A Recession Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

[This article originally appeared in American Printer magazine.]

It’s unclear whether our economy will recover its enthusiasm in the foreseeable future. But there’s one small bright spot in the continuing uncertainty – because the downturn has encouraged many printers to make long-overdue changes in their business.

Most traditional printers had seen their businesses steadily eroding over the past few years, yet somehow the alarm bells didn’t ring loudly enough. It took a sharp fall-off in sales to prove that their old approach to sales wouldn’t work any more.  That’s led to major changes in their sales approach – and in their salesforces. We’ll examine those sales-related changes in the next article

The seriousness of the downturn has given many CEOs permission to take a really hard look at their businesses, and many have made cost cuts that were long-overdue, revamping their organizations and eliminating some employees who hadn’t grown along with the business.

With the recession slowly coming to an end, it would be a shame to miss the opportunity to reshape your business. It’s not too late. Don’t wait. Look around and see if there are some things you would change if you had permission.

You can’t save your way to genuine profits, but…

In printing, you can’t save your way to profitability. Real profits can only come from having enough of the right kinds of sales. But you can become more productive and cost effective, and you can eliminate some of the extra baggage you’ve been carrying – lightening your load so you can spend more time figuring out where to get the new sales you need.

Economic downturns cause everyone to take a closer look at their employees, but most companies wait too long, and then over-react. They lop off jobs without figuring out what their company needs in order to meet customer needs. So why not take the opportunity to streamline your operations – making things work better, not just cutting costs.

The changing shape of your business may have left some employees with only parts of their old jobs. It’s not their fault, but your business may have changed enough for you to be able to combine or eliminate some jobs.

Order entry is becoming more automated, and pre-press has become vanishingly small in most companies. Customer service is less technical and more focused on project management. With improved MIS, the complexity of estimating has been reduced and many time-consuming financial functions have become more routine and less demanding.

Aren’t there some streamlining steps you can take to move the work more quickly, and have it touched by fewer hands? It’s not just about saving money. It’s about aligning your organization with the new ways you’re operating in today’s world.

Reshaping the way you organize your operations will be another topic for future discussion.  But for now, let’s address everyone’s least favorite topic: Do you have any consistently non-performing employees? Everyone does, and most people hide from making a tough decision. Let the lingering recession give you permission to face up to it.

I’ll bet you have at least a few employees who are long-time underperformers, or no longer fit your company’s needs. They grill the burgers at the company picnic and collect toys at Christmas, but they just don’t meet the standard for doing their jobs. They’re nice and dependable – that is, you can depend on them to do a mediocre job, or worse.

Maybe you’ve coached them, or invented new jobs for them. Maybe you feel guilty or sorry for them. Or maybe you’re worried you won’t find someone better, so you’ve permitted the failing employees to continue failing. We see this quite frequently with estimators, customer service and production people.

Many managers feel they’re being kind in permitting this to continue. But it’s not kind to let someone fail over a very long period of time. So ask yourself these questions, and give yourself permission to answer honestly:

  1. Is X performing his or her job as well as we need them to perform?
  2. Are their skills well-aligned with our company’s current needs?
  3. Do they have a full job that adds enough value?

When you’ve faced the facts, take action. If you feel badly about a termination, be helpful and generous, but do it anyway. You can’t save your way to real profitability, but you can get your company in shape to do the right kind of business in the right way.

Don’t wait. Give yourself permission to make those changes. It will be difficult at first, but a few months from now you’ll wonder why you waited so long. Take advantage of the downturn before it’s too late. After all, a recession is a terrible thing to waste.

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