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Detoxifying an organization

Nov 1, 2006 12:00 AM

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Gorelick's Management

To the extent that we have a philosopher who is responsible for changing the way business views, or should view, its operations, that person is Peter Drucker. It’s necessary, however, to read dozens of books and articles to absorb his ethic and mindset. Ironically, two sentences from popular comic strips are equally appropriate to many graphic arts companies:

  • “We have met the enemy and it is us.” (From Walt Kelly’s “Pogo”)
  • “How can we fail when we’re so sincere?” (From Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts”)
At the start of a consulting assignment, I always conduct individual interviews with the key players in an organization: managers, supervisors, salespeople, customer service representatives and others with regular direct customer contact. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say the mindset of these employees can lead one to accurately predict the financial status of the organization, even if no operating data is shared beforehand.

The primary indicator is the extent to which staff members responding to general questions mention customers in particular and the marketplace in general. It also is important to note whether all interviewed staff members focus on customers and potential customers. It is very difficult to change an organization’s culture/perspective/value system unless there is a common, shared focus.

Come together
The challenge of change is daunting (but not impossible) if key players in an organization have an internal focus. Salespeople might attribute lack of performance to production issues. Production management might view the fundamental challenge as lack of sales volume and/or failure of salespeople to “sell what we do best.” Customer service representatives might blame the evils besetting the company on everyone else’s lack of appreciation of the need for complete, unambiguous and accurate job specifications. And ownership and senior management frequently believe the scenario is inevitable because others in the organization hold inherently different perspectives.

The following comment usually invites harsh disagreement from some quarters, but I have seen many examples in which ownership and senior management indeed have created a common corporate focus and overcome departmental parochialism. This takes time and perseverance. It requires management and rhetoric that rises above the daily crises of job management.

Corporate conflict should be addressed in the context of the impact on the perception and needs of customers. The issue is performance, not simply behavior.

Focus on feedback
A well-conducted annual survey of the entire account base is an important first step in creating a shared customer focus. Aggregate results should be shared with all staff members. All subsequent actions—investments in equipment and human resources, staffing changes and other programs—should be publicly rationalized based on customer feedback.

One school of thought says a company should strive to identify every case of customer dissatisfaction and every opportunity for process improvement. There’s merit in that position: A problem can’t be addressed unless it’s identified. But beware: A shared customer focus is created when customer compliments, as well as complaints, are documented and circulated within an organization. Unless this is done, there is a tendency for departments to communicate only in the spirit of problem-solving, destroying balance and perspective.

‘How can we fail when we’re so sincere?’
This syndrome results from a belief that customers don’t appreciate the difficulty in producing a complex job on a short schedule. The truth is that the customer doesn’t have to appreciate it. Schedules that were considered unrealistic and impossible only several years ago have become commonplace.

Remember that there are petroleum engineers dedicating a lifetime to building safer, better energy products—and few of us care about it. We expect to fill our vehicles with first-rate product at any hour. We don’t care about the equipment, the logistics or the dedication of the engineers.

The tone of business planning meetings, formal or informal, is a reflection of a company’s customer-centricity. Beware of dialogue that begins with a discussion of “what we do best.” Instead, the discussion should be based on projected customer needs. Sincerity can’t always be equated with success.

Dick Gorelick is president of Gorelick & Associates and the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation. He can be reached at

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