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Dickeson--Looking for Some Changes

October 2000
Start with this situation analysis: We can't use monthly financial statements to support operating decisions. There are too many unrealistic assumptions and they're not timely. We're not optimizing liquidity—not turning over inventories and account receivables rapidly enough. Our production reporting is all messed up with non-chargeable labor or machine hours and spurious capacity assumptions.

Despite knowing the multitude of variables of printing inputs, we don't acknowledge the application of chaos theory to printing. We set prices for commercial jobs by marking up mythical cost estimates knowing that it is nonsense. We install computer systems that provide stacks of data we either don't use or misuse—for example, scheduling and estimating systems that must be ignored. We invest in high-speed presses and computer-to-plate technology, neither of which will cost-justify. Why?

Even though all this is true, we survive. But we could do much better if we made good use of the data we can now command. It's the Information Age. Peter Drucker, our foremost business guru, tells us our main task is to make our knowledge workers efficient and accountable. How do we do this?

Technology hasn't done it for us thus far and isn't about to do it, unless we demand it. The buck has stopped in our chair. Time to begin thinking—speculating—about what we, and our knowledge workers, can really use as support for operating decisions.

Tell a Good Story
As humans, we operate best if the information comes to us in story form. That's a given. How do we get information as a story? Television programs, movies, newspapers, magazines and books give us information as stories. Writers, editors, directors, producers and publishers make stories for us that we process into knowledge. Is it too much for us to ask the computer system designers to shift into story publishing attitudes—to become story tellers?

Sounds a little crazy, doesn't it? Think about it.

Suppose we suggested "presentation graphics." You know, like Microsoft's PowerPoint, to our tech-publishers to start them thinking. You can't go to a trade meeting these days where a speaker doesn't use a slide presentation to tell her/his story. (Some are better story tellers than others.)

Or maybe use a browser for database information that pops up whenever we turn on our workstation. On that home browser screen for our company, give us options for showing the information nuggets we want to see to tell us what's happening right now. It'll be a different view for the sales manager than it is for the CEO or the controller. Hyperlink it so we can drill down for more detail if we want. Tell us a story, please! Use cartoons, sound clips, photos, headlines, sidebars, whatever.

Keep in mind, dear computer specialists, that you are publishers first, foremost and always. You're technicians only incidentally. If the data doesn't lead to action, you've failed your prime obligation.

Let me tell you the stories I think I want to see on my personal browser home page. I want to know about the cash. Every day. What was our starting balance, total of checks written, collections deposited and our balance right now? What customers are past due on payments? What inventories are more than 60 days old?

I want flashing red, bold-faced numbers with noises to get my attention. If we're burning cash balance, give me flames and a siren. Assume I'm distracted. Seize me warmly by the throat and shake me until knowledge sets in.

When my laser printer is out of paper, it speaks to me. "Please check your paper," the nice lady says. Voice prompt. My phone answering machine says, "You have two messages." It's more difficult to ignore than a screen prompt. When someone hits "enter" to set a price for a job, I want a voice to say, "That account is 86 days past due. Please press '1' if you wish to quote to this customer." If company policy mandates no credit extension when a customer is in arrears, then a specific individual is accountable for credit policy deviation and must be prepared to defend the variance.

Pricing decisions are the most significant decisions being made by a "knowledge worker" in commercial printing. We want support for those decisions—support that goes beyond the virtual reality of job cost estimates. Also, we need accountability for each price decision. "Price lists" are a way out for some companies, but in commercial job shops start with those two pricing principles: support and accountability.

Demand system accommodation from your tech staff or software supplier for the two. Of course they'll fire back at you, "Specifically, what form do you wish this to take?" Reality check. Time to concentrate. Time to create. Develop a structure that supports the decision. Make it interactive.

Know What You Want
If it's interactive, then each slide pops up with a fact developed from policy and asks for a response. The responses are collected, dated, timed, filed with the name or ID of the knowledge worker. Want suggestions? Just list the questions that should be considered in setting a price. When you finish, you have a story that has some shape and continuity.

In the pricing database you have a book of stories that define the actual price policy of Fictitious Graphics Inc.—valid anecdotal wisdom.

Call this approach "storyboarding." You would be amazed if you learned how many decisions are based on storyboarded presentations. Books and movies are financed, venture capital is raised, candidates are elected to office, athletes are selected for teams, religions are formed, children are adopted, budgets are approved, new cars are designed. We construct our view of reality from stories.

Give us the information from our businesses as stories, not as sterile lists, tables and endless sprocket-paper printouts. We function in a world of sound bites these days. Advertisers, politicians, promoters know this. So let's learn from them and start with four areas: cash, receivables, inventories and pricing.

Fair dinkum, matey?

—Roger V. Dickeson

About the Author
Roger Dickeson is a printing productivity consultant based in Tucson, AZ. He can be reached by e-mail at, by fax (520) 903-2295, or on the Web at


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