Originally posted on Caterpillar Safety Service’s Safety Culture WORLD blog and reposted here with Caterpillar’s permission.

While sitting around the fire pit during a customer trip to Africa, my team had an enjoyable discussion with the African people who were a part of the camp. Their very different language was of interest to us, as was our American English to them. Their language has a number of terms that sound almost the same, and one of these has a history of causing family difficulties. It turns out that the word “drunkard” in Swahili is very hard to distinguish from the word for “mother-in-law.” You can imagine the troubles this might cause at times. What is said by one is not necessarily what is heard by all.

I’ve experienced a parallel conundrum related to safety culture. Often “‘management speak” and “front-line employee hear” are not even close to the same thing. And the same goes for the vice versa of :workface speak” and “salaried leadership hear.” This lack of clear communication has often caused on-going problems in workplaces. We are so busy trying to do whatever tasks or projects we are focused on that we do not take the time and effort necessary to clearly communicate and then to make sure that the message that was sent is the same as the one that is received, and acted upon.

The solution to this speak-hear conundrum? 

I have found that small continuous improvement (CI) teams are the ideal venue for clear communication and understanding. We take the time in a face-to-face meeting to clearly resolve the issues and their various subsets. In this same team environment we decide how to let the rest of our organization know exactly what they need to learn and know.

It works for families, for operations issues and definitely for improving safety cultures. Let’s stop inadvertently making the embarrassing mistake of a “drunkard” mode of communication in safety, and beyond.