The Stuff You Don't Like to Admit


Well-known member
by Noel Ward, Editor@Large

Somewhere in the back of your head there’s stuff you probably don’t like to admit. Like some of the operations in your shop, for instance. How many require multiple steps and even multiple people? What are those extra steps and processes really costing you?

You know this number, because whatever the job may be there are processes that are part of the quotes you give, every day. You just don’t think about it because it’s either (a) painful, (b) the way you’ve always done things, (c) keeps an extra person or two in their job, (d) will cost money to make the changes required, or (e) all of the above. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Except that some steps and processes may be costing you money, that under the uncertainties of the present day and whatever comes next, may not be sustainable—and hurt the value of your business.

Process Improvement
The owner of a shop where I was shooting video had a rich mix of equipment that was a great match for the needs of his customers. The owner had limited the inline finishing options on his digital presses, opting instead for near-line devices that better fit the space available and the range of jobs his customers brought in.

One was a device that automatically scored, trimmed and folded a variety of small documents, based on the specs keyed in by the operator, who did other things while the compact dark gray box did what it was told. It seemed simple enough, but it also meant that what was once a multi-step process was all done on a single machine and the person who used do those things was now working in another part of the shop. It was a no-brainer to have a single near-line machine do these steps faster and without the waste and errors associated with a manual process .

Such process improvements are a reason why companies like VistaPrint got to be big players selling commodity printing for short dollars. Sure, they offered compelling prices, but behind the curtain they had figured out how to use possible process improvement to eliminate touch points and speed products to eager customers. Or take ValPak. It is a locked down facility where almost no one is allowed to see how they produce millions of localized coupon offers that go to nearly every address in the U.S. They can do it because the company has continually improved every one of its processes for years.

I know how this works in transactional and direct mail shops that crank out billions of pages a year. Digital technology and some customized solutions make it all possible. Automation is becoming business as usual. In a lot of smaller shops though, some things haven’t changed much over the past 20-odd years. Digital presses have had an impact but there are still a lot of printers who have more manual processes in place than is wise in our changing world. To get a broader view I called up Rick Salinas, vice president of marketing at Duplo, purveyor of a wide range of small to mid-size finishing equipment that offers the kinds of process improvements may print providers need to help their businesses work faster and deliver more value (and profit) on every job.

To wrap some context around this, the social distancing we are becoming accustomed to is not going to go away anytime soon. There are certainly print shop operations that require at least some close interactions with co-workers, but other processes can be streamlined and touch points minimized. Doing this, requires some forethought and planning, which Salinas describes as a five step process.

Step 1: Study current processes
“This should include everything from order entry to production flow, all the way to shipping,” says Salinas. “Document each step to see were the sticking points are.” He recommends starting with simple tasks, but notes that printers can easily get so wrapped up in the day to day that it can be hard to realize there may be a better way to do things.

“There are a host of things that on an individual job may only take 2 minutes," he says. "But suppose there are 300 jobs in a week that require those 2 minutes? Then the time is really 600 minutes. That’s 10 hours a week or 5200 hours a year! A process change might be able to cut that in half, or maybe even eliminate it.” Either way, your accountant will probably tell you adds up to real money.

Also, starting now and throughout the process, seek advice and perspective from your team. Every business has a trove of “institutional knowledge” that can be tapped to make a company better. Don’t assume you know how everything works—you probably don’t. Process improvement works best when the people who do the work are involved.

Step two: Find the steps in a process that slow the workflow or require multiple people or operations
“Any time two people have to discuss an aspect of a job is a place that could possibly be eliminated or streamlined,” says Salinas. Some of this may go back to how a job ticket is created and how much information it contains. “All the information about a job should be collected during estimating and put on a job ticket,” he says. “Or, maybe the job comes in electronically and there isn’t a physical job ticket. If all the information about a job is electronic and available to everyone who is part of production there may not have to be a physical handoff with extra conversations.”

Step Three: Eliminating sticking points
“There are many software solutions that automate the pre-press process while sending programming information to automated finishing devices,” says Salinas. This can cut down on touch points and even eliminate some labor. Such automation may require a capital investment but can pay dividends by helping work to flow more smoothly through the operation. The bean counters may be surprised at the decrease in staffing achieved be reducing labor intensive processes.

“The challenge is finding the level of automation that is right for your company,” notes Salinas. For instance, all the print engine vendors have tools that automate much of a print workflow, as do third party software suppliers. “Be sure to get what is right for your business,” urges Salinas.

Some are part of a big end-to-end system, but what if you don’t have all the parts of that system? Other offerings may automate only certain parts of a shop, sometimes just a single machine. This is why you have to look at your entire operation and address the weak parts first.

Step Four: Implement the Plan
“This is the hard one, and usually easier said than done,” affirms Salinas. Few people like change. In fact, most people normally fear it, often worrying about their jobs. To implement a plan, managers must have a clear understanding of its goals. Be sure to explain it well to get buy in from the team. It should be made clear that the changes are for the overall good of the operation. Don’t change too much at once! Implementation can nearly always be done in stages: attack the largest sticking points first.

“It’s a snowball effect,” says Salinas. “Before long it rolls faster and soon starts moving on its own. Begin with the parts that slow you down the most and soon the process improvements start making the whole operation move faster. But keep in mind the whole plan has to be established first! If not, you may have to redo processes because they don’t meet the overall goal.”

Step Five: Be adaptable
“New solutions don’t always work out as planned and can create different problems,” says Salinas. This is the law of unintended consequences, and you will have to adjust and adapt when a new process doesn’t work quite the way you hoped. When adapting, go back through these steps to see if you did all you could to ensure a successful outcome.

All these steps, by the way, are important. Don’t skip any, because your overall success depends on doing each one. And do not give up. In the end you have a new workflow with strategic equipment changes that can increase your company’s ability to produce more work with less resources, making your operation healthier, stronger and more profitable.


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