Xio consulting – 4: Commercial typesetter

This example, an assessment of a typesetting operation in Melbourne, dates back some years [c.1990], but is a particularly good illustration of the ‘Weinberg Warning‘: “I see the answer in the first five minutes – but it can take me hours, or days, or weeks, to recognise what it was that I saw”. In this case, my first impression on walking through the company’s front door was the smell of processor-chemistry – specifically, the ‘fixer’ used in automatic processors for the photographic film and bromide used in phototypesetting.

We – or rather I, in this case – had been asked to assess the overall operation of the company, as the company’s management were aware of quality problems and complaints from customers but didn’t know how to identify the causes or appropriate solutions. They specifically asked for me to carry out the assessment on behalf of Xio because of my previous several years’ experience at a similar British typesetters called Wordsmiths.

The company, John Keen Limited (not its real name), was a fairly typical commercial typesetting operation, with fifteen to twenty staff overall, and was preparing for a move to larger premises elsewhere in the city. Its client-base was mainly comprised of ad-agencies and design-groups, almost all of them using Macintosh systems. The company had a very good, and deserved, reputation for technical expertise, but was losing clients, and at risk of losing that reputation, because of the quality problems mentioned above. I spent about a week noting the overall operations of the company, and provided a follow-up summary-document after delivering a verbal report at a discussion meeting for senior management.

The typesetter-operators’ skill at resolving the many technical problems on the computing side of the business was impressive. Yet as the report shows, the smell of chemistry was effectively a key symptom of the overall problem, which was a lack of attention to anything other than computing. The smell arose because the chemical processors were not being properly maintained, with visible impact on output quality; job-tracking and overall workflow-management were also poor, though this was not helped by a poor physical layout and inadequate air-conditioning in what was, in practice, a fairly high-stress environment. (The term ‘chaos management’ used in several places in the report is a concept which is now part of Xio’s ‘energy-dynamics‘ model: it describes a particular approach to the management of inherent uncertainties in workflows and work-schedules.)

The real problem was one of attitude – particularly in attention to detail of all of the work, not just the ‘interesting’ parts. And it’s a problem that’s not so easy to fix: we were careful to warn John Keen’s management of this, and to provide basic information on how the company could manage the essential changes themselves. Yet our offer to provide further support on this was never followed up; it may just have been the well-known ‘shoot the messenger’ response so often experienced by consultants, but we never heard from them again, so we have no idea whether they made any use of our advice, or what happened after their move to new premises. Whatever the reason, the company is no longer listed in any Melbourne directory: perhaps they simply changed the company name at some stage, or perhaps they were taken over by a larger group. But I suspect that what actually happened was that they did nothing – with the usual results of doing nothing when something definitely needs to be done… Oh well…

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