Friday the 13th - Superstitions

Today is Friday the 13th, the third time it’s happened in 2009. A few of us were talking about it this morning and the topic of superstitions came up. It’s amazing how many people believe in them. It got me thinking how many superstitions we follow in our business. Most of them for no real reason other than this is what we’ve been led to believe to be true.

A superstition is really nothing more than an unexplained belief. Why do people believe that walking under a ladder or breaking a mirror brings bad luck? I’m sure if we researched each one we’d find some interesting stories, but no hard truth. Where I see superstitions at work is in the technical side of the business.

Most of the experienced printers in this industry got their chops by working their way up through the ranks. They started at the bottom and got promoted along the way as others were fired or left. Many of them have no formal printing education other than what they read in the trade press or learn at trade shows and conventions or from traveling company reps.

A common situation is to take this knowledge at face value, never questioning or challenging it. I call this “Tribal Knowledge” as it is passed down by word-of-mouth over the years. Each time it’s passed, something is added, deleted, or communicated incorrectly. After two or three generations it’s often difficult to justify what is being passed on as truth.

In all the time I’ve been involved in the industry, it still amazes me how often something we’ve been hammered on as “the way to do it” actually turns out to be the exact opposite of what we really need to be doing. I think a there are a couple of reasons for this.

The first one is that the knowledge may have been knowingly passed off as wrong to begin with. This often happens when a rep visits a shop and watches something innovative being done. When asked about it, the business owner fabricates a response he knows isn’t correct because he wants to throw the competition off track. The rep takes this information and willingly scatters it along his way, where it gets changed and tweaked each time it’s passed on. The original source passes the bad technique because they want to preserve their “trade secrets.”

Secondly, we have basic ignorance of how things work. Many of our production workers are true blue collar employees. They may only have a high school education, and often times they don’t even have that. Screen printing is full of these kind of workers. Nothing wrong with it, it’s just the way it is. The problem comes when they don’t have enough education to think about what is being told to them. They can reason why something should or should not work. There have been many, many times where someone, trying to be helpful, has passed on a technique or method with authority (this is how it’s done.)

When challenged as to why this works, they buckle. They can’t explain it and they usually will revert to citing where they saw it being done or who told it to them. In either case, we’re not getting the whole story. It is this blind faith that whatever is passed on is right that gets me. Simply asking why it works or how it works is all that’s necessary. If you can’t get a good, believable answer, I’d immediately be suspect.

What does all this mean? Simply, question everything. Look at your own business and see if you can find things you’re doing because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Ask yourself if there’s a better way. There almost always is.

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