October 12, 2022
It may be difficult for younger readers to imagine, but we once got our instructions verbally from our supervisors. Yes, in a time before e-mail and voicemail, a boss would find you at your desk, in the shop, or in the lunchroom and give you your “marching orders.” As with any verbal directions, there was ample room for misunderstanding and second- guessing. Things are a bit better today, thanks to e-mail trails and time-stamps on phone messages, but disagreements over what you were told to do and when you were told to do it were frequent causes of ill will between supervisors and the supervised. At that long-ago seminar on managing technical operations, our wily instructor had the problem somewhat under control. He preached verbally repeating your “mission orders” as soon as they were given and then following up in writing along with your request for resources as soon as possible. Sometimes just repeating the order as you heard it to your boss brought about a clarification. At its comical extreme, I was once told in no uncertain terms to “make sure my damn gear is on that truck.” When I pointed to the dozens of gears in the general vicinity of the loading dock, said supervisor realized that not everyone was privy to his internal dialog on the particular customer to whom the “damn gear” belonged. Another favorite old saying is, “If it isn’t in writing, it didn’t happen.” A short note saying, “As instructed, found XYZ gear that needs deburring, bumped ABC from schedule so it could ship today,” informed the boss but also alerted him to potential issues with ABC. You could not avoid a “discussion” on interrupting the schedule, but at least the information was available for review by concerned parties. The other important goal of written follow-up to orders is avoiding “mission creep” — that nasty tendency for assignments to grow in the minds of the person giving the orders. Absent that note, his or her memory of the interaction might easily become “get the entire XYZ order on the truck.” There really is not anything “malicious” about reminding the boss what you were told to do and how you expect to accomplish it.