Communications as a separate system is concerned with the tools needed — from phones and fax machines to documents — for the best flow of information. There needs to be:

  • An accountable liaison or point person
  • A way to verify whether all messages have been received and if the system is working
  • A method to analyze and track data
  • For company-wide success, good communication must occur within each system and among all the systems, as well as with subs, suppliers, and clients. But the actual devices used to communicate can be seen as a system itself. Communications tools can be as straightforward as phones (land lines and cell phones), fax machines, computers (hardware and software; stationary and hand-held), pagers, and radios. Other tools are less tangible like phone-answering methods, or contracts with subs or homeowners. When taken as a separate system, you can define the purpose of the communication, assign the right people to look at and review options, and hold them accountable for their participation in the system.

    At Sun Design Remodeling Specialists, in Burke, Va., monitoring the communications system and its budget is the purview of the director of administration, Brenda Thomas. She is responsible for ordering cell phones for key employees and having them sign a user-policy statement. She reviews phone bills monthly and each quarter makes decisions about whether the company should switch plans. She also writes proposals for buying new computer software, but purchasing computer-related materials falls to the in-house IT person.

    Having a point person (and not just for purchasing) is essential for smooth communications, consultant Stoddard says. By way of example, he suggests that the lead carpenter receive a daily call from a coordinator in the office with updates about the schedule, checklists, or order items. The coordinator should set the centralized system in motion, running new reports and faxing information back to the lead carpenter at the end of the day. “When the LC gets home, he has a schedule and the [next day's] activity list updated and ready for him,” Stoddard says. “Theoretically, he should never have to leave the jobsite.”

    Phone communication can be taken still further. Stoddard has what he calls a “unified inbox,” where “all correspondence — voice, fax, e-mail — is consolidated.” One product he likes is, which creates a WAV file when someone leaves a voice-mail message. This ends up in his inbox. “I can move messages around and save them. I have an actual message I can track,” he says.

    Maintain Control Sun Design has systematized phone answering with a simple script for responding to callers and for transferring calls. All lead information is collected and the data are analyzed each month.

    Sun Design also considers meetings part of its communications system, including a quarterly board-of-advisors meeting; monthly company-wide “town meetings”; departmental meetings held every Friday; management meetings every other Friday; and one-on-one meetings within departments.

    It's important that you have a way to verify your message is getting through. Although e-mail has become ubiquitous, it may be better to have an internal messaging system, says Stoddard, who notes that e-mail does not always find its intended recipient. “Spam filters catch messages,” he says, and not everyone knows how to find messages in their inbox. For client communications, he suggests creating a “my-project” Web page that they can log into, rather than relying on e-mail alone.

    Thomas says Sun Design checks whether communications were clear by using a survey and a job debrief. “We ask the question, ‘If we were to sell this job again, what would we do differently?'” Answers go into a database of learned lessons accessible to designers and salespeople.