From Low Performer to Best in Class
Albuquerque Public Schools' in-plant used to be called "The Dungeon." Today, it's a shining example of operational excellence.May 2014 By Mike Llewellyn
When Karin Tarter first descended the stairway to the old fallout shelter that housed the print operation for Albuquerque Public Schools (APS), she passed a sign that read "Enter At Your Own Risk." It was July 25, 2000, and the former freelance marketing consultant and graphic designer was stepping into her first day on the job as manager of the district's in-plant, Graphics Enterprise Services.
"I have a passion for what I do, and that's what got me the position," she says—but her enthusiasm and experience did little to prepare her for what she saw. "It was as bad as it could possibly be: filthy, cluttered and disorganized. Drapes were coming off the windows, and there was grime and dirt everywhere."
She called a meeting with the shop's five employees. "Most of them had never worked for a woman before," she remembers, adding that they weren't fond of the idea, either, regardless of her credentials. One turned and left the room as soon as he saw her.
Tarter had worked as a graphic designer for a number of advertising agencies and printing companies, served as marketing director for an Albuquerque amusement park and had managed a Sir Speedy franchise. She knew first-hand both what customers looked for in a print operation and what it took to run one.
This place, which district employees had taken to calling "The Dungeon," was not going to cut it.
It was a discouraging way to begin. "I don't know how you work up the bravery to go in there every day," her husband told her.
"It took a while to get over the shock," she admits. But she didn't give up, and soon she decided to view the broken-down in-plant and the low morale of its staff as a professional challenge.
The first step in turning the shop around was cleaning it up, an undertaking that included a call to the exterminator. Then, with the tattered drapes gone and the workplace as tidy as it would get, she turned her attention to the team.
They were a downbeat crew, she says, accustomed more to "scaring people away" than meeting customers' needs.
"Tell me what you need to do this job well," she asked, and went on to retrain them as customer service professionals. She banned profanity, and recast customer interactions as opportunities to say "yes" rather than "no."
Changing the Conversation
At the root of the low morale and the in-plant's poor performance was a long-standing focus on one priority to the near-exclusion of all others: minimum use of the budget. The shop boasted five offset presses and a Xerox DocuTech, along with a mail operation, but print volume was exceptionally low. Tarter says she found the photocopier locked in a vault, and at two years old it had run just 500 copies.
This approach to management sometimes succeeded in keeping the cost of the shop under the radar, but it also hid its value. As a consequence, most of the printing work required by the district was being outsourced to local quick and commercial printers.
So, Tarter made herself the one who had to approve all work leaving the shop, and she ensured both quality output and brand consistency.
"Until then, anybody could print anything they wanted, with nobody checking for brand consistency and nobody to straighten up the art," she says.
Far from finding the existence of an "approver" a roadblock, customers for the most part were delighted with the change. They had, for the first time many of them could remember, a contact in the print shop focused on customer satisfaction.
"Having made a strong alliance with the district's director of communications helped, too," she notes.
In fact, getting the school district's branding under control was one of the reasons Tarter was hired in the first place. But to do that, "I immediately saw that we would have to upgrade the equipment," she says.
To pay for new machines, she began managing the shop as a "cost-recovery center," and showed that by making the initial investments in better equipment, the school district would actually see its print production costs decline (and volumes increase) in fairly short order.
The first purchase was humble. The entire department depended on two aging computers, which were poorly suited to support the management of a well-oiled print operation. With a little effort, she managed to secure the funds for a new PC. It wasn't the production Mac she had hoped for, but she could work with it.
New Equipment, Bigger Plans
By 2002, though, investments in new gear picked up as she updated prepress to a computer-to-plate system, then added a Hamada two-color press, then a pair of Hamada perfecting presses for NCR (carbonless) print jobs.
The impact of those upgrades was immediate, and resulted in an increase of 500,000 impressions by the close of that year.
It wasn't yet two years in, but the shop was already well on its way to becoming an exemplary operation.
Tarter's background as a designer came in very handy as she guided the next major change to shape the in-plant—a relocation out of "The Dungeon" and into a brand new facility housed within a 9,000-square-foot warehouse.
"I designed it," she says. "They used my plans to build it. And it was up and running in two weeks."
The relocation of the printing, bindery and mail operation was a massive effort that took place right after the 2008-2009 Christmas break. Because the project was managed internally, it came in at a small fraction of the budget, as well.
"It was a great morale booster," says Tarter. The team now had new, clean offices, and she offered each employee the opportunity to select two colors for their office walls from a palette she developed.
Tarter was now at the helm of a high-performance print and mail facility. Then, in 2012, came news of the biggest challenge she would face since taking the reins 12 years earlier.
That year, district administration signed a contract with Xerox to optimize APS's fleet of copiers and drive excess printing to Graphics Enterprise Services. Eventually, the arrangement would grant the in-plant the right of first refusal for all district print work—but this wasn't entirely good news. While the right of first refusal could be a boon for the in-plant, it could also be a disaster if the facility wasn't ready to meet the demands of the largest district in the State of New Mexico.
Tarter evaluated the in-plant's situation. The relationship with Xerox, along with an assessment of the district's future printing needs, led to one conclusion: APS Graphics Enterprise Services had to go 100 percent digital.
"Anticipating first right of refusal, I knew that any little thing could drive a customer away, and with the volume we were going to have to handle, I realized that offset wasn't going to work."
Tarter set to work transforming the shop again, this time to an all-digital operation organized around a team of "digital project specialists." The undertaking required retraining the staff yet again, not just on new equipment and a new workflow, but a new way of thinking about their jobs. No longer pressmen or bindery operators responsible for a specific portion of a print job, each in-plant employee would now be responsible for a job from start to finish—and responsible for the relationship with the customer, as well.
The offset presses were moved out in one day, and the facility was rearranged into a series of "specialist" areas around a hub of Xerox machines: three D125 black-and-white printers, a DocuColor 8080, a Color 700 and a Color 1000. The shop retained a Duplo digital duplicator for smaller NCR jobs.
In the short term, the in-plant saw a small drop in print volume as it found its footing. Tarter deployed the newly minted digital project specialists to every principal and department head in the district, and over the next two years brought volume back up and beyond what the shop had been producing to nearly $1 million in annual print revenue. While right of first refusal still hasn't become official policy, the overhaul on its own has reduced outsourcing by 20 percent. As of March 31, impressions for the current fiscal year are 5,727,314 and are expected to reach 7.5 million by June 30.
Spreading the Word
Getting that work through the door was the result of the shop's continuing marketing efforts. Email blasts to customers go out regularly from the shop's seven digital project specialists, while the mail center delivers flyers to school and department secretaries. Most effective, though, are face-to-face meetings. Each project specialist is responsible for a share of the 143 schools and 75-100 departments in the district, and prepares scheduled meetings with them to present the in-plant's capabilities and to discuss the customers' upcoming requirements.
The efforts are paying off, according to the 25-employee shop's customer satisfaction surveys.
"People like the response times they're getting, and they like having dedicated specialists," says Tarter. "Occasionally price is mentioned [as an area for improvement], but we are priced very competitively."
She explains that it's possible for in-plant customers to get a better price from commercial printers for simple black-and-white copies but not much more.
"If they want anything else—color, collating, bindery, mailing—our prices are going to be far lower than any outside service," she maintains.
Even for black-and-white copies, the in-plant has a leg up on the competition because every dollar the in-plant makes goes back to the district and into the education of its students.
This "keep it in the family" argument has won work from the district's "extended family" as well. The in-plant became a partner with the state's printing operation, and now handles work from state government agencies, charter schools, accredited day care facilities, as well as commercial printers doing business with the state. In fact, insourcing this work accounts for 30 percent of the shop's revenue.
Compared to what it was when Tarter came on board, APS Graphics Enterprise Services is all but unrecognizable today. Much of that is due to her leadership, which is informed by a philosophy that's "simple but invaluable." She tells her team: "Be there, make their day, change your attitude and play." Known as the FISH Philosophy, it's a set of principles that has transformed not just how her employees feel about their jobs, but how much value the in-plant brings to Albuquerque Public Schools.