Kevin Runbeck rebuilds his company on mission.
By Kevin Runbeck
The only time we really learn is by making mistakes. And figuring out how to not make them again.
I heard this over and over when I was in Boy Scouts, and it has proven true throughout my life. It means that those “teachable moments” we all hear about can have real value if we pay attention to what they’re telling us.
“… if even a single ballot in an election is wrong, everyone from leaders in Washington, DC to the media to local election officials see it as the collapse of western civilization.”
My company, Runbeck Election Services, has been in the election services business in one way or another for 40 years. Today, we’re growing at about 15 percent each year in top line revenue in addition to just completing our first acquisition. We focus exclusively on producing elections, including the digital printing and mailing of precinct ballots, and offer capabilities that our 20-some-odd competitors can’t. In addition to our own customized software, we hold four patents on election-related software and equipment, with six more pending.
The years of 2010 and 2012 were especially good for us, but 2014 was a year of reckoning. For reasons I’ll get to, that fateful year put a lot of stress on our business and honestly, we almost didn’t survive it. I’m happy to say that we did because we were willing to learn from our mistakes and we made significant changes in how we do business and how we define what we’re all about. Our quest to “always do better” stands on three legs — culture, leadership, and lean processes — which are now the foundations of the company. But getting to this point wasn’t easy.
The Blind Eye
To understand what happened in 2014, you need to know a little about how the election system works. Voting in the United States is managed by the counties, all 3,147 of them. Counties are divided into precincts (based on voter registration) that each require a unique ballot style. The number of precincts in any given county vary from 15 to over 2,600. Many of our customers are counties in the western states, where voting by mail is a standard procedure. In this case, each voter is mailed a ballot for their unique precinct. They fill it out, sign the envelop to validate, and mail it back to that county. In 2018, we printed over 48,000,000 ballots consisting of over 116,000 styles and mailed 10,400,000 ballots directly to voters.
These ballots are commonly processed on machinery we developed and sell to the various counties. Our proprietary equipment includes our Agilis ballot-sorting system and Sentio on-demand ballot printing system (for printing unique voter ballots), plus software designed for ballot printing, sortation, signature verification, and petition management. These machines are configured based on customer requirements, and the software is customized for each county to ensure complete accuracy. For all counties, our audit trail provides 100 percent accuracy.
In 2014, though, some of our management team made decisions that resulted in about 1,400 ballots out of 3.8 million being mailed with a mismatch of voter-to-precinct ballot style. We’d had an excellent track record up to that point, but we — myself included — took our eyes off the ball. There was a problem with one of our verification cameras and rather than fix it, we had ignored it.
One of the interesting things about American culture is that people turn a blind eye to the two percent of bank deposits that go missing every year or the thousands of people who die in hospitals because they are misdiagnosed or prescribed incorrect medications. Yet, if even a single ballot in an election is wrong, everyone from leaders in Washington, DC to the media to local election officials see it as the collapse of western civilization. In 2014, we came to fully appreciate that voting is a very emotional thing. And with so many tight elections these days, voters know that every vote matters. The media, of course, is equally aware of this and quick to report any kind of ballot problem. When a problem surfaces, it swiftly becomes a problem of voter and customer confidence.
We had the technology to isolate the problem and produce new ballots, which we promptly did. Everyone was still able to vote, and the elections were all fine. But even so, the immediate impact was loss of confidence on the part of our long-time customers, discouragement among employees, and several national news broadcasters setting up camp in our parking lot. It was not exactly the fifteen minutes of fame we would have wanted. We could have given up, which is a normal human tendency when faced with adversity. To be honest, I thought briefly about pulling the plug and going skiing.
Instead, we reinvented the company.
As we did, we realized three actions on our part were going to be critical: providing proactive leadership, creating a new corporate culture, and implementing lean manufacturing processes. It’s easy to think of these as separate things, and to some extent they are, but they are also intimately related and make up the three pillars that drive the success of our organization. Any organization. Maybe your organization.
Pivot to Mission
At the depth of my frustration, I was introduced to a recently retired U.S. Army major general. We became friends as we contemplated the changes in our lives. As expected, he was getting job offers from major corporations, but to my surprise, he expressed an interest in working with us. To put this in context, by the end of his military career, he had 50 generals and 50,000 troops under his command, and we had only 50 employees. I asked why he wanted to work for us, and he said, “Throughout my career, I always knew my mission, which was to defend democracy. When I retired, I thought that mission had ended until I saw what you do. You defend democracy by defending the integrity of the voting process.”
The few minutes it took for him to explain this to me were pivotal, totally changing the way I thought about running my company. I realized that as CEO, I had to imbue in my team the belief that what we do is inherently tied to mission. It’s vitally important work that supports democracy. We do it at the ballot box by ensuring the American voting process can be trusted. That’s our job; it’s how we “defend democracy.”
When I looked at mission this way — as the glue that could bind our company together and propel us toward a bright future — it took on new meaning. It began to drive everything we did to rebuild the company. It became part of our DNA.
Now all of our employees understand our shared mission, and our managers continually reinforce it in participative ways that engage our workers. Moreover, it means we have to find ways to make sure we do everything right.
For example, anyone on our team of now nearly 90 people can call for “a hansei moment.” Hansei is part of a 16th century Japanese Buddhist/Zen concept related to the Japanese notion of kaizen, the quest for constant improvement. Finding problems is actually something we celebrate because hansei is about identifying one and finding a solution. There’s no finger pointing, blame, or stigma attached to admitting a mistake when an employee calls for a hansei moment. The “moment” can take place on the production floor, in an office, or at a lunch table. Doesn’t matter. The goal is to look at something that went wrong, determine how to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and implement the appropriate new process or procedure.
Most hansei moments are small and involve only a few people. Those of us in management are often unaware of them because our team members know they can make changes on their own. One recent example involving a large group was a presentation we made to a prospective customer wherein everything went wrong. The presentations were stiff and disjointed, the videos didn’t get played, and the demonstration press samples were out of register. All in all, we looked bad. A couple days later, all those involved, including the management team, had a hansei moment. We dissected all the things that went sideways, agreed on a better approach, and invited the customer to give us a second look. We admitted our mistakes, and we won the contract. The point with hansei is that every problem, anything that doesn’t go according to plan, has a solution. And it is our job — our duty — to understand the cause and find a solution. It’s how we get better.
Ironically, we had been using hansei in some minor ways in 2014, but it wasn’t part of our overall approach to running the company. So even though some employees knew certain decisions made by their managers at that time might cause problems, their concerns were ignored. Their managers weren’t receptive to addressing them. As a result, even though the actual size of our mistake was relatively small and was addressed, we had still failed. Coming on the heels of successful elections in 2010 and 2012, our corporate pride took a big hit. Failure wasn’t something we were used to and knowing we could have avoided the problems had most people in the company discouraged.
In hopes of keeping everyone on board, I went personally to each employee, and we talked — about them, about the company, about how together we could make Runbeck Election Services a better and truly great place to work. I asked them for help. And everyone stayed. Then I went on the road to every customer. I apologized and asked for another chance to prove we were still worthy of their trust. And they rallied around us, too. Only one customer left us after our 2014 mistake. This broad display of trust was encouraging.
Looking in the Mirror
I believe that listening to and learning from people with different leadership experiences and perspectives is absolutely vital to creating a strong organization. It’s for this reason that our president, Jeff Ellington, and I belong to Vistage International, a group of business leaders that meets once a month with the goal of helping each other improve the ways we manage our respective businesses. One of the things we’ve gleaned from Vistage is that if you’re not looking in the mirror, you can’t see the problem. This may seem like a harsh dose of reality, but if you are a CEO or president who won’t acknowledge what your company is doing wrong, you aren’t going to be able to improve. Our connection with Vistage International also helped clarify our thinking by assuring us we weren’t alone. Others in the group had faced their own points of failure. Being CEO can be a lonely job at times and being able to talk openly with others in similar roles was a tremendous advantage then, as it still is today. One of the things I learned from Vistage members is to look for ways to be more efficient, to do more with less, or in the vernacular of our age, “to be lean.”
Being lean is a lot more than having people attend seminars and gain a level of certification in efficient work processes. It really means looking holistically at an organization and seeing weaknesses and places where collaborative and innovative thinking can have an impact. We knew some of this from 2014 when we tried to increase throughput by adding a new digital press. The problem was that we didn’t have a plan or process in place for quickly changing the 1,000-pound rolls of paper the machine gobbled up in almost no time. So while the press could print fast, we were losing almost a shift a day because we didn’t have this procedure dialed in. Of course, in election season, there is no time to do something as logical such as calling the press vendor for help. Our work had to be done immediately, so we did the best we could. Once the rush period was over, we took the time to learn the best procedure for changing the five-mile-long roll of paper — and to find other improvements and efficiencies.
For instance, we used to hire as many as 200 temporary employees to help with processing. We initially thought it would be good to cross-train them so they could do multiple tasks. But we found it was better to foster efficiency by having individuals become proficient at specific tasks. As part of that, we “color-coded” temps by issuing them colored basketball jerseys so they would be on the “yellow machine” or the “green machine.” This way, machine operators could easily identify the temps available to work on a given device. This drastically reduced the number of temps required and cut temp costs by 50 percent.
“When I looked at mission this way — as the glue that could bind our company together and propel us toward a bright future — it took on new meaning. ”
It’s not unusual these days to hear print providers talk about adopting a lean philosophy and seeing a productivity uptick of a few percentage points, but only in the first year or so after initiating lean operations. This can be for a number of reasons, though in most cases, the new practices probably haven’t become habits, maybe software isn’t upgraded, or training may be inconsistent. What has made the difference for us is having champions to lead the change. Our president, Jeff Ellington, and vice president of operations, Bryan Dandurand, owned this challenge. They were able to embed lean processes into our culture by making everyone conscious of how they fit into and advance our mission.
The most obvious result of our efforts towards being lean is that our productivity has increased about 20 percent because we no longer struggle to find the best ways to do the many tasks that are part of our operations. Our software, for example, delivers internal audits so we know about a problem in time to resolve it. These efforts delivered a 16-percent gain to our bottom line in the first year alone.
Leadership underlies both our culture and our lean philosophy. Everything we do is driven from the bottom up, not the top down. This puts the responsibility of all we do on everyone, from the press and inserting machine operators to software engineers to sales reps to the president, and to me. This bottom-up strategy helps ensure our managers are listening to the people who are further downstream.
Moreover, our lean practices work because we have made them part of our culture. From hansei to fostering trust throughout the organization to open communication and commitment to a shared vision and mission, we are all stronger together. It shows in the quality of work, the confidence our customers place in us, and in the mutual trust and respect our employees have for one another. I’m proud to say we’ve been named “Best Workplace in the Americas” by Printing Industries of America for four years running. Then there’s history. Although our more recent employees were not with us in 2014, they all know what transpired. We share the stories as a constant reminder of where we were then and where we are today. The collective memory of this legacy provides the strength and resilience we need as we work to continually achieve our mission.
Am I a Printer?
I’m sometimes asked if I’m a printer. We are very good at putting ink on paper, so we are technically a printer, but we are really an election services company. We have two high-speed inkjet digital presses and are adding two more this year, along with five intelligent inserters for high-integrity mailing. We develop and sell election-related equipment and software. Our facility is purpose-built for ballot processing and election services. Ensuring the security of elections is what we do. And to this day, we still learn by making mistakes and using every one of them to get better.
Kevin Runbeck, a fourth generation Arizonan, brings nearly five decades of election experience to Runbeck Elections Services, Inc. As CEO, he has taken Runbeck from a small printing business to a full-service election printing company with patented technology-driven software, equipment, and processes, whose mission is to deliver trusted outcomes. Connect via firstname.lastname@example.org.