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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
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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."


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