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Getting Hard-Nosed About Workflow Automation

Identify where your workflow could be efficiently streamlined.

Automation in the graphic arts is a little bit like advertising. There is an axiom that "advertising doesn’t cost, it pays.' But it's also true that before advertising begins paying off, it certainly does cost. The same is true for automation. And, just as with advertising, the real question about investing in automation is how to get the most return on your investment.

Many of you are running small businesses that simply cannot afford to make a huge investment in automation tools, no matter how wonderful the ROI appears to be on paper. Similarly, we might all prefer to drive a Lexus, but some of us just can’t afford one. And a Ford Focus can get us from point A to point B just as effectively (and perhaps more efficiently), even if the ride is not as luxurious.

The good news, however, is that even though there are plenty of Lexus equivalents in the automation world, there are also some low-entry point products that can get you started in the right direction. And the truth is, the car you have been driving for years may not be the old clunker you think it is. Maybe it just needs a good old-fashioned tune up.

Create a workflow test

Before you even consider what products you might wish to invest in, the first step is to make a serious evaluation of your needs and assets. The most expensive and sophisticated tools available will do nothing if you are not focused and clear as to precisely what you are setting out to do. It's not enough to have a generalized feeling that if you could just automate your processes, life would be better and profits higher.

Begin by identifying the processes where automation could truly help. Carefully check each and every step of your current process: order entry, prepress, proofing, client notification and interaction, binding, and shipping. Are there motions or areas that are redundant? Where are the bottlenecks? Most print providers find that when they look at how the process works on the shop floor, it is often very different from the way it is supposed to work on paper.

Try this test: Make a workflow chart of how a job is supposed to flow through your company; carefully estimate how long each step of the process will take, and put it in writing. Do this for several different types of hypothetical jobs.

Then, follow some real jobs that fit the "types" from your hypothetical list. Document each real job at every step in the process. If you opt to delegate the documenting process, make it clear that you don’t want any "estimates" or "fudging" of figures; nor should you let anyone see your prior estimated times and steps. If mistakes occur during the real jobs, note where, why, and when. And if the job has to have changes or corrections, put it in writing.

At the end of the test, chances are good that there will be a dramatic difference between what you estimated would happen to a job and what actually happens. Tread carefully here, however: It’s very easy for managers to think that if a job doesn’t go through the plant the way it is "supposed" to, someone simply is not doing the job or pulling their weight. Yes, that’s certainly possible-but it's more likely that the hypothetical workflow you initially sketched out is simply out of synch with reality.

Identifying a 'spaghetti' workflow

Once this process has been completed, make a hard-headed assessment of the situation. Where are errors and bottlenecks occurring? Where and why do communications break down? What redundancies can be eliminated? What takes the most time? How many times does the job change hands? How often is the basic data re-entered? How does the data actually move through the plant and who has access to it? Does everyone who needs information have quick access to correct, up-to-date information?

Don't be surprised if going through this process is a bit disturbing. In fact, if you have the preconceived notion that everything is going smoothly and just needs some "tweaks," it might even be a shock. Once you diagram your "real" workflow on paper, it's likely to look more like a plate of spaghetti than a coherent diagram.

What most print providers find when going through this self-evaluation is that information changes hands and is re-entered far too many times, creating many opportunities for errors. For example, the information from a quote may be re-entered on a job ticket. Then, that information may be incomplete, requiring several employees to check and re-check the data. Different employees may enter data in different ways, causing confusion.

Once you have a good idea of how things are actually functioning, you’ll want to try eliminating the potential problems, time lags, redundancies, errors, and so forth. The very best people to help you discover ways to improve your workflow are the people who do it every day. It might seem reasonable to believe that the folks who have made a mess of your workflow are the last people the fix it. But the truth is, they know exactly where and how the problems occur, and they have a real stake in fixing the problems.

Keep in mind that some employees may be fearful that becoming more efficient might put their jobs in jeopardy, so make sure they're confident that your interest is improving the workflow, not eliminating jobs. Indeed, shops have found that the more they empower their employees to become part of the process of improving the business, the more seriously they will take it and the more valuable input they'll provide.

Begin getting employee input and their suggestions for improvement. It might be helpful to provide incentives for coming up with solutions-a small bonus or some sort of recognition, for instance. The most important thing is to make them part of a team, working together to build a better system.

Even after you have revitalized the system, keep the team dynamics going as part of the company’s culture. That means keeping the employees involved as improvements are implemented. Make them part of choosing software, hardware, methodologies, etc. They are the folks who will have to implement whatever is decided. They can even be a great resource for researching available solutions, which will make them that much more motivated and involved in the process.

The search for open standards

Now you can begin evaluating systems. At this point, it becomes very important to know your strengths and limitations. Of course price is important, but other factors may take precedence and will affect the total cost of implementation. Will you have your own people setting it up, or will you rely on a vendor’s resources? How much training will employees need to implement and maintain the system?

An important caveat: No matter who does it, make sure any system put in place uses open, universal system architectures like XML, Java, JDF, and so on. Nearly all the systems available today are built on open standards, but be cautious. Make sure you drill down deep so you are confident all of the resources you will be using are built on open standards, and that they can all talk to each other.

During implementation, try to maintain a broad overview of the entire process and allow room for adjustments. Keep in mind that the technology is constantly changing. Ask lots of questions and try to think of potential uses for the system down the road. Make sure your employees continue to be part of the process and keep offering suggestions and input.

Finally, don’t expect the process to end once a system has been set up. Automation is an ongoing process and will constantly evolve.

Stephen Beals (bpworkflow@verizon.net), in prepress production for more than 30 years, is the digital prepress manager with Finger Lakes Press in Auburn, NY.

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