and juggling the various tasks. By incorporating colors into the production plan, significant improvements were made. Here's how it worked:

First, a large white board on the production floor had jobs written in various color. The names of the employees who were working on a particular job would be written in the matching color. Each employee would recognize their name, see the color and match it to the job, which also had an allotted time. Then, each job station had a matching color to denote where the employees should go. As a result, each morning the employees would walk in, review the board and know exactly where to go. The production supervisor had eliminated 20 minutes from each day shuffling people around.

Another company I consulted for had a problem with cleanup at the end of each day. Their demand fluctuated daily and it was common for them to bring on temporary labor. When the day was finished, there were many pieces of equipment and tools that had to be put away. Usually, the temps could not help with this part, as they did not know where things were put away. As a result, the fulltime workers were paid overtime to put away all of the miscellaneous materials. By imploring shapes and symbols, the temps were able to help with this process, greatly reducing the cost of production due to overtime. Here's how it worked:

Each tool had a certain symbol attached to it. For example, a glue gun might have two blue circles and a mixing paddle might have a green triangle. Over in the equipment room, there would be bins and boxes with matching symbols. The employees could place the blue circle tool in the blue circle bin. Without any language or instruction, employees were able to clean up faster and remain more organized.

Shapes and symbols are a great way to keep your shop floor organized without any paperwork required.

Andrew Goldman is an Isenberg School of Management MBA student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has extensive experience working with small businesses on a consulting basis.

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