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by Kennedy Smith

Quality Achievements

Branch-Smith Printing Division experienced 72-percent growth in sales over four years and held that gain in 2002, when the industry declined 6.6 percent.

Branch-Smith Printing has grown its customer base from 91 in 1998 to 167 in 2002.

Value-added sales per employee have increased 33 percent during the past five years.

From 1988 to 2001, Branch-Smith Printing slashed its level of volatile organic compound emissions from 13 tons to six tons, below the 10 ton threshold for state reporting requirements.

On May 21, 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney and Commerce Secretary Don Evans presented three organizations with Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards in recognition of their performance excellence and quality achievements. Among the winners was Fort Worth, Texas’ Branch-Smith Printing, which won in the small business category.

One of two sectors of Branch-Smith Inc., the printing division provides turnkey printing services--including designing, printing, binding and mailing--related to sheet-fed printing of multipage bound materials. The company’s products include publications, magazines, catalogs, directories and books.

From 1996 to 2002, ratings for customer satisfaction with product quality--a key differentiator for Branch-Smith Printing--exceeded those for its competitors. The company’s ratings ranged from 8.3 to 8.7, whereas major competitors rated 7.9 to 8.1. Since 1998, its sales growth rate has outperformed the industry rate every year.

What follows is an interview with David Branch, president and chairman of Branch-Smith Printing. This is the last of three interviews with a representative from each 2002 Baldrige Award winner. The previous conversations were published in the July and September issues of Quality Digest.

QD: How long have you been pursuing the Baldrige Award?

David Branch: We started the journey in 1992 with TQM and received our first exposure to a primitive set of statements in 1994. We self-ranked our system to find out where the biggest gaps were, which happened to be Category 6--process. We then pursued ISO 9000 registration so we could get our processes documented.

Texas came out with a pilot program for Option 1 and Option 2 applications at about the same time. So, the fall of 1995 was the first actual application that we put together for the state program. We did that, got the feedback report and realized that we didn’t know much about what we were doing--even though we’d been to some of the workshops.

I became an examiner for the state award the next fall. That really triggered us to move along. The following year, I examined again and also put in another Option 2 application. The next year, we submitted a Level III application and received the 1999 Texas State Quality Award.

During the next application cycle, we applied for the Baldrige Award and the next year earned a site visit. The following year, we won the award. Essentially, there were six application cycles altogether.

QD: Was it advantageous to be an examiner while going through the process yourself?

Branch: I think it was critical. I don’t think we’d be here without it. You can understand from the other side of the table what Baldrige is all about. As an examiner, you have to know the criteria well enough to provide a feedback report, and that helps when you apply them to your own business. Being an examiner is like that old metaphor about golf: It’s one of the most excruciating forms of pleasure. I intensively learned the important things to take back to my organization.

QD: How important is the feedback report?

Branch: It’s very important. In a small organization like ours--we’ve gone from 50 employees to around 80--there are hidden recesses of the organization. There are things that you find out from your communication process. But because of my examiner training and understanding the criteria, we can provide self-feedback pretty well in such a small section of an organization. The application side can be every bit as powerful as feedback from knowledgeable examiners.

QD: Are there other quality processes that you’ve been involved with?

Branch: ISO 9000 is the only other “brand name” initiative we used--initially doing so to document our processes. But as we improved processes through the Baldrige criteria, ISO 9000 was updated to be a little more similar to Baldrige. We now use ISO 9000 to document all of our processes.

QD: What made you decide to improve quality at the company?

Branch: It was 1992, we were up against Japanese competition, but we didn’t have a good hold on what quality really was. We were a small family organization and wanted to learn more about quality. So we started off with a 24-month quality consortium comprising a number of Baldrige and Texas State Quality Award winners. It was basically a quality peer group for two years of training. Once we were on the path to ISO 9000, we felt we were taking a more aligned approach to quality. Another trigger was my examiner training, which led us on to our next step in the journey.

QD: Are there any parts of the criteria that you felt didn’t really apply to your company?

Branch: No. I think there’s relative importance. There’s nothing in the criteria that’s not relevant. The important thing is prioritization. In our case, we were first going after improving supplier management, tracking nonconformances and creating real profits. We were also looking to reduce repetitive purchases of a lot of the same materials.

QD: Were there specific criteria that were particularly challenging?

Branch: It’s all challenging and continues to be at some level. The thing about Baldrige is there’s no limit to how much you can improve. You can always take it deeper and deeper. More questions can always be asked, like, “What about this next level, and how is your performance there?”

QD: What are some of the challenges that a small organization faces when striving for Baldrige-level quality?

Branch: A lot of what it takes is simply the resources to produce an accurate application. You still have to write the checks for such a small organization, so the financial affect of applying is a little more difficult than for a larger organization.

If the process is a cake, recognition is like the icing. It’s the cake we’re really after. This was a little difficult to communicate within the organization. The recognition is just grand, but that really wasn’t the point of it all.

QD: Based on the feedback report that you received this time, what things will you be working on for the future?

Branch: One point we’re very aware of--and we have action plans in place to resolve--is diversity within the organization. We have some Spanish-speaking and Asian employees, including a handful who are not fluent in English. We’ve had “English as a second language” instruction to try and bridge that language barrier, but it hasn’t been very cost-effective at all.

The feedback we received on our efforts concerning diversity was something we’d already recognized and are trying new ways to resolve. We just hadn’t been very effective and are still trying to do something about it. From the feedback we received, we’ve decided to bring in language training for our leaders instead of coming at it from the employee side.

The idea of translating all of our documents for the sake of one Cambodian and two Spanish speakers is simply not as effective as bilingual communication to get our jobs done faster. In a larger company--in which you’ve got enough employees

to justify it--translating the documents is probably cost-effective. But these kinds of communication issues are different for a smaller company.

The great thing about the Baldrige criteria is that they consider small businesses in terms of what makes sense to them. They know that things that make sense to large businesses won’t necessarily work for a smaller company.

QD: Will you apply again when you’re eligible?

Branch: I wouldn’t be surprised, although it’s kind of early to know. We’re trying to figure out what we’ll do every year: track all the measures that we utilize and document our management systems and processes for change--which is really one of our strengths. We’re not going to fall out of that pattern because it’s easier to do it the way it’s designed. All the employees know how to contribute ideas; we all know what to expect and how the business will keep running. We might apply in several years, but right now we’re trying to assess how we’ll adapt to changes when they occur in the criteria.

This interview was conducted by Kennedy Smith, Quality Digest’s associate editor. Letters to the editor regarding this article can be e-mailed to letters@qualitydigest.com.