Your most frustrating problems may stem from a weakness you've never considered: illiteracy. Research indicates that perhaps 20% of the U.S. adult population can't read the instructions on a bottle of aspirin. Ironically, this flaw often becomes apparent when small companies make major improvements. "Companies may spend a lot of money to implement a statistical process-control program, only to discover that workers don't have the basic skills to work with it," explains Susan Reif, manager of training at the National Association of Printers and Lithographers, in Teaneck, N.J. Testing is the best gauge, but mistakes commonly ascribed to stupidity, laziness, or sloppiness are a big tip-off:

Accidents. Repeated accidents, despite posted guidelines.

Misinterpreted job orders. Simple-to-execute orders for products or services are frequently not produced as requested.

Customer complaints. Resolution is slow or sloppy.

Ghostwritten forms. An employee never fills out a form himself or herself.

"There used to be a time when we had plenty of jobs for people who were functionally illiterate," says Robert Fowler, president of Hampden Papers, a Holyoke, Mass., paper-products manufacturer with 185 employees. "But today our machines are very complex." In Hampden's program, 12 workers attend five-hour classes, three times a week, in such basics as English as a second language.

To learn more, contact the Business Council for Effective Literacy (BCEL; 212-512-2415), a clearinghouse of government, private, and nonprofit resources. Its $5 "BCEL Brief on Small Business" is a fabulous resource by itself.

-- Ellyn E. Spragins

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