(forgive the formatting on this post -- yikes)
At the end of the day, the entire point of helping kids learn, be thoughtful, engage, dream big, and re-think older conventions is so that they'll one day grow up to be an innovative human being who can make a difference. Whether team member or leader, I can think of no other value in the education game. Save to make use of all those #2 pencils and scantron sheets! (he smiles)
Recently, I had the opportunity to do a follow-up Q&A with Andrew Field, CEO of Printing for Less, the Montana-based (market leader) commercial e-printing team that I had the good fortune of visiting in August while with Scoble and the rest of the mad crew who went "Off the Grid" for a little Web2.0 and future of the web talk. One of the most linked to posts I've ever done was the reflection of my visit where I began to discuss the vibrant 'learning' environment that Andrew and team have created in their corporate headquarters. Imagine that it was the office-love shown for employee dogs. Even more, the quality of what Printing for Less stands for as a team and environment. I went so far as to say that school designers would gain much by visiting a printing company. Go figure.
In any event, here is Andrew's responses to my questions where I attempted to look a little closer at the ideas behind his collaborative team environment:
"think:lab" -- In my recent think:lab post, I compared the experience of being at the Printing For Less headquarters in Livingston, Montana as matching some of the finer school designs I ve ever seen. In fact, I went so far as to say that I'd intrigued by the idea of it being replicated so that it served kids and teachers in other settings. Did this surprise you? And was any of this intentional in terms of PFL being a learning organization (to borrow from Peter Senge in a tangential way)?
Andrew -- I was happily surprised that you saw the connection. Except for our training and child care facilities, we hadn’t really thought about how our ideas could apply in a school setting. But I’m not at all surprised that you saw our building as an example of a blueprint for a learning organization, which was indeed intentional.
We had discovered early on in our last facility that the biggest barriers to collective learning and development were physical ones. The most creativity and what Peter Senge calls the “flow of know how” seemed to generate in our more open spaces where teams had more freedom to interact throughout their work day.
One of the key focuses in our company is continuous improvement, both in terms of organizational performance and continual expansion of individual competencies. Senge suggested, and I would agree, that results in both areas are more rapid when teams have the opportunity to share their ideas and learn together. We spent a lot of time brainstorming how to find the balance between encouraging that open exchange while still having enough team intimacy for people to feel comfortable in their space, particularly in our quad design.
"think:lab" -- The evening we had dinner together, you briefly discussed the design decisions you made when the new building was planned. It was clear that you wanted a working environment that broke the traditional rules a bit when it came to executive hierarchy in order to emphasize the collaborative nature of your team. Can you explain this driving design element and why it was so crucial at this point in your company s existence?
Andrew -- If you think about it, the lack of hierarchy in the design of our building also reflects the principles of a collaborative, learning organization. We see the role of a leader as essentially builder and coach, continually facilitating the development of the organization and our people. We wanted our environment to break the mold and reflect this modern approach to leadership and our corporate culture in its design. Some of the key elements we realized we needed to do that were proximity, transparency and inspiration. That’s why all our managers are not only on the same floor, they actually work among or near their teams. That’s why all of our doors are see-through and all our larger conference and gathering spaces enjoy those jaw-dropping mountain views!
We were deeply concerned about losing the greater team spirit that we enjoyed when we were smaller and everyone worked together closely. While we know that we can’t stay as flat organizationally as we grow, we were determined to avoid building a structure that encourages an “us vs. them” mentality with executive management perched in their ivory tower, disconnected from what’s happening in the rest of the company. Too many organizations lose their magic when they get too big for their britches. We didn’t want to make the same mistakes and lose the collaborative, family, trust-based atmosphere that helped make us who we are today.
"think:lab" -- How did your decision to create such a vibrant day care center come into being? Why does it sit in such a prominent location when visitors approach the building? And what sort of impact has the center had on your team and the overall culture of the firm?
Andrew -- It might have been all the dark paneling on the walls of the house we rented for our interim childcare center that drove all those bright colors! Really, the design was a natural result of wanting a space that was as energetic, educational and fun-loving as our childcare program. Having it right next to the front door of the building on the top floor is not only convenient for parents dropping off their kids, but it sends the message of how highly we value and invest in our employees and their families.
I think that having the childcare center, especially now that it’s in the same building, has been a critical factor in helping us to retain a greater sense of family and community. I not only have the opportunity to get to know who I work with, I get to know their kids and watch them grow. It’s a reminder every day that while what we’re doing as a company is important, our work contributes to the larger fabric of our lives.
"think:lab" -- Any visitor that walks downstairs (on the bottom of a slope, but still at ground level ), it is immediately obvious that the lay-out is meant to be conducive to an energetic team style of collaboration. What do you see when you are in these spaces that best describes the work style of your team members?
Andrew -- Thankfully, I see that these spaces have engineered exactly what we had hoped when we designed them: dynamic inter- and intra- team collaboration. It’s rare that you walk into a “quad” and not see lively interactions happening among members of one of the four 3-person teams or among teams, or even with team members from another quad (or their dogs!). There’s simply no cubicle mentality anywhere in the building, which also contributes to what I see as high performing, highly accountable professionals who have a lot of fun getting their work done.
"think:lab" -- Printing For Less appears at first glance to have a range of contradictions -- or, better yet, a range of unexpected pairings -- in terms of the company’s day-to-day culture. It is a commercial printing business, but it operates in an entirely virtual manner. It exists far away from Silicon Valley and other high-tech epicenters, and yet your investment in technology is quite stunning. And you manage to recruit an expert collection of professionals from around the US to join a fast-rising company, yet the offices are filled with dogs and babies and team members in shorts and baseball hats. How does all this come together to support a culture of success from the perspective of the company's leader/founder? And why is this combination of elements so vital to keeping good people engaged?
Andrew -- think a good observer can’t help but notice those contradictions about us. It’s what you get when you combine dedication to a way of life with a commitment to adopting leading-edge business practices. We’ve prided ourselves on ushering an old business into a new era, keeping the spirit of a tried-and-true commercial printing shop with the freshness and technological focus of a dot-com. We’ve also continued to attract an amazing work force that wants what I and my fellow founders wanted from the beginning: a great place to work in a great place to live. It’s vital to find the right balance between moving at a fast pace and being relaxed if you want to stay competitive while keeping people at the top of their game. That’s not an easy thing to do in a small town in a place like Montana. People stay engaged when they can succeed and have fun at what they’re doing because of the right combination of tools, training and environment and that’s what we’ve worked hard to provide.
"think:lab" -- I posted a photo of one of the many lovable dogs found roaming your office staring back at the camera from the PFL training office where new recruits start to prepare for serving your clients. Explain PFL s training process. And can you explain to me again why you placed such a dynamic learning space in the least attractive space in your building minus a single window, given the panoramic view of 5 mountain ranges outside most windows?
Andrew -- PFL’s technical service training program is a 14-week program that has been compared to everything from a semester in college to boot camp. Like boot camp because it’s an intensive proving ground for anyone who will be serving customers or moving into a management position, like college because new hires spend almost the whole time in the classroom and cover such a wide range of subjects, with tests and even a “graduation”! Our unique program trains people from the ground up in the printing industry and builds on their experience to perform customer service and sales at our high standards while using our advanced technology.
We figured we could put our training space in the windowless corner of our facility for two reasons. First, it’s a temporary home for those who come through it. Wouldn’t you rather spend 14 weeks without windows than the rest of your working time without them? (Our trainers stay longer, but it’s a sacrifice they’re happy to make to do what they love). Two, it’s a little more isolated from the rest of the space, which is conducive to a learning laboratory experience and helps trainees stay more focused with fewer distractions.
We don’t know if the “pay your dues” approach is the best choice, so we are watching it closely.
"think:lab" -- Assuming the company continues to grow dramatically (from $24million in yearly revenues now) over the next few years, how do you see such a healthy/dynamic working culture being continually empowered and supported as the team grows and space fills?
Andrew -- One area we haven’t had the luxury of spending a lot of time and resources on has been creative organizational development. We do a reasonable amount of team and individual development, but we have a lot of room to grow in those areas and fully empowering people to contribute creatively. I envision that as we unleash the collective genius in our talent companywide through more structured opportunities for innovation and development over the next few years, we can expand on the foundation we’ve laid to build a truly extraordinary culture.
I am also mindful of supporting a healthy working culture by steering clear of the pitfalls that many growing companies fall into of trying to manage more people with more rules. I prefer to keep our policies simple and bureaucracy minimal. The overarching philosophy I’ve always preached is to do what’s right and do what’s best for the customer, without giving away the shop. When you have smart, dedicated people with a shared vision aligned with your core values, you can keep it simple no matter how much the space fills.
"think:lab" -- What lies ahead for PrintingForLess.com?
Andrew -- Hopefully, a future in which PFL becomes known for helping our small-business customers to succeed, as they define it. Small businesses are the backbone of the American economy, accounting for half the total employment and a majority of the job creation and innovation. By contributing to their success, PFL is proud to help make the world a better place. Really!
"think:lab" -- Finally, what is the single greatest surprise that has positively come your way as you’ve slowly built this business from the suggestion of a close friend who needed a job and suggested that you might be able to start a printing business? And how will you and your team protect that good fortune as time unfolds?
Andrew -- Great question! I guess my greatest surprise has been that we have been able to attract such an amazing group of people to contribute to what could be described as “a printing company in rural Montana. Turns out that our location and mission resonate with an extraordinarily high caliber of people who appreciate the opportunity to make a real difference in the world, while enjoying a spectacular lifestyle surrounded by an equally spectacular setting.
The 2nd greatest surprise has been the significant positive impact we have been able to have on the lives of our customers. The “love letters” we receive many times each day are enormously motivating to our entire company. We are determined to stay focused on our customers’ success. If our customers are successful, we will be successful. I’m sorry if that sounds overly corny, but we really believe it. And so far, it has proven to be good business!
BTW: Consider watching the video tour of PFL that Robert put on the PodTech "ScobleShow" recently. About 29 minutes total. You literally get to walk through the firm's offices with Field. A nice addition to the Q&A he took part in with me.