Like most people anxious to get an answer after an interview, when Bowne’s manager called and said ‘Welcome to the team,’ there was a sense of excitement, and relief, that distracted me from his next line, ‘You’ll be on the lobster shift!’
At the beginning of my time on the midnight shift at the world’s largest financial printer, there was an expectation that overnight hours would be less stressful. Certainly the commute would be easier. And maybe all the free time would allow me to go back to school. Seriously, how much activity could possibly occur in the middle of the night?
It was March 1992 and Bowne was celebrating its 217th year. Since the ’87 stock market crash several competitors closed, but Bowne had two centuries of staying power and was well positioned for a rebound. In 1991 the resurgence began as Bowne reported record revenue of $236 million, which provided evidence that it was time to end a five-year hiring freeze. They waited too long!
Those were the good ‘ole days: in 1991 there were a total of 318 initial public offerings; in 1992, over 600 IPOs came to market. And the dot-com era hadn’t even started. By the end of the decade Bowne exceeded $1 billion in annual revenue.
Back then, Bowne’s conference center on the lower west side of Manhattan took up the better part of a city block. It was designed to host ‘drafting’ sessions for deal teams to gather and prepare documents that would eventually file and print. While the design made sense for a customer, it made little sense for a service representative.
So there are a lot of inefficiencies to unpack here:
• First, on one end of the building, we dealt with stressed-out, sleep-deprived, highly demanding lawyers who expected a service representative to match their frenetic pace as they revised every page of a document.
• Second, on the opposite end of the building, we depended on union typesetters who took out their anger at management by operating at a snail’s pace to revise pages that deal teams were desperate to review.
• Third, either by phone or in-person, pampered sales people would constantly interrupt to check-in on their customers, but were mostly interested in gauging activity level so they could begin to calculate their commission.
• Fourth, coordinating ‘blueprints’ for printing required running up an internal staircase to the 11th floor production area; preparing SEC filing packages involved an elevator ride to the bindery on the third floor.
Most night’s seemed like you sprinted a marathon. But the biggest challenge was after my shift ended. Thinking there’d be a lot of free time, my evenings were spent in graduate school. So, exhausted from evening classes and an all-night race, my 40 mile trek home would start with a re-play of each project; a mental assessment that every piece of information was handed-off to the next shift – the risk of being labeled a ‘sandbagger’ was always top of mind – and a bit of reflection on what it takes to navigate the variety of personalities and unpredictable circumstances each project presented.
By then my car was exiting the Holland Tunnel, stress of the night fading away, and sun shining in my eyes. Sunny days were always the worst as the squinting made it so tempting for your eyelids to slip shut. It was awful! There’d be trips you couldn’t remember how many times you pulled over, or how long you were napping on the side of the road.
Anyway, my lobster shift experience was like diving into the deep-end on a nightly basis, and struggling to stay above water. There was constant change requiring you to adapt. A relentless pace forcing you to keep-up. And some mistakes along the way (the Home Holdings IPO still haunts me). But, the most important lesson was realizing you need a combination of good people, efficient processes, transparent information, and adaptive resources.
• It’s about process, not production. Whether Bowne’s physical space or a modern digital platform, a process must be designed for efficiency with tools to help participants be successful. Then, as part of process, connect to the right production resource.
• Information is the underlying driver of every activity. Telling a team of lawyers at 2:00 AM you’re running late – by 2 or 3 hours – is a good way to quickly learn information, and knowledge, enable better decision-making. Transparency helps this process.
• Email was not meant for project management. We’ve been organized around email for 25 years. Its one-way limitations create issues with transparency, version control, collaboration, and file sharing. Digital tools and mobile apps solve these issues.
• Success is personal. Goals and objectives vary wildly among participants of a project. Survive a drafting session; arrive home safely; achieve a project milestone; impress your boss; build a brand; advance your career. We all need unbiased guidance along the way.
• Incremental improvement is not enough. Eventually Bowne transitioned to non-union typesetting in low-cost cities; then, outsourced to India. But, for financial printers, the fundamental process remains as it was 25 years ago. For real progress, see Workiva.
My wide-awake commute now involves a long car ride listening to podcasts. On one of my favorite episodes of Masters of Scale the guest shares an incredible statistic: 1 in 1,000,000,000 companies make it to 200 years. Instantly my mind was back on lobster shift thinking about what made Bowne unique. In the beginning there was a strong sense of history and culture that inspired employees to rise up after the ’87 stock market crash. By the end we held on to an old way of doing things, but lacked resilience and foresight to transition with a changing world.
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