I'm on a mission

March 1, 2010

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

In tough times, there is a tendency to look for quick and easy answers. Unfortunately, easy coupled with quick is rarely the answer. Simple often is, but simple and easy are quite different things.

As a casual weightlifter, I aspire to be a brawny sculpted specimen of muscled manhood. Famous bodybuilders such as Jack LaLanne and Bill Pearl literally invested a lifetime of grueling, arduous work to achieve this goal for themselves. It would be much easier if I could just change my name from Steve Johnson to Charles Atlas, but bullies would be no less inclined to kick sand at me on the beach. I would be fooling no one but myself.

If you change your name from Oswald Lithography to Oswald Communications, you've just changed your name, and nothing else. Quick? Yes. Easy? Yes. Effective? No.

Remember when corporate mission statements were in vogue? Every big company in corporate America had to develop a mission statement.

Printers largely missed out on this because most printing firms are well behind the management trend curve. This isn't a bad thing if it means missing out on fads that are a waste of your time and will be forgotten next month. Mission statements didn't so much fall into this category as they were pushed.

Just do it

The idea of a clearly defined mission or purpose was, and is, an excellent idea. When properly defined, it serves as a litmus test for everything a company does.

It takes effort on the part of top management to craft a valid mission statement. It can be an agonizing process, because a crucial part of the process is deciding what you are and what you are not.

At the height of mission statement frenzy a client of mine (who always fell for the latest management fad as the answer to all its problems) cranked out a statement that went something like this: “Our mission is simply to be the leader in everything we do.” Does this tell you anything? Me neither.

The president and his executive committee spent much time and effort creating that mission statement. Employees gained nothing and were largely annoyed with management for wasting its time and theirs. The only thing its customers learned was that the vendor was bombastic and arrogant.

Generic statements help no one, for two reasons. First, they don't say anything. Second, they don't differentiate you from anyone else. If your mission statement could be applied to another company, especially a competitor, it fails epically. Is it really your mission to be an also-ran?

Mission statements have fallen from fashion, but everything you do or say about your organization is a mission statement of sorts. Here are some of my least favorites.

“We're a onestop shop.”

“We can handle all your printing needs.”

“Your single source … .”

You get the picture

Tom Cleary, owner of The Printing Station in Elmwood Park, IL, didn't convene a management task force to create his mission statement. He's the only employee. A few years ago, this might have drawn laughs from those of you with 48 cylinders on your floor. You probably aren't laughing now.

Without meaning to, Tom gave me the clearest, most concise version of a mission statement I've ever heard from a printer.

“If it isn't counterfeit or pornographic, I'll print it.”

How refreshing. In one sentence I learn that The Printing Station's goal is to be a onestop shop, to handle all printing needs and to be a single source. By avoiding all these tired clichés, Tom's message comes through loud and clear. He is determined to produce printing for you.

Are you competing with Tom for a prospective client? Watch out. He might be printing or sourcing the order already while you are still explaining to the client just what exactly a marketing service provider is — and why, if you are a marketing service provider, you've just handed them an equipment list and proposed a tour of your factory.

Tom's statement is less than 10 words long. In a world where social media like LinkedIn, Twitter and MySpace allow only 140 characters per post, Tom uses only 55 including punctuation. In less than five seconds, Tom can tell you what he does and what he can do for you. This works at a cocktail party, in an elevator or on the Internet.

Can you tell me what you do — and do differently than anyone else in the world — in five, 10 or even 15 seconds?

Can you tell me — and sound different from all other printers — if I give you as much as 60 seconds?

Can you do it without using the words “quality,” “service” or “price”?

Can you leave me asking for more details, instead of making my eyes glaze over?