There's nothing like vague communication to gum up a company's operations and ruin customer relationships. Just ask the folks at EconoPrint, in Madison, Wis. In 1993, when the company went from eight printing facilities to a centralized production operation with eight quick-print shops, the customer-service person couldn't walk to the back room anymore and explain something to the press person. "It became a nightmare," says co-owner Dave Roloff. Customers were taking their business elsewhere as orders were either left unfilled until morning or done incorrectly.

Roloff and CEO Patrick Leamy decided to have those responsible for the communication breakdown solve the problem. When employees design their own customer-order form, they are more likely to fill it out accurately, avoiding gaps in customer service.

First, the company had its 60 employees fill out a survey, responding to the question, "What are the five biggest obstacles to doing your job correctly?" Then individual departments met with Leamy and Roloff to discuss how to improve customer service. Each department elected one person to represent it at the next meeting. The representatives were asked what they needed to know to answer every question their department might have about an order. With that information, they were able to design a one-page order form.

EconoPrint's customer-order form has been so effective in detailing the work process that out of roughly 5,000 jobs completed monthly, fewer than 10 come under question. Tighter controls have meant greater net profits: They rose 34% in 1993 and have risen nearly 10% every year since.