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Commentary & Analysis

Strategic Optimization During COVID-19

Documenting your core workflows can be a good strategic use of key resources who might not be fully occupied working from home.

By Jennifer Matt
Published: March 25, 2020

I got a call yesterday from a print business who wanted help with a major Print MIS upgrade because, in their words, “the people who know our business the best have uninterrupted time to focus; that will not be the case when we get to the other side of this.”

I was on a call this morning with a company that is in beta on a new artwork approval solution. They started the conversation by saying they thought the software was too cumbersome and more difficult than their current process. Does this sound familiar? It does to me because I've heard this exact statement hundreds of times. I have a very different reaction to this statement now. Here it is:

Please describe your current process (in detail).

Why do I respond with this question? Most print businesses who are shopping/testing new software technology don’t have the process they are doing today documented. So when they evaluate new technology, how do they know if it's better, more efficient, and takes less time then what they are doing today?

You know why current processes are perceived as easier, less cumbersome, more efficient? Because they are known, comfortable, and the people doing those processes feel confident. So I took notes while they described their current process; I stopped numbering the steps at 28. Their current process is not efficient. It is comfortable because, in their own words, it's the way they have always done it.

I got a call before all this COVID-19 thing started from a technical leader at a very large printer. After about two sentences of pleasantries, he stated, “I have a 118-step process that I need to fix.” I just about fell off my chair, not because of the number of steps, but because he actually knew how many steps there were in it. He proceeded to tell me that he was looking at the process map on his office wall while he was talking to me. I just simply said, “You are way ahead of the game. You can’t fix a problem until you’ve defined it.”

You know what you can do during the COVID-19 “pause”: you can define your existing workflows. You can document the core workflows of running a print business. If I were you, I would focus on the workflows in the carpeted area of your business because those are most likely the people who are working from home.

  1. Order entry
  2. Artwork Approval
  3. Estimating
  4. New customer onboarding
  5. Invoicing

I guarantee you, once you get down all the steps in each of these processes, your business will start to change immediately. People who are busy all the time aren’t even aware of all the steps they repeat day after day after day, each time sucking up vital labor that could be deployed more efficiently. I spent about three hours over the weekend cleaning up my password manager, bookmarks, virtual machine logins, etc. (basically the administrative health of all my technical access points). I think I am about 20% more efficient because I took the time to organize the things I access every single day.

What does documenting a workflow look like? Write down the process, create a video like you’re showing someone new how to do the process. Then pull someone else in from your company and see if they can do the process without asking you any questions. The tendency will be for you to want to optimize the process as you document it. Believe me, it can be embarrassing to write down all the weird steps you’re taking, but you should not optimize; you should document it exactly how it works today. Then measure how long it typically takes you to complete the process (e.g. get artwork out for approval) so you have a “data-based” measurement. Think about how differently you would engage with a vendor when looking for a solution if you had your entire process already documented? You could simply hand the process and the time metric to the vendor and say, “I’m not interested unless you can save me 25% or more on our existing process!”

Technical people will want to create fancy flowcharts and diagrams. I really prefer Post-it® Notes which in our working virtual world you can do with the Post-it® Notes App. Don’t over complicate it; write down all the steps of the process with one step per Post-it® Note, put them in order, count them, then time how long it takes the person who does this process all day, everyday, to complete the process.

Getting your processes documented allows you to evaluate the processes based on data not emotion. Everything we do today has an emotional connection to us as humans (especially things we do confidently). What we want to do is to give new processes and new ways of doing things to have a fighting chance against the natural human resistance to change.

I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes:

“If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.” —Buckminster Fuller

Your current processes are rooted in tools that people are comfortable with (email, PDFs, and spreadsheets). These tools are outdated. The processes that rely on these tools exclusively are cumbersome on both the printer’s employees and even more importantly their customers.

Right now is a good time to capture your processes as a baseline, then to start understanding how you can build a more efficient business when we all get to leave our houses again.

Jennifer Matt is the managing editor of WhatTheyThink’s Print Software section as well as President of Web2Print Experts, Inc. a technology-independent print software consulting firm helping printers with web-to-print and print MIS solutions.

 

Discussion

By Cory Sawatzki on Mar 25, 2020

Always such great ideas! I have seen this one in action, and let me just tell you that now is the time.

 

By Jennifer Matt on Mar 30, 2020

Interesting question came to me directly; I'm going to answer it here:

...you say that current process is rooting in email, pdf and spreadsheets which are all outdated. Can you elaborate on that. Are you saying that we should not be using those tools? Much of my client communication is through email. Our workflow is pdf based and we generally proof projects to clients in pdf format. Spreadsheets are an integral part of any direct mail.

Email is not an order entry strategy. It was an amazing invention in 1971; its time to upgrade to modern software tools. Your Customer Service needs to exchange messages / collaborate, exchange files, and get agreement (artwork, orders). It's time to start looking for a BETTER way to do this.

When there isn't specific software to solve a business challenge; employees use the tools they have. In fact almost all software invented recently is an upgrade to email, phone, fax, spreadsheets, and PDFs. Read this interesting article about replacement of Excel: https://foundationinc.co/lab/the-saas-opportunity-of-unbundling-excel/

We must step back and rethink what tools we're using and really think about workflows based on our modern toolset. Does Artwork really have to be encapsulated into a PDF to get approval? I don't think so and I don't think it should be done via email. A customer wants to approve artwork by reviewing the image on a phone while they are in line at Starbucks.

Print MIS systems are replacements for spreadsheets, paper logs, etc. Web-to-print systems are replacements for email ordering.

Jen

 

By Chris Lynn on Apr 03, 2020

Jennifer, your piece reminds me that the printers must be the last segment of manufacturing industry to adopt AS-IS/TO-BE process mapping, value-stream mapping, kaizen or any of the other tools of Lean that have allowed many American manufacturers to become globally competitive.

Your questioner who sees no reason to change his PDF-based proofing workflow needs to think about (a) is this a constraint to growing the business, and (b) is the company vulnerable to competitors who provide a better customer experience?

 

By Jennifer Matt on Apr 03, 2020

Chris,

I think the constraint is BOTH psychological (a mindset) and the impact of a shift in where differentiation is happening in our industry. It has been "reality" for a long time (many years now). The differentiation is NOT on the production floor. It is on the customer experience and the ability to reach new customer markets by solving business challenges that are tangential to the print manufacturing process.

I was in a large RFQ meeting with a major airline; the printer whom I was participating with was told they did not make it to the next round because they talked TOO MUCH about the print. Isn't that fascinating? If you're sending sales people in that only know print and only want to talk about the print - you're vulnerable. You can't assume the customer cares about print - you have to understand what the customer cares about.

Value has migrated in our industry upstream of the production floor. You have to reinvent all the processes and touchpoints with your customers. This means prioritizing them OVER obsessing over new presses and other production equipment. Why is this not happening? As an industry; most companies are being run by people whose primary expertise is the manufacturing (they are setting the priorities).

Jen

 

By Chris Lynn on Apr 03, 2020

Jen - I agree with you 100% and did not mean to imply that processing mapping etc should only be applied to the shop floor. Your comment about value migrating upstream is absolutely right.

In fact I did my first 'customer journey mapping' project for a (non-profit) client last year. The technique involves interviewing customers both to map the process from their perspective, and to get their feedback on how satisfied they were at each stage.

It caused me to wonder whether any printers have tried this technique for improving their customers' experience.

 

By Robert Godwin on Apr 06, 2020

Most important item stated in this string " If you're sending sales people in that only know print and only want to talk about the print - you're vulnerable. You can't assume the customer cares about print - you have to understand what the customer cares about." And the last phrase is key. It is a better path to success if you actually understand not only what the customer 'wants', but also what they need. Sales is an action verb. The action requires:
1. gathering knowledge of the cutomer, and,
2. Asking for the business because you understand what they need.

 

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