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Getting Hard-Nosed About Workflow Automation

(August 2007) posted on Mon Aug 06, 2007

Identify where your workflow could be efficiently streamlined.

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By Stephen Beals

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 (, in prepress production for more than 30 years, is the digital prepress manager with Finger Lakes Press in Auburn, NY.