When problems erupt at EconoPrint in Madison, Wis., the staff is called in to fix them. In 1992, for example, customer service was in chaos after the company went from eight printing facilities to a centralized production operation with eight quick-print shops. "It became a nightmare when the customer-service person couldn't walk to the back room and explain something to the press person," 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 enlisted the administrative employees' help in drawing up a survey that was given out to the then-60-person staff. It asked workers for information such as "the five biggest obstacles to doing your job correctly." Then 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 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."

After the air cleared at the meeting, the group settled into designing a one-page customer-order form to help solve the company's communication and work-flow problems. The representatives were asked what they needed to know to answer every question their individual departments might have about an order. The group 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 customer-order form has been so effective in detailing the work process that today, out of the roughly 4,550 jobs that EconoPrint completes monthly, fewer than 30 come under question. Tighter controls at the newly centralized operation have meant greater net profits; they rose 34% in 1993 and have risen more than 10% every year since.

The team method was so successful that last year, the company used a similar system to figure out how to automate the entire order-taking process. All 120 employees filled out a questionnaire that asked, among other things, what they would change at the company. "We've met with every employee," says Leamy. "If we didn't ask our employees to help, we'd likely be a $2-million company, not a $10-million one."