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AMERICAN QUICK PRINTER: IMPROVING INTERNAL INTERACTIONS

Oct 1, 1998 12:00 AM


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Perhaps the most immutable barrier to the quick print shop's success is between one employee's thoughts and another's. As the captain in Cool Hand Luke said, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."

Such is the importance of good internal communications that when industry consultant Debra Thompson was asked to rank its weight with other issues facing today's quick printers, she simply responded, "It's everything." Indeed, long-time convenience print-shop owner Kaye Black puts it way above having the right equipment, marketing plan or technical skills.

"Poor communications breed problems at every level," stresses Black, owner of Curry Printing, a 10-employee shop on Hilton Head Island, SC. "I always tell employees to communicate with people not so they can understand. Rather, communicate with people so they cannot misunderstand. So in other words, over-communicate."

That's because Black understands the inherent reality of the industry--productivity equals profits, and capitalizing on efficiency requires 100 percent team effort at every step of every job from the moment the customer asks to place an order.

"Whoever touches a job must consider everything that needs to be done with it before the next person touches the job," the Carolina printer explains. "We're looking for smooth flow between each person who touches the job."

Thompson refers to this value-added mentality as "satisfying the internal customer in order to satisfy the external customer."

The terms "internal customer" and "external customer" actually were coined by Federal Express as part of the corporation's definition of total quality management. While the external customer represents the paying customer, an internal customer is "anyone who participates in, or supports, the creation, production or delivery of your product or service."

This means every staffer in every department, from sales, design and production to accounting and delivery.

"Each person adding value to the product must understand his or her contribution to the overall process and facilitate the next step in the process," explains Thompson, a former quick print shop owner of 17 years who opened her own consulting business six years ago in Tucson, AZ.

"If everyone inside the shop treats the next person in line as a customer, it would eliminate most of the problems," she testifies. "It can be something as simple as where the next person wants the job placed. The mindset should be, 'Hey, I need to please Joe and if he wants it in this basket, than I better put it in this basket.' If everyone acted in this manner, more often than not every single job would be right and the internal communication would be awesome."

Thompson recommends owners begin investigating workflow bumps and glitches by first drawing a flow chart of the steps a customer's order takes inside the shop and then physically following the job as it passes through the building. Notice the transfer between departments, picking up on conversations, actions and attitudes. Was the information recorded clearly by the order-taker? Is it sufficient for design and production people to understand what's expected of them and meet their deadlines? Is it clear to everyone where the order is at all times? Is each person receiving work pleased with what they get or do they mutter under their breath about its quality or presentation?

Thompson relates an all-too-frequent scenario by way of example: The designer does the artwork and then has plates made. The plates aren't quite right, but they're still handed off to the press operator. When the pressroom asks for a plate remake, time has run out. "Just do the best you can," comes the response. Now the press operator is angry because nobody listens. Also, the job might not be 100 percent because the press operator has to 'wing-it.' And in the future, the press operator adopts a why-even-bother attitude.

One solution is for employees to demand their right for more time to make needed corrections. "We need to respect each other for that attitude and encourage feedback," insists Thompson, who recommends shops conduct internal surveys and focus group discussions to learn about problem areas and extract ideas from all departments on how to alleviate them. Also, production logs help managers "react to the big picture," or the company's overall status, and adjust departments accordingly.

As production manager for Marthabelle's Print Shoppe (Kansas City, MO), Tony Galvin has implemented quality checkpoints within the process, in which work is critiqued by another person before being passed on. He also tries to rotate duties, training his people to assume equal ownership of the process.

One crucial component is the 10 to 15-minute morning production meeting--every morning. The meeting is concise and focuses specifically on the current workload's status and pressing concerns about deadlines or workflow problems. It is not a meeting for whining or long-winded lectures by the supervisor. "We just hired someone who asked if he would get a 90-day review. I answered, 'No, you're going to get a review every morning when you walk in the door,' " recalls Galvin.

For Galvin's part, he arrives an hour before his three press operators in order to fill out a production job board with updated and new assignments. He uses a simple dry eraser board and markers for a color-coded system that lets each person know which jobs they are responsible for, what the specs are and the level of priority.

Andrea Usrey, co-owner of Kwik-Kopy Printing (San Antonio, TX) and another proponent of the 10 to 15-minute morning production meeting, has found good success using job-scheduling software, in this case Printer's Plus. The production manager inputs the information the evening before and delivers printouts for all the departments. Not only does everyone receive a copy of the work for their own department, but they obtain printouts for every other department.

"Essentially, it allows us to play out a work-in-progress list by departments," explains Usrey, who owns the 16-year-old shop with her husband Mitchell. "At the meeting, we talk about where all the different items are. A lot of times we get real hot items that start out in prepress at the beginning of the day and end up in bindery by the end of the day, so it's important everybody knows their status and location to meet the deadline. Our clients are becoming more and more savvy about how fast they can get things and they're putting more pressure on us. There's no time for making assumptions."

Tom Crouser, an industry consultant in Charleston, WV, claims scheduling software can be a great tool, but the real-world reality is "most of them are ineffective because the shop isn't organized."

"The computer doesn't run the shop," asserts Crouser. "When basic business organization and management is lacking, imposing a computer system on top of that gives you chaos on a computer printout--it looks better, but it doesn't solve problems. The computer is the tool of a person who is in charge. When you don't know who reports to whom, assumptions arise and problems occur. We've had counter people say the delivery truck drivers report to them!"

Both Crouser and Thompson blame the owner's lack of a formal and real organizational structure for poor internal communications.

"Everyone in the print shop has to work as a team--it's not a collection of individuals," explains Crouser. "When you are on a team, you need a team leader. If owners would come in and do their job as the leader, then all the parts would fit. That's level one management. But the problem most companies have is the owner does what he or she darn well pleases.

"What happens is demands are being placed on the operating system that they would not put on themselves. You can't control a system like that. You can't get jobs out on time--they'll pop out whenever they get out."

The first course of action is to develop a formal organizational chart based on functions, not people. With this chart, no procedures are ever skipped, and owners or managers cannot pull rank or ignore the system to suit their whims. If the production person calls in sick, for example, there is a back-up person listed on the chart, even if that person has to be the owner. Under this structure, no one, not even a family member, has special privileges or even a guarantee of a job if they do not follow procedures or meet job expectations.

Along with faithfully conducting the all-important morning production meeting, the owner or supervisor must commit to "laying hands on jobs" once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

"This forces owners to know where every job is in the shop," Crouser explains. "They find out what people are doing--who's overworked and who's underworked. Most of the problems owners have is because they don't know what's really going on."

Again, encouraging feedback is critical for any improvement inside the system. "Many owners think they know everything," suggests Thompson. "It's because they believe they're supposed to know everything and have a hard time admitting they don't. Feedback is not easy to hear sometimes. It can be real tough, so if owners won't listen, it will further upset the troops because they're being patronized."

Black's commitment to gaining the insights and ideas of her employees is so strong she hires an outside facilitator, identified through PrintImage International (formerly NAQP), for occasional weekend brainstorming and problem-solving retreats. The last retreat was aimed specifically at devising an effective workflow design for the firm's new 5,000-sq.-ft. shop that has since opened, replacing Curry's original 2,500-sq.-ft. shop of 20 years.

"I'm a very strong believer that the people on the staff have those answers, you just need to provide the culture in which they can express them," says Black. "The idea is for them to help take the business where they want it to go. We want people to always think bigger than where they are and what they're doing. When I interview people I always tell them it is my intention that each hire grows personally and professionally while working here. Then I look to see how important that message registers with them, knowing we will provide their education and training."

One of Thompson's main themes for effective teambuilding is this need to hire for attitude as much as or more than for skills, especially in a tight job market in which highly trained people command salaries an average print shop cannot afford. The premise is people's basic personalities have everything to do with positions they are best-suited for and how they will communicate with others.

"There are four basic personalities that make up our base personality," explains Thompson, who is certified by the international company, TIMS Management Systems, Inc., to administer its computer-analyzed personality profile test for job candidates or current employees.

The acronym DISC represents four basic personalities. "D" is for dominance or a "driving" personality. "I" is for influence, meaning someone who is enthusiastic and optimistic with a very outgoing personality. "S" is for steady and stable; a worker bee. "C" is for compliant, or someone who relies on logic, complies with procedures and is detail-oriented. "An outgoing and bubbly 'I' is great to work in sales or the front counter, but you may not want that person in the bindery because the work may never get done," explains Thompson. "There's no way you want an 'I' person in production. That's for the worker bees."

Once employees have a better understanding of their own personalities and those of their colleagues, they develop a better sense of each other's communication styles. They learn what makes each other tick and how to "read" one another.

"The point is we all have different ways of thinking and doing things and expressing ourselves," says Thompson. "People don't go into work each day just to irritate others. They go in to do a good job. Everyone needs to find out more about each other's personalities so when they communicate, they don't get annoyed."

Thompson gives the example of a "D" supervisor who hands a "C" employee work and then walks off. When the "C", who needs a lot of details, gets upset and goes back to the supervisor to ask for further explanation, the "D" responds, "I told you once already."

"That's how the 'D' people are," she stresses. "They only want to communicate for five minutes. However, they need to understand a 'C' wants to communicate all the time--they need all the details."

Paris Walker, owner of 28-year-old Crown Graphics (Chattanooga, TN), says he's learned over the years the best way to avoid confusion and keep everyone on the same page is to teach employees the finer points of exhaustive written communication. In fact, the rule inside his 10-employee shop is you are subject to termination if any work is produced without a written, numbered job order (which has space for special instructions).

While the morning production meeting serves as the time for answering any questions verbally, Walker is a firm believer in monthly "process improvement" meetings focusing at length on improving productivity, resolving conflicts and re-stating the owner's vision in all aspects of the company and its future. "Such things as you'll find in the employee handbook need to be reiterated and reiterated or the company wisdom will get polluted somewhere along the way," he stresses.

At Marthabelle's, production manager Galvin says he and the other five employees are always reminded by the boss, owner Henry Leonard, that they are working as a team for a common goal.

"As Henry tells us, 'We don't have to be super-intelligent, but if we put our brains together, ain't nobody gonna beat us,' " says Galvin. "And that's exactly what I tell anybody new coming in--this is our ball team and if you want to play on it, that's fine, but let's play together."