A good meeting is hard to find. A carefully thought-out agenda, communicated in advance, makes all the difference

Time, said Ovid, is the devourer of all things. Ovid might have added that formless meetings are the insidious devourers of time. Then he'd have really been onto something.

Few calendar entries prompt more dread and resentment among busy people than a scheduled meeting with an open agenda -- or, just as alarming, a nebulous agenda. In daring attempts to tame the no-agenda beast, some entrepreneurs impose cute conditions on any meeting they agree to attend: one company president, for instance, holds meetings only in rooms with no chairs. That, he figures, will keep things moving along.

But such ad hoc cures miss the point. The issue isn't simply one of long-windedness versus brevity -- although setting time limits is certainly a good thing. The best meetings, instead, are distinguished by having a focus, a goal that can be accomplished only by gathering people together. The best meetings involve preparation, a careful allocation of how time will be spent. And the best meetings are conducted according to an agenda, articulated in advance and detailed even to the point that each issue is allotted a certain time segment. In a nutshell, the best meetings are so well conceived that their payoffs could almost be guaranteed before they begin.

None of that is particularly profound. But it's amazing how many poorly run meetings most people have to endure. To get an idea, though, of a well-run meeting -- a meeting that could be a model for any gathering, of any size and any degree of formality -- you couldn't do much better than to look at the way companies are networking in upstate New York. The Western New York Technology Development Center, a private, not-for-profit corporation, has organized 65 companies, mostly manufacturers, into groups of 8 to 10. Each company sponsors a half-day on-site visit for the others in its group.

The networking is tangential to a New York State grant program the center administers for businesses pursuing quality programs. Many of the companies in the network have received grants of up to $75,000 and used them to convert to total-quality-management (TQM) systems, to attain ISO 9000 certification, or to improve other areas of their manufacturing operations. The network meetings focus specifically on sharing those experiences.

"The structure we use evolved three years ago, during our first couple of meetings," says Frederick DeJohn, a director and meeting facilitator at the center. "Certain elements are standard: there's an introduction, a tour, a couple of teams giving presentations, and feedback. But how the companies work around that framework we leave up to them."

Last year Fedco Automotive Components Co., a manufacturer of car heater cores, joined the network. Fedco's two owners, Gary Moose and Tim Brodene, had purchased Fedco in 1990, when it was a division of a larger company and on the verge of being shut down. Today Fedco is "very profitable," says Moose, with 1993 sales of $25 million and 143 hourly and 37 salaried employees on its payroll. Fedco received a grant in 1993 for its TQM ramp-up, and last fall DeJohn asked the company to host a meeting to launch a new network group. Those attending would be company owners and high-level managers who, for the most part, were not already acquainted with one another.

DeJohn worked with Fedco to design a comprehensive agenda, which was sent to each group member two weeks before the meeting. On the pages that follow, people who were at the February meeting talk about why it worked so well.

Below is a sample agenda

The Western Quality Network - Core Group #7

FEDCO Automotive

7:30 - 8:00 Sign in and Breakfast

8:00 - 9:00 Introductions - Fred DeJohn

FEDCO Company Background by Gary Moose, Tim Brodene

9:00 - 10:00 Company tour - two groups

15 minute break

10:00 - 10:30 FEDCO TQM Process Overview by Wally KensyContinuous Improvement OrganizationProblem Solving Process and Education

10:30 - 11:30 Team PresentationsRibbon Team - Worked on solder dip processA Team - Worked on hand soldered joint. Reduced first-time defects by 50%

11:30 - 11:45 Involvement/Recognition at FEDCO - Wally KensyFactors that contribute to the success of TQM at FEDCO

11:45 - 12:15 Critique/FeedbackGuests are asked to review TQM process at FEDCO and discuss positive and negative aspects.

12:15 - 1:00 Review Critique/Lunch - Fred DeJohnCritiques to be reviewed during lunch

1:00 - 1:15 Wrap up - Fred DeJohnIncludes comments/suggestions regarding core group #7 workshops

1:15 - 1:20 Conclusion - Gary Moose, Tim Brodene

Participants of a multicompany networking meeting hosted by Fedco Automotive Components say that because of the carefully planned, fastidiously followed agenda, Fedco made a convincing case for its TQM program.

Keep to the Schedule
"I make the introductions, but once the meeting is under way, it's under way -- to jump in would be like trying to stop the Queen Mary. Everyone hopes we've done enough homework that it will go smoothly. The biggest problem is time: people get so wrapped up in what they're saying that they don't want to stop. We emphasize the time limits when we're planning, and then again two minutes before the meeting starts. In some sessions we have timekeepers, who will clink a glass when there are two minutes left for each section."

-- Frederick DeJohn, director and facilitator, the Western New York Technology Development Center

Build in a Bathroom Break
Have a Focus and Stick With It
"We had a goal: we wanted to show that we have an extremely structured problem-solving approach to TQM here at Fedco and that our employees actively own TQM. That's why the longest portion of the meeting was devoted to the employees themselves talking about what we have accomplished."

-- Wally Kensy, Fedco manager of TQM

Work Through Mealtimes
"After four or five hours, people are ready to go. To spend 45 minutes on lunch and then try to do the critique afterward would really make for a long day." -- Tim Brodene, Fedco vice-president of operations

"A half-day session is just perfect -- stop in early, grab a bite to eat, see what's going on, wrap up right after lunch. What was great was that they were organized, had a story to tell, and were effective at telling it. I was very impressed with the presentation as well as the company. I think it showed the commitment and involvement of the principals. You're not going to get this kind of presentation without the involvement of everyone at all levels."

-- James Linehan, vice-president of finance at the Jewett Refrigerator Co. and a guest

Encourage Participants to Plan Their Parts
"The quality team I'm on met and said, 'Hey, we've got visitors coming' -- and obviously, you're going to plan something if someone's coming. We figured we'd run through the TQM programs, talk about what we'd learned, and explain how far we've gotten. We weren't told to make a good impression. We just wanted to tell it like it is."

-- Rich Jetter, Fedco union president and quality-team member

"There's a great payoff to having people prepare their own presentations: explaining what they're doing to an outside group lends it credibility. Our people saw that what they've done is of interest to other companies, that it's important -- maybe even more important than they'd thought."

-- Gary Moose, Fedco president

"We did two dress rehearsals for the team presentations, in which people would be talking individually about how they were involved in the TQM program. I put together all the information in a rough format, which I ended up compiling into a big booklet for everybody who attended. At the first rehearsal we figured out what there was too much of and what we were missing. We had two hours and 45 minutes of material instead of 45 minutes. So I trimmed it down, and we practiced it a second time until people felt comfortable. A couple of people wanted to practice their sections again and again. One gentleman came in at 9 o'clock at night to practice with me, one-on-one. That was great, but I wanted to make sure they didn't become like robots. My own presentations, I practiced a couple of times in my head -- and even out loud -- when I was setting up the room."

-- Wally Kensy, Fedco manager of TQM

Do a Follow-Up to Tie Things Together
"After each networking meeting, I put together a package for everyone who was there, which includes an attendance sheet and other materials the company didn't pass out but wanted people to have. The cover letter thanks the host company, makes a few comments about the session, and tells people when and where the next meeting's going to be. I also compile the program-assessment sheets and type up a copy of the critique and feedback. The formal feedback process tells the audience that we're interested in their input -- and we do get some valuable suggestions."

-- Frederick DeJohn, director and facilitator, Western New York Technology Development Center n