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Dealing with Change

(January 2006) posted on Wed Feb 01, 2006

Change is inevitable, but you can benefit from it when you're prepared. Discover the impact that change can have on your business.


By Terry Combs

We humans seem to have an unnatural aversion to change. But change is evolution, and it's a natural part of both our personal and business lives. What makes change seem un-natural, however, is the inordinate amount of time we spend trying to prevent it or fighting to bring it about—especially in our companies.

I've visited many textile-printing shops that are nearly mirror images of the first screen-printing business I started more than 20 years ago. On one hand, I'm comforted by the fact that the basic premise of what it takes to run a printing operation hasn't changed much since then. But the road to long-term success is marked with countless curves, turns, dead ends, and railroad crossings, and companies must make changes in response to these obstacles in order to survive and thrive.

As company owners and managers, we must look for the road signs and plan for the changes ahead. Otherwise, we risk sliding our companies into guardrails or slamming them into the sides of moving trains.

Change and technology

New technology is introduced every year at various trade events across the country. Each of us should explore these new options and determine how each might impact our own operations and needs. We must keep in mind, however, that many, if not most, new technologies are not good matches for our businesses. For example, if a shop prints mostly short-run jobs, it's unnecessary to purchase a press that produces 700 prints per hour. If it uses only 100 screens each day, buying equipment that will produce 1000 screens daily is expensive overkill. We can brag to our screen-printing buddies about the new technology we've adopted, but it may be a technology we'll never actually use to its full potential.

The key to coping with changes in technology is to be realistic about whether a particular innovation or development can have a positive effect on our production capabilities and bottom line. In other words, we need to determine if the new technology is a good match for the direction our company is headed.

Change and management

Why is it that every production floor includes at least one employee whose sole mission in life seems to be making life difficult for a new manager? When we make management changes, either by hiring from outside or promoting from within, some employees take the change personally and unfavorably. It can happen because an employee feels he or she should have gotten the promotion or because the employee had a strong allegiance with the former manager.

Management changes are most successful when they're preceded by clear and thorough communication of the new manager's qualifications, background, and anticipated contribution to the company. The communication should stress that company owners and senior managers have faith and confidence in the new manager and that the new manager has full responsibility to accomplish the tasks he or she is charged with.

Managers themselves may feel left behind by new technologies and techniques, clinging to old equipment and methods. Owners and senior managers must encourage middle managers and supervisors to explore possibilities and innovations. They must know that their worth is not based on only their current knowledge and skills, but on their ability to continually bring new ideas to the table. We want managers that not only teach what they know, but to continue to learn and use what they've learned successfully.

Change and staff

When we change or add staff members, do other employees help or hinder the process? I had an experience where the person responsible for all the "new employee paperwork" and general orientation of new employees would make the process incredibly difficult. The new employee would be forced to wait outside her office for extended periods, or be told to come back at a later date to fill out paperwork.

My own analysis was that this person used her position as a show of power. She had the "let these people know who's really boss around here" mentality. Unfortunately, this sent a horrible message to new employees about their own value to the company.

It was an uphill battle to resolve this problem because the employee was a long-time staff member. Whenever she was confronted about her tactics and manner, her response was, "It used to be like a family around here!" In other words, she was saying, "With all this growth, you people are changing my world, and I don't know if there's room left for me!" Her attitude toward change made her statement a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Change and processes

Many years ago, I worked with a company that began each employee's first day on the job with a speech that went something like this: "There are reasons we do things the way we do them." I could certainly appreciate that statement. But the speech continued with, "Please don't try to tell us how you would do things differently."

Excuse me? I understand that there are tried-and-true processes. And I can even confess to being a little offended when an employee on his first day would say, "You know, we did it differently over at my other job." But it's insane to believe that our shops have discovered the one and only method to produce products in the sportswear industry. Closing our eyes and ears to change can eventually close our doors—for good. It did for this unfortunate business.

No processes in this industry or any other industry are set in stone. What worked yesterday may not work as well tomorrow.

Change and markets

One of my first jobs in the screen-printing industry was managing operations for a company that printed exclusively in the "Greek" market. I'm not talking about the country—we printed specifically for fraternities and sororities. I am a big advocate of targeting niche markets, and this was about as niche a market as any of us might find within our industry.

The ownership of this particular company had operated in a nearly unchanging market for nearly 20 years. In fact, it was one of only two companies in the nation that were considered legitimate players in the Greek market. That was until about 10 years ago.

Over the course of about two years, the market suddenly changed. Local printers figured out that they could compete with the big, national shops and began carving ever larger slices out of that market pie. The company that I worked for chose to continue to focus on this market and go head to head with the dozens of new competitors, doing business the way it always had instead of reevaluating the market and changing along with it as I recommended. After 20 years of incredible profits and success, the company closed in a sudden and inglorious fashion.

Rolling with the changes

I recently talked to a business owner who has been operating from the same location for 45 years—an incredible feat in today's business world. But the reason for our conversation was because of a new product he was introducing to the industry. Although his shop was in the same location for 45 years, it had continually launched new products, explored new techniques, and adopted new technolo-gies. This business owner learned the lesson well—that change is critical for survival and success.

Editors note: This column originally appeared in the April 2000 edition of Screen Printing.


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