Customer service at EconoPrint in Madison, Wis., was in chaos in 1992 after the company consolidated eight separate printing facilities into a centralized production operation serving eight quick-print shops. "When the customer service person couldn't walk to the back room and explain something to the press person, it became a nightmare," says co-owner Dave Roloff. If orders were unclear, jobs were either done incorrectly or left until morning, resulting in lost revenues.

After a number of miscommunications between the print shops and the production center, Roloff and CEO Patrick Leamy requested employee input. They asked the administrative employees to help draw up a survey that was given out to the staff, then 60 people. It asked workers for information such as "the five biggest obstacles to doing your job correctly." Next, individual departments met with Leamy and Roloff to discuss how to improve customer service. Afterward, an informal election was held, with each department selecting one person to represent it at the next interdepartmental meeting. At first, says Roloff, the meeting "was pure ugliness. It had nothing to do with customer service and everything to do with wanting to get things off their chests."

Once the air cleared, the group got down to work. It consisted of 15 employees, at various levels of seniority -- even some recent hires, who were helpful, says Roloff, because "they wouldn't all say, 'We've always done it this way."

The first task was to design a one-page customer order form to help solve the company's communication and workflow problems. The representatives were asked what they needed to know to answer every question their individual departments might have about an order.

The customer order form was so effective in detailing the work process that today, out of the roughly 6,000 jobs that EconoPrint completes monthly, fewer than 25 exhibit problems. Tighter controls at the newly centralized operation have meant greater net profits. Profits rose 34% in 1993 and have risen steadily every year since, according to Roloff. In 1999, EconoPrint had 150 employees and projected revenues of $14 million.

EconoPrint has found employee ideas so helpful that after the first initiative, the company involved employees in other major changes. In 1995, management solicited employee input as EconoPrint sought to automate the entire order-taking process. All 120 employees filled out a questionnaire that asked, among other things, what they would change at work. EconoPrint also got employee input on a more recent automation plan, and the company later consulted its workers about their ideas for a planned move to a new facility.

Roloff believes that seeking ideas from everyone has helped the company grow -- and has helped reduce employees' resistance to major changes. "Once you hit implementation, there's incredible buy-in," he says.