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Would You Fix This Systems Failure?

I was waiting at Baggage Carousel 1 at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, when a man in a vest told the crowd of us to move to Carousel 2. We eyed him suspiciously. After all, the electronic sign said the luggage from Chicago would arrive at Carousel 1. Who was more believable, the official or the official-looking sign?

He repeatedly barked that we should move to Carousel 2. But Carousel 2 was dead, luggage was pouring into Carousel 1, and the electronic sign continued to tell us Carousel 1 was a winner for us.

In frustration, the man yelled, “If you came from Chicago, move to Carousel 2!” and most of our herd reluctantly moved toward the empty carousel.

I gently said to our vested friend, “It would probably be helpful if the sign said the same thing you are saying.”

“This happens all the time!” he responded. “I can’t fix the sign! That’s the airport.”

What we have here is a system failure.

If it “happens all the time,” why hasn’t someone fixed the system? Why do weary travelers regularly have to be prodded to move, when a sign tells them to stay put?

How do your systems frustrate your customers, readers, and yourself?

  • If customers repeatedly complain that they were unaware of a charge, find out where your communication breaks down.
  • If email readers do not respond to your questions, examine how you are asking. How can you write differently?
  • If you continually rewrite an employee’s work, stop! (Unless you want to do the employee’s job and your own.) Analyze the problem (a lack of training, awareness, or discipline?), and help the employee solve it.

When you have systems that regularly fail someone, compare the resources (time, energy, etc.) it would take to fix the problem with the resources, good will, and confidence drained day after day by the failure.

The airline official was correct, of course: Our long-awaited bags spilled from Carousel 2 like kids bursting out the school door.

Do you have systems problems that better writing would fix?


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

5 comments on “Would You Fix This Systems Failure?”

  • people never answer my emails at work, especially when I attach 5+ page documents for them to review and respond. that is so frustrating to me. I find I have to really prod people by actually walking by their desk and asking them if they read it. what a waste of time. I guess I need to stop and reevaluate.

  • Jennifer, I’m there with you. I write technical documentation for staff and I have to have it vetted by the other IT staff. Even when it is just a two page document I can’t always get feedback.

    I’m open to writing differently but sometimes it’s hard to know where to start.

    My next attempt is using a partial all cap headline. Something like:

    FEEDBACK REQUEST: Need your feed back by 10/XX/2014

    Then a quick explanation of the task the document describes and the audience. I’m hoping to encourage them to respond by making it easy to scan email subject.

    If others have thoughts on how to make email easier to read/scan, I’d love to get hear other thoughts. Might help lift me out of my current ruts

  • Hi, Jennifer and Lisa. It IS frustrating when our emails don’t get responses. Here are tips to try or try again:

    1. Put the request prominently in the subject line, as you suggested, Lisa. However, if giving you feedback is part of your readers’ jobs, I would use “Your Feedback Required by Oct. 28.”

    2. Make the email easy to scan, as you noted. That means using headings at the left margin, along with short chunks of text (paragraphs or bullet points), each about one narrow topic.

    3. Make the feedback as easy as possible to give. With your example, Lisa, you would use headings such as AUDIENCE, DOCUMENT PURPOSE, etc., to help them understand what they are reviewing. (And you would use the same headings in every request.) You would also be very specific about the kind of feedback you want from them. Perhaps they could provide the feedback on a brief form.

    4. Be sure the documents you want them to review are in excellent shape so your colleagues don’t get distracted by some aspect of the document that you could have easily fixed yourself.

    5. If possible, request feedback on days of the week that are less busy for IT. For example, are Fridays easier days than Mondays?

    If people still don’t respond, start scheduling feedback meetings, and put the meetings on their calendars.

    If you can’t schedule feedback meetings or they don’t make sense in your situation, meet with the IT reviewers individually and ask each one how you can help them respond to you. What systems changes should you make?

    I am glad you are thinking about how to change your communication. Good luck!


  • Sorry: late to this party. As a longtime technical communicator, the issue of getting timely feedback from subject-matter experts (SMEs) is a hot button issue. Talk about a systems failure!

    If reviewing documents is not part of a SME’s job description, your system needs work. Regardless of that, if you don’t have an escalation path that loops the SME’s manager or your project manager into a failure of this kind, your system needs work.

    You need to be able to remind the SME that there are consequences for not performing this part of his/her job. Without that, you will forever be in “one-down” situations with all your SMEs, and you won’t be representing the reader well enough. (Don’t forget that to the reader/customer, the documentation is PART of the product, not just an afterthought!)

    Otherwise, what are you relying on, your good looks?


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