Miller-Craig.jpg

Very Superstitious

Problems with letting superstitions into the workplace.

When we think of superstitious behavior, we tend to imagine actions like avoiding the 13th floor of a hotel, refusing to walk under a ladder, or stressing for seven years over the mirror you carelessly broke. We are business people. We live in a fact-based world. We make business decisions and formulate business practices based on real-life experience, reason, and knowledge. For the most part, I would say we do, in fact, base our business operations on reality and truth, void of superstition.

It’s also true, however, that most of us are occasionally guilty of letting superstition rear its ugly head within our business strategies. Superstitions negatively influence our behavior and company practices and erode our ability to think rationally. Worse, we’re rarely aware of these misapprehensions and when our illogical behavior is pointed out, we continue to defend our superstitious decision making to be rationally conceived and true.

Many irrational ideas have been with us for centuries and involve a thought construct, religion, or philosophy no longer in vogue. What interests me most, though, are the superstitions originated by employees, colleagues, vendors, and customers. The superstitions cause damaging consequences that wreak havoc in our companies’ effectiveness and profitability. Here, I’ll describe two examples – one involving my personal superstition, the other involving superstitions of my employees.

Conquering irrational fear
As we all know, large- and grand-format digital printing is a very competitive business. Many variables must come into alignment for us to land and retain clients: price, quality, variety, expediency, and service to name just some of the most common factors. If we intentionally or accidentally do something a client doesn’t like, we fear they’ll punish us by taking their business to a competitor. One of the first, and perhaps the most never-wrenching, interactions we have with a new client is offering them a quote. In the quote, we must balance competitive pressure with a desire for profitability. I was a firm believer that competitive payment terms were a very important element in ensuring a successful conclusion to this interaction.

My personal superstition was this: Customers would not tolerate a sizable deposit required before we would begin a job, and they expected at least 30 days to pay their bill on approved credit. I truly believed you could only get away with a deposit and COD terms with small and new companies. The “blue chip” companies would be offended by these practices. The bigger and more prestigious the company and its potential for serious work, the greater my fear became. I feared that the Fortune 500s would simply go somewhere else to get the terms they wanted and felt they deserved.

But then came the recession. During the recession, our cash flow was, to put it mildly, less than optimal. For really big projects, we sometimes did have the cash flow to pay our expenses before the customers’ checks hit our bank. So, we had no choice. My partners instituted a new company policy and against my better judgment, I went along. We began requiring 50 percent down, and in some cases, balance on completion. I know many of you might be saying, “What took you so long?” But I felt certain that the big customers we so desperately needed would never walk in the door and our current customer base would walk right out!

Surprisingly, they did not. To my knowledge, we have yet to lose a single customer or job over this stricter policy. Deposits helped us survive the recession and we’ve kept deposits a standing operating process even though we can again live without them. My belief that customers wouldn’t agree to pay large deposits proved to be a superstition that simply did not stand the test of reality.

Laying employee superstition to rest
Just as I am not immune to superstitious thinking, I have witnessed even the smartest and experienced employees following victim to irrational superstitions. At times, we must accept even the most illogical superstitions from our co-workers; however, if you believe that their rationales should be put to the test, you must sometimes insist they try things in a different way.

For instance, in the late 1990s we had two very talented and experienced installers on the payroll. I made them a proposal: “Instead of installing vehicle graphics vertically, why don’t we install them horizontally. If we use 60-inch vinyl, we can do the side of almost every vehicle in two panels. Plus, we can hide the one overlap seam in a natural crease or piece of trim. We can eliminate those vertical welts caused by the overlapping panels because this way there will be no noticeable overlaps. When we do a car, there are all kinds of places we can hide the seam. I have never seen what appears to be a seamless vehicle wrap. The graphics will look like they are painted on and, to my knowledge, no one else is doing it. This will give us an advantage over our competition.”

Our two world-class installers, with a combined 25 years of experience, were adamant in their professional opinion: It simply could not be done and if we tried it, it would be a disaster. Given the length of panels we would have to produce, they believed, we would ruin too many panels in printing and laminating. A 5 x 45-foot piece of sticky-back vinyl for a tour bus would be impossible to work with. It would take too much time, be too difficult to line up the long panels, and more panels would get destroyed during install.

They felt – and passionately so – that I would be making their job a nightmare and would cost our company money in increased labor and ruined materials. I took their expert opinion under advisement, and then asked the prepress and print department to produce a bus wrap in only seven panels. The output consisted of two 5 x 45-foot panels for each side, two 5 x 10-foot panels for the back, and one panel for under the front windshield. The same bus, using their preferred method, would have required 20 5 x 10-foot vertical side panels for the sides and back, plus short verticals for the front. In short, seven panels versus 22.
When our guys groaned with disapproval, I reminded them that the company was assuming all the risk. If my idea failed, we would just have to reprint the bus and pay them to do the install a second time. They were getting paid regardless. It was my idea; any consequences were all on me. So we did it.

The installation went off without a hitch. The long panels printed fine, a testament to our prepress and print departments. The seven panels took significantly less time to line up and install than the 22 would have. The finished product was a significant step forward in our vehicle-graphics offering. We went on to do hundreds of vehicles with the horizontal method and I think the longest side panels we have done to date were for 55-foot trailers. The installers no longer work for us and they have taken the method to other companies; neither they nor our current crop of installers would ever choose to go back to their former method.

Living in the real world
As managers and owners, we can firmly hold onto beliefs that are not supported by reality. Our employees can resist innovation because they adhere to erroneous beliefs. But, these superstitious beliefs will always topple when put to the test of reality. We simply have to be open to the input of others and give rationales to our employees along with the permission to challenge our beliefs and embrace an approved risk. The future belongs to those who set superstitions aside and more intelligently live in the real world. 
 

Craig Miller is a principal shareholder in Las Vegas-based Pictographics (pictographics.net) where he is also director of military and law-enforcement projects, the company's defense-contracting division.

View more from this Big Picture issue