Operations efficiency in distribution means hitting the plan and hitting the numbers, safely and with good quality. What does active language have to do with that? A surprising amount! Let’s talk about communicating.
Language and Culture in Operations
People–in warehousing and other places– often use the passive voice. Passive voice is the framing of an event as “something that occurred” rather than “someone doing something.” For example, a supervisor might say “the picking goal was missed” or “the rework was not completed.” Alternate forms of the language could be “We missed the picking goal” or “the inventory shift did not complete the rework.”
The problem here is that it treats events and outcomes as independent of inputs. It avoids accountability. It creates a culture where people talk around problems and issues instead of addressing them directly.
For example, let’s imagine that someone says “The door needs to be painted.” This can be interpreted in a few ways. One way is agreement: “Yep, it sure does.” And nothing will get done. Another is assumption of ownership: “Oh, that’s great, you’re going to paint the door.” But that may be misinterpreting Person 1’s intent, which was to get Person 2 to paint the door. As a result, both people may walk away from the communication thinking that the other is going to execute the task.
In operational environments and especially in managing projects, it is critical to have clear understanding of what needs to be done (you caught me!) and who will do it. Active formulation of issues and actions is essential.
Why People Use Passive Voice
So why do people use passive voice?
People use this type of formulation because it is non-confrontational, it requires less thinking to say, and it sounds “smart.”
It is non-confrontational because it avoids assigning or taking any responsibility. This is important because in many workplaces responsibility is often perceived as blame or confrontation. If this is true in your workplace, then the use of passive voice is a survival technique. The next step is exploring how to create an environment where people can discuss causes without being afraid of repercussions.
It requires less thinking because it refers only to the object or event in the discussion without thinking about how to accomplish that thing.
It sounds “smart” because modern culture tells people that nuance, uncertainty, sensitivity, and qualifiers make someone smart. This puts passive voice in the same category of qualifiers like “just”, “sorry”, “apologies”, and other mushy-mouthed verbal fillers. The problem here is that the language because soft and unclear and creates confidence problems on teams.
“The area needs to be taped.” Sure it does. But who will do it? If you leave a meeting agreeing on the need to do something without assigning the responsible person, the tape won’t get put down. This is a big problem when someone says “that order needs to be moved to the trailer and shipped today.”
“The plan was missed.” Ok. Indeed it was. Why? What led to the miss? Who is responsible for resolving it? These are critical things to discuss.
Now, there are times when passive voice is ok. For example, when something is unknown or has no principal actor, then a passive formulation is ok. But it’s important to identify that unknown to turn it into a known.
Clear understanding of events and actions is critical to running an efficient operation. One way to help this is to use clear language. Passive voice speech muddies rather than clarifies questions of cause and effect, accountability, and responsibility.
To fix this habit, don’t let passive statements slide by. Bring attention to them. Let your teams know what passive and active voice are. It may sound like 6th-grade English rehash but it helps clear thinking and understanding.
Build habits of speaking in active voice. Ask questions like “Who needs to do that?” and “What is the next step?” Strive first for clarity in communications.
Note that passive voice is not inherently “bad,” it just happens to be overused. Developing clear communication in operations and project teams means getting out of passive voice habits.
When your operation does this, you can look forward to shorter, more productive discussions, fewer issues with responsibility, more effective and cohesive teams, and more efficient operations.