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MAKING YOUR COMPANY MORE COMPETITIVE

Mar 1, 2000 12:00 AM


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When we talk about being more competitive in the marketplace, some will immediately turn their thoughts to pricing. Yet study after study has shown this is not the definitive edge used by successful quick printers.

Some will start immediately wondering what kind of equipment I am going to recommend to keep you ahead of your competition. Yes, equipment decisions are important. We cannot build tomorrow's world with yesterday's tools. But it is also patently evident that we cannot gain a long-term advantage through acquisition of a particular new model of press or copier. Sooner or later our competition will also have the same make and model. Maybe six months, maybe three years. What we are looking for here is not, I repeat, a short-term advantage. We desire to learn how to attain and maintain an advantage that is not likely to be matched by Lowball Printing and Copying down the street, or by 25th Century Printing which may have the latest equipment that was just released for sale this very morning.

This article will not be all-inclusive in defining the attributes leading to success for one primary reason: I don't know all the answers. But in the 25 years I have observed this industry and in the hundreds of conversations I have had with quick printers from the U.S., England, Australia, Canada, France and other countries, there are principles and methods that are used by the most profitable, spirited, aggressive, gung ho growth companies and, just as clearly, are often not found in other organizations.

But first, let me answer the question, "Why is this such a secret?" It is a secret for the same reason that a substantial percentage of readers of this article, after reading the next paragraph, are going to flip ahead to the pages that detail equipment or promise to make you a low-cost producer. Again, there is much to be said in favor of these two attributes, but that is not the secret I have observed since I was one of the first two companies to join PrintImage International in 1975 and began to meet and talk with so many shop owners.

art of communication Let's get to the point. The main difference I have found in companies that wipe out the competition is that they have mastered the art of communication, which enables them to build a more competitive organization. Why? Most of our labor problems and employee turnover are caused by a lack of real communication, just as most of the world's problems are caused by that same failing, true communication-which is what we need to build an organization that will bring in more sales faster and with consistently higher quality.

Probably the best book ever written on communication was by a philosopher named Aristotle. His book is titled Rhetoric, and he wrote it more than 2,400 years ago (I was in junior high school at that time, as I remember).

Don't do it. Don't turn the page! This isn't going to take long and it will make a difference in your company that will benefit you for years to come. Now, I'm sure you know more about Greek philosophy than I do, but old Aristotle taught in Book One, Part Two that there are three ways people communicate: pathos, ethos and logos. We will hit on these briefly here and then you can go look at that equipment.

I know what you think of old fogies like Aristotle (because I am one!) and I know we have come a long way in many fields of endeavor in the past few years. In the past century alone, the first airplanes started flying, Henry Ford brought the automobile to the masses, and medical science created antibiotics and other advances to increase the average life span from 40 some years to more than 70. We have seen miracle changes in our own industry made by digital equipment. But many think we have gone backward when it comes to communication between people. The increase in the divorce rate, the generation gap, the brush fire wars ever popping up, labor relations and many other problems could be solved if we could each understand what the other is really saying. In this era of specialization though, we all may as well be talking a different language.

Friend vs. employee It would help to know what Old Ari said about the ways in which we communicate. The first way is defined by his word, pathos.

In a hurry, we could define pathos as a heart-to-heart talk. But it seems to me this type of communication is better kept for our personal relationships-with our spouse, significant other or closest friends.

When dealing with employees, we are better off not to think of them as friends, because when the employee does something that he or she shouldn't have done, our feelings get hurt. We start thinking, "Hey, I've been good to him. Why doesn't he treat me right?" What we are looking for in employer-employee relations is exactly the best relationship between an employer and an employee. This does not include off-hours social contacts. It does not even include unqualified faith. With our true friends, we know that we do not have to be careful of what we say or do, because they will remain loyal to us. Not so with employees. If you expect that, you will be sorely disappointed and you will lash out because of your feelings of betrayal.

Employees do not consider us as friends. That's impossible. You may have loved your mother and father as a child. But did you ever consider them a friend like you did your buddy, Stinky Miller, next door? Of course not. Did you ever feel free to tell your dad your innermost secrets? Probably not. But you told Stinky Miller, didn't you? Employees often think of employers as a parent-like person. We are not, but unfortunately, that is how many of them think of us.

We need to stay out of their personal lives. The workplace is not a fit venue for counseling on marriage problems, child rearing or religious beliefs. And employers who do succeed in the printing business and who wipe out the competition by building a competent organization do not engage in deeply personal relationships with employees. Pathos can also be defined as emotions. There is a time and a place for communication using this method, but let's leave that for another day and move on.

Character, reputation The second and third types of communication Aristotle mentions, however, are right to the point and on target. He called this ethos. This word describes what today we would call character or reputation. It may very well be the basis of the old saying, "Actions speak louder than words." Applied to our desire to be competitive in this industry, it means that, at the least, the character and reputation your company projects to employees, to the community and to customers has a large bearing on its chances for success.

If you are not, for example, truthful with your employees, if you are not perceived as a moral, just employer, if past employees have not succeeded in your company, if you interpret every rule only from a "company wins" perspective rather than as a win/win opportunity, then you cannot expect to have a good reputation in the employee community in your area. And, believe me, the word gets around. Press operators talk to other press operators, sales reps meet each other in waiting rooms and stories do get around. But what you say and how you treat employees and customers is not the only way that ethos is established around town about your business.

A real company When I bought my printing company in 1975, it had hastily erected unpainted plywood walls, a bare plywood front counter and only one phone. The first thing you saw when you walked in the door was a dripping wet styrofoam cooler used by employees for cold drinks. I ran an ad for a customer service rep and an ideal candidate applied. After the interviewing was finished, I offered her the job but she declined for no apparent reason. No salary problems, the hours were favorable and the location was convenient to her home. I was confused. Within six months she came back in and applied for the same job.

I asked her what had brought about the change of heart. Her answer was that the first time she had come in she didn't realize we were going to become a real company and she pointed around the room. We had moved into another location, had an attractive front counter custom-built, installed carpet, hung art on the walls, installed three phone lines and put a partition between the shop and the customer area. We were the same company but the appearance of our facilities spoke to her of a solid, successful enterprise with which she would like to be associated. Our character had changed in her eyes.

I am always surprised each year when, a couple days before a holiday, quick printers start asking other printers about when to close. This, to me, paints a firm where employees are not important in the scheme of things. Why can't these owners think ahead and announce holidays in enough time for employees to plan weekend trips with their families? Don't they care? Don't they want to become known as a real company where holidays are scheduled in advance?

I've also seen studies that say a substantial percentage of quick printers do not have employee handbooks. What? You make up your rules as you go along? An employee handbook is a good tool to hand out when interviewing prospective staff. It communicates to them that you are a real company, not some hole in the wall. How can you become known as a company that is consistent in administering discipline when you don't have any set rules and regulations, and how you handle each incident depends on how you feel that day? An employee handbook would solve many of these problems, and would help establish your company as an ethical company.

Just one more quick thought on ethos. It means character. It means making moral decisions, and it means a company that practices right conduct. It does not mean fair. This is another hang-up some owners have. They talk about being fair, and they let employees box them into corners based on what they think is fair. That situation is impossible and impractical. That is something we carried over from childhood. "Johnny got two nickel coins for his birthday and I only got one little dime. That's not fair!"

In adulthood we define fair as equal. Impossible! Please don't misunderstand me. I realize there are laws about equal treatment of senior citizens, minorities, etc., and I endorse them. That's not what I'm talking about. But your company will never achieve greatness as long as you try to treat all people equally, to be fair to everyone and treat everyone the exact same way. The most unequal thing in the world is to treat unequals equally. Be moral. Be upright. But if there is no reward for fast workers versus slow workers, then there will inevitably be no fast workers.

Logical explanations The third and final word which Aristotle uses to describe true communication is logos. No, we are not talking about a corporate logo. Logos relates to logic, to convincing another by having a good reason for saying or doing something. With employees, for example, we can set down a policy in one of two ways. If our economy and our own sales nose-dive into a downturn, we can simply tell our employees that we are discontinuing all overtime except for that authorized by a supervisor. That gets the message across, of course, but it doesn't communicate any reason for the cancellation, any logic. Human minds are sometimes critical and, being critical, they may be resistant. Resistance is one thing that we, as employers, want to avoid if possible, or overcome if not possible. Aristotle says, "Our judgements when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile." Yes, you can say, "Don't let me catch you clocking in early again or you're fired." And you probably won't catch them because they'll do it behind your back or get a friend to clock in for them. You didn't solve any problems. You simply made them mad and so the employee hid the problem from you until they could think of a way to get back at you. That is the hard way to go about it.

Are we going to always make employees happy with our decisions? No, of course not. But I believe our efficiency can be enhanced by the degree in which we work together in harmony. Take one more minute in talking to the particular employee and use logic. Explain why: "Business is down and by eliminating unnecessary overtime, we will not have to lay off employees at this time."

As another example, we can send out an employee bulletin stating that no visitors will be allowed in the shop area during work hours. "What? Do they think my boyfriend is going to break one of their precious copying machines?" is a likely employee reaction. See the resistance building up? Or, using logos, we can preface that rule with a statement that our insurance company has cracked down and insists we do not allow any non-employees into the shop area (and some insurance companies do recommend this).

We ought to, when possible, take a minute longer when we are giving orders to give the reason for that new rule. Will this eliminate, once and forever, any reason for employees to walk off the job or quit for another dime an hour? Of course not. But you will be surprised and pleased with the cooperation and the initiative taken by employees who feel they are in the know, and who understand the reasons for our orders rather than hear office speculation on them. You can stand over them all day each day (I would suggest you carry a whip) and ensure they work each shift in a safe and productive manner, or you can manage your company and employees so they want to work in a safe and productive manner. I, for one, don't really care which method you use, but remember: Aristotle said that to convince anyone to think or do anything, you need to tell them the reason why.

It's your decision. Do you want to do it all yourself? Work until midnight because you are the only employee who can do certain things? Stay down at that shop because you do not have loyal, trustworthy people working for you? Then ignore old Aristotle's advice. But if you want to build an organization with a good reputation in the business community, if you want to attract and keep people who really care about your company's reputation, efficiency and quality, then listen to and act on this advice from history. If you can replace these lessons from the past with lessons of greater value, then do so. Until then, try to hold on to the old ways of 2,400 years ago.