One of my favorite parts of my work is sitting down talking to people who work in various roles in a print business, at their desks, without their managers, in their comfort zone.

When you go to where people are comfortable, confident, and you listen more than you talk – you get a chance to really learn how the company runs. It is very hard to find out how a print business runs if you stay in conference rooms full of hierarchy.

Like most businesses, most print businesses are running using outdated tools, ideas, and processes. The management often has an idea of “inefficiencies” that are resulting in “lower margins.” What I’m interested in is how are the people in their various roles solving the challenges that come at them every day. This is fascinating because many of these people have been solving these challenges on their own for years, sometimes decades.

Management often does not know the details of the challenges or the complexity of the solutions. I recently watched this workflow:

  1. Sales person submits a paper form to request an estimate of the estimating department
  2. Estimator creates the estimate in the Print MIS
  3. Estimator prints the estimate out
  4. Estimator hands estimate back to Sales person
  5. Sales person creates a new paper form to request changes to Estimate
  6. Estimator makes changes and prints a new Estimate
  7. Sales person “approves” the estimate
  8. Sales person scans the paper estimate and sends it to the customer via email

This is fascinating; really, I’m not joking, I’m fascinated by this. This process works but it isn’t very efficient and it tells a lot about the people involved and the tools available. The comfort level is clearly rooted in the physical world of paper – hence they keep committing the estimate to paper, instead of using electronic methods to deliver the estimate.

Learning about the challenge; how its solved today, defining the problem, understanding the people involved and the tools they feel comfortable with are all vital to solving this challenge. Clearly software will be part of the solution but we all too often skip over this important step of understanding the problem. Typically, management briefly and incompletely mentions the challenge, a software vendor makes assumptions about it, then we’re off to the races implementing a solution set that may not match the people or solve the real problem.

I’m sure some of you got a chuckle out of that workflow described above; it could be considered funny or it could be considered full of rich information about how to approach the solution. Introducing new software tools into a business is a risky undertaking; we all have either experienced it directly or heard nightmares about software implementations that took years, costs thousands of dollars, and delivered little value.

Your people in their current roles solving the challenges that hit them every day are a treasure trove of intellectual property. When people are listened to in their comfort zones by someone they trust, they will start to tell you how these processes developed over time, what they like/dislike about them, and then where their frustrations lie. Most ridiculous workflows are the result of lack of trust / workarounds to the existing software applications. When people don’t trust the system, they create a parallel system to cover their butts. These parallel systems can range from printing stuff out, saving every email, creating a PDF of everything, or starting a secondary filing system under their desks.

This is all a reaction to a lack of trust. They are using the tools they have at their disposal (printers, email, PDFs, file storage, and spreadsheets) to create their version of a trusted system. If your people have some IT skills you’ll get more advanced tools being deployed (custom systems, custom integrations, etc.). Soon you don’t have a single system of record you have a personalized system of record for each of your staff. I’m going to state the obvious now: this is a cluster and a business efficiency killer.

Your people have the information, it only takes a good listener who wants to discuss and learn about the challenges, not preach to people how they are “doing it wrong.” They are getting jobs out the door using the tools they know and understand – that is working today. Who says they wouldn’t be willing to change if someone offered them an alternative that provided them the level of trust they crave? My colleague and Print MIS extraordinaire, Jane Mugford says that it takes about 12 months for people to really trust a new Print MIS. Twelve months! Trust is a high standard, so it should not surprise you the time frame, I think you could extend that twelve months if your company has gone through failed Print MIS solutions in the past. Your people didn’t trust the legacy system, then you tired one and it failed, further convincing them that it is up to them to create a trusted system that covers their butt because they aren’t going to wait on management to deliver it.

Next time you gather to talk about your business, ask more questions about the current problems. Let the people who work in it every day talk through how they solve it today. Then, this is important, do not try and solve it on the spot. Control your urge to feel smart, to race to the fastest possible solution and ask a few more questions. Think, listen, and get to the bottom of it. Our first solution is usually lame, obvious, and based on incomplete information. I often find myself on conference calls where the entire meeting has dived head first into a solution and I’m thinking; is this even worth solving? Or does everyone agree on the problem here? This happened recently when a software vendor who had an excellent tool for automating print manufacturing workflows for 1,000’s of orders per day – they dove in and suddenly we were talking about API calls, XML, and bi-directional communication. The one thing that was missing; this printer doesn’t get 1,000’s of orders per day, not even close. They don’t even need automation.

The intellectual property of your business is locked in your employee’s current workflows and understanding of the problem. Ask them questions and see where they go to find “trusted data” it will reveal a lot about the trust of your current systems.