Diversity Insight

Team in Trouble: One word & two cultures = production problems

A team is missing its production deadlines, and a different cultural interpretation of the word “deadline” is the cause. Two experts offer solutions for fixing the problem.

The Problem:
Don is production manager in a printing company that produces books for major publishers. Five years ago, the company added binding to its services, and Don began staffing that department with workers from Mexico. Everything went smoothly until four months ago when Mauricio became supervisor of the binding team. One of the first Hispanic workers Don hired, Mauricio is bight and capable. But since his promotion, the binding group has missed three deadlines. Books had to be shipped at special rates and high costs! Each time Mauricio apologized and vowed to set more reasonable completion dates; but Don has noticed that during production meetings, Mauricio continues to promise tight deadlines. Mauricio is experienced. He knows the equipment and his men. Why does he promise deadlines he cannot deliver, and what should Don do to ensure he does?

Advice from Experts:

• Carol Hastings, Vice President of Corte Hispana, a professional services company that training for Spanish-speaking workforces.

In Latin America, time commitments and deadlines may be seen as worthy objectives rather than categorical imperatives. If all things run perfectly, the delivery date could be possible, so why not say “yes.” But more often than not, things don’t run perfectly, and the deadline can’t be met. In Mexico, the customer knows there may be delays and takes this into account in his planning. The Hispanic supervisor in this situation may never have experienced the consequences of missing a delivery date that a customer considers firm.

Another confusing factor in this case is that Latino managers tend to give only positive feedback to their superiors. A Mexican executive, for example may consider it disrespectful if a subordinate contradicts him. In the U.S., executives expect subordinates to provide the bad news along with the good. They want to be able to solve a problem or alert the customer to the delay. When Mauricio says, “yes” to tight deadlines, this may be a matter of being diplomatic. He doesn’t want to disappoint. Giving the answer Don wants to hear is more polite than offering the truth.

There isn’t a quick, easy way to solve this. It will take time and patience. It may help Don to know that Latinos work for a person, not a company. Don would do well to establish a personal relationship with Mauricio. As trust and confidence in the relationship grow, it becomes more likely that delivery commitments will be met as Mauricio wants to please Don and may be less afraid to give a truthful negative.

Also, Don should kindly let Mauricio know the consequences of a missed delivery date, both the financial impact on the company and possibly on his team. When possible, Don could have Mauricio meet with the customer contact so they can establish rapport. The customer contact can explain the immediate steps that will be taken when the books are delivered on time and the consequences if they are not. That makes the deadline more personal for Mauricio on all fronts.

Carol Hastings is Vice President of Corte Hispana, a company dedicated to providing training for Spanish-speaking workforces. She speaks nationally on working with Spanish-speaking employees. She can be reached at 310 458-6998 or Carol@CorteHispana.com

Sheri Long, Principal, Amigos at Work, a management firm that helps organizations enhance the performance of organization and its employees.

My experience indicates that the term deadline translates differently in the two cultures, U.S. and Latin America. The Oxford Spanish Dictionary translates deadline to plazo de entrega, literally the period of delivery. Period refers to a span of time, not a distinct date and time. Those semantics offer a valuable clue to the perception of deadlines in most Latino cultures. When I lived in Mexico, my Christmas card order was delayed. The friendly explanation was that they got more orders than they expected. The explanation was courteous, matter of fact, and considered completely sufficient.

Mexicans emphasize the present, not the future, so planning ahead is seldom a high priority. At our local Hispanic chamber of commerce, a Mexican business owner recently told me that he hires Americans in upper management positions specifically because he values their concern about timeliness and deadlines. Managers in factories sometimes complain to me that their Hispanic supervisors don’t think ahead to replenish supplies to keep production flowing.

I imagine the Hispanic team leader in this incidence promises unrealistic deadlines for a variety of reasons. He may be giving the projected date under optimum condition without planning for interruptions. He may be trying to please his boss with the earliest date possible. He may not be aware of other printing obligations, lack of supplies, or machine maintenance needs. Here are a few ideas the production manager may find useful.

Make a point of mentoring the team leader. Spend time getting to know him and teaching him how to plan and manage projects. Explain that in the U.S. missed deadlines are taken very seriously and the customer could leave to find a printer that consistently delivers on time.

Display a project progress chart so everyone knows the status of all ongoing projects.

Work with the team supervisor to create a process map showing team members’ responsibilities for each step of the process. Talk with him about the time required by each team member’s task before setting delivery deadlines.

Teach him good meeting management skills so he gets all team members’ input to help him determine realistic delivery dates.

Bilingual consultant Sheri Long helps individuals and organizations enhance performance. Her company, Amigos at Work, specializes in the Hispanic workforce. She can be reached at 949.422.0818 or sheri@amiogsatwork.com