Monday, May 16, 2016

The Pocket Directory Story

Back in the 1990’s I managed the Network Services team with responsibility for all voice and data communications. The team installed and upgraded phone systems, ran coax cables, installed hundreds of LAN switches from Austria to Japan. It was an exciting time as this thing called “The Internet” started to gain some traction and mobile phones started fitting in the palm of your hand. Then one day, along with all that, the CIO asked (OK, told) me that I now had responsibility for the fixing and reprinting, asap, the small, pocket-sized, Corporate phone directory which had been totally and embarrassingly messed up. That part was easy, but now that I had this in my control, and I really hated this little thing, I had my team carve out some time to make it better … way better. We discussed its shortcomings (I’m being polite), came up with ideas and asked other local companies how their’s looked. The following documents the highlights and shows what refusing to accept status quo and embracing change can fix, even with something as pedestrian as a phone directory.

1. We changed from glossy to uncoated paper

One constant in life is change and that certainly is true for people and telephone numbers over the yearly life of this directory, so writing updates is a common practice. But glossy paper is hard to write on and easily smears. Sure, it looks all pretty and shiny, but this isn’t an advertising brochure. Switching to uncoated paper solved this, and was less expensive.

2. We changed from a glued back to a spiral binder

What does one do with a telephone directory? Not a trick question, you look up phone numbers. Why do you look up phone number? To call someone. Can you remember a 10-digit phone number? You are in the minority if you can. I’m with the majority who can’t. The old directory had a glued back to it, so you had to hold it in one hand while holding the phone another one hand and dialing with your third hand. Oops, ran out of hands. So you held the phone under you chin and dialed. That was comfortable (not). The other option was to break the glue so the directory would lay flat. That led to pages falling out. Switching to a spiral binder solved all that nonsense.

3. We changed from portrait to landscape

The old portrait layout resulted in multiple lines per person and generally a messy looking layout. Switching to landscape permitted a person’s name, title, work and home telephone numbers to fit in a single line, and we switched to a consistent 10-digit phone number format. Improved the readability at least ten fold. We also made it a little larger, but still kept it under the size of a standard dress shirt pocket.

4. The entire network team did a QA check

Unlike many IT departments, the network team knows people and had visited about everywhere in the company. The biggest source of recurring errors in the content of the the directory was the process used to collect the data. The old process was basically just send us your department’s updates and we’ll print another book. No updates, we’ll print last year’s. Hence any errors in content was someone else’s fault. I just wanted to make the best directory possible, not cover my backside when mistakes were made. So after the first draft of the new directory was ready we sat down over pizza and soda’s to look for mistakes, over the objections that we would be wasting our time. Page one, the Board of Directors. A must-get-it-right page in any large corporation. Yep, first error found. “But they said it was OK!”. It wasn’t a blame game any more. My favorite was when we got to the Hawai’i office and Charlie jumped up exclaiming “That’s not the right main office number, I just know it!”, ran to phone dialed it with his expected result, then dialed what he knew was right, had a brief conversation with the Hawai’ian receptionist, and gave us the correction. We spent two hours and made it half way through the directory that day. Before we published, we must have fixed hundreds of mistakes. The quality had never been better.

5. We delivered a printed copy to the print shop

Since the root cause of my group picking up this responsibility was a breakdown between the previous owner and the internal print shop, we knew we had to get this right. At the heart of the breakdown was the technology difference between the two groups, and could easily cause future problems. After much discussion we settled on an unexpectedly simple solution. We would give them a printed copy of the directory, one-sided and on full-size 8 ½ by 11 paper and they would shrink and print it double-sided. Really hard to mess that process up.

6. We surveyed our customers

I think it’s pretty obvious that we were excited by the changes and the quality of our final product. But what did everyone else think? What other good ideas had we not thought of? So I asked that a short survey be sent out. “Why in the world would we do that?” was the general response from the team. But I insisted and we got some ideas and some praise. My favorite was “It’s obvious that whoever designed the new directory was a traveler!”.

Spot on.

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