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Commentary & Analysis

Transforming and Automating Workflows: Preparation is Paramount

By David Zwang
Published: January 8, 2013

This new series by David L. Zwang focuses on the processes and products that can lead to the transformation of your current workflows and business, to prepare you for the new challenges ahead. This series will run once a month beginning January of 2013. Zwang will look at process transformation and automation, and the steps you need to take to be successsful. He will also look at some of the current product offerings and how they are being, or could be, used to help you transform your business and strengthen your customer relationships.


The technologically driven changes in communications and market distribution have placed new demands on print and publishing service providers. These demands include cost and turn time pressures, new vertical integration requirements, and a host of new required services. While the state of the market and some of the newly required tools are starting to find some balance, most service providers have not made the necessary internal changes to adapt. Those who have will prosper, and those who have not will continue to struggle.

As a service business, your company is measured every day by many things. However, ultimately it is measured by your ability to deliver on a set of expectations. At times, that means doing whatever is necessary. As you all know, this can even get a bit ugly at times, but if you deliver on those expectations, and the client doesn’t see what goes on behind the curtain, it all works. However, this approach is a stopgap measure that usually results in slow bleeding and the ultimate weakening of companies that choose to take this path.

This approach is also not the best way to look at transforming your business. Some companies think that ‘plugging holes’ in workflow by throwing people at it or making a quick hardware or software purchase are good solutions, and even transformational. Of course, this is perceived as the easy way, and if you can afford it, shopping for ‘stuff’ is probably fun as well. However, while these actions may provide some short-term benefit, it isn’t usually the best long-term strategy.  Especially with the direction print and mobile media has been heading, it is time to step back and look at what you have and where you are going. It is time to stop the bleeding and begin to gain the benefits that a truly automated workflow can bring.

So what are the steps necessary to begin the process of business transformation? While we will look at individual process tasks, requirements, some solutions and success stories throughout this series, there are a few key questions that need to be answered before you can begin a successful transformation process.

Where are you now?

This first step is critical, since your goal for the transformation process will be to develop a roadmap of where you need to go and how to get there, and you must start from your current position. It is very important to fully understand where you are and what tools and skills you have to work with before you proceed. 

You must start with a process map. Look at the all of the tasks from your customer-facing processes to order entry through delivery and billing. You should also extend this analysis even further to business development. Usually the best approach is to start by creating two workflow maps. One, map shows production flow and the other map shows the business transaction flow. In an ideal world, there are many intersections between the two, but it is usually easier to draw them separately and then look at where they currently intersect. The following is an example of a very basic flow that shows both production and business transaction. While this diagram is rather simple, each of the task boxes in the diagram can actually have a workflow of its own, which would also need to be detailed. That being said,  it is always good to start simply and then expand on the detail. And don’t forget that throughout the entire process, “the devil is in the details.”. 

What do you want to be when you grow up?

The next step is to think about where your business is today, and where you would like it to be over the next 5 to 10 years. While it is always good to build new service offerings to support your existing client base, new services and new markets can also offer many great opportunities to acquire new customers as well as to gain more “share of wallet” from existing customers. And some of these new revenue streams can be built off of the strengths of your existing business team. Most businesses think it’s a luxury to spend the time looking ahead, while in fact it’s really a critical step in the ultimate survival and long-term growth of a business. Taking the time to go through this investigative step can provide real benefits in the needed transformation process and in growing your business. The other reason this step is important is that it can have both short- and long-term effects on your ultimate workflow designs and purchasing decisions. It can also earn you some short-term benefits that only require changes in process where you find inefficiencies, and these can often add up to a big impact on your bottom line. Keep in mind that workflow in many businesses evolved over time in a random sort of way. A problem arose, and a change in process was put in place to address that problem.  Over time, this can result in unnecessarily complicated processes and procedures that have a negative impact on both your business and the perception of customers.

Completion of the first two steps allows you to begin to create a plan of attack.

What are the missing pieces?

Once you have addressed the first two questions, you are in a position to identify the missing pieces required to get you to your end-point vision and look at possible solutions. These pieces can include skill sets, infrastructure requirements, software and hardware tools, processes, etc. This step should not be rushed. Too often companies are convinced by vendors that they have the ultimate solution that will address all of the problems now and in the future. However, the reality is that any solution can be force fit to make it workable, but this approach will likely not offer the longer-term flexibility you need in any future process or business changes; they are simply more stopgap measures piled on top of those that might already be in place. Taking the time to investigate, and discussing your thoughts with internal staff, business partners, clients, and outside consulting resources will help you make the right decisions. When looking at solutions, it is also very important to look closely at the company who is selling them. Are they financially stable? Do they have a growth plan of their own, and does it track your needs? Do they have a history of delivering innovative solutions, keeping them up to date and well supported? Are they someone who you can trust to be there and work with you for the long haul, or are they in it for short-term gain?  We will get into this much deeper in future articles, when we start to look at how you can begin to evaluate your choices in each area.

How can you get from here to there, and still maintain flexibility for the unexpected?

First of all, it is important to realize that you don’t need to attack the whole plan at one time. That’s why creating future workflow maps similar to the current maps previously discussed are also critical. The process of creating these future workflow maps helps you identify the benefits, visualize the tasks ahead, gauge your progress, and identify the best pieces to attack and in which order. During your investigations, you will undoubtedly find some “low hanging fruit,” things that can be addressed quickly, easily, and with minimal expense. They should be identified and evaluated for immediate action. Even if these do not find their way into the final plan, they are likely to offer some significant short-term gain, or just help show the staff that you are serious about change. In any transformation, the technology and processes are usually fairly easy to implement; getting the staff on board and working with you is always the tougher part. So being sensitive to this, and establishing a top down directive from the beginning, is another key to a successful transformation. 

In the next article in the series, we will look at business and production infrastructures, and some of the products and services that can be used to develop a forward thinking infrastructure. If you have any topics you think are important and would like us to cover, please let us know!

 

You can contact David via email at david@zwang.com.

David Zwang travels around the globe helping companies increase their productivity, margins and market reach. He specializes in production optimization, strategic business planning, market analysis, and related services to companies in the vertical media communications market. Clients have included printers, manufacturers, retailers, publishers, premedia and US Government agencies,.

David Zwang is available for consulting projects and speaking engagements. To get more information contact us.

Please offer your feedback to David. He can be reached at david@zwang.com.

 

Discussion

By Michael Jahn on Jan 08, 2013

Wow. It seems like that diagram was designed before web2print and storefront driven workflows. Many of our PressWise customers design the templates that their customer use to create and inject artwork into their print system, so there is no 'preflight' requirement, as the editable elements of that template are hard wired to generate prepress ready PDF files, and the business data part of the order ( bill to, ship to, quantity, what paper, what finishing tasks ) come in directly to the Print MIS system with all that is required for print production.

Looking forward to future articles and diagrams that include things like APIs !

 

By David L. Zwang on Jan 08, 2013

The "basic workflow" diagram doesn't really reflect many lower level tasks. Constrained design, as you identified, doesn't require preflight. But what % of print production is realistically a target for constrained design? APIs are undoubtedly an increasing requirement, as are the need for 'real' standards that allow for blind integration to disparate systems and workflows.

I absolutely plan to get into the 'weeds' with this series, and look forward to your input...

 

By John Clifford on Jan 08, 2013

Good start to an interesting (to me at least) subject. I understood that the workflow diagram is VERY rudimentary. However, it's easy to get caught up by getting too granular and missing the overview. I always liked a simple diagram with sub-diagrams for the individual steps along the way.

I think you'll find that there are many more "decision" boxes (yes/no with potential cycling) than are noted in this overview article.

I look forward to future articles.

 

By Thomas Smith on Jan 16, 2013

David, I agree with the questions you have asked..However, the CEO or owner needs to ask this first..Can I trust my IT leadership and organization to be honest with the current state so I may get to the desired state? Experience tells us no. Too many small and medium sized operations have IT leadership that has little interest in making a change to the technologies and infrastructure they put into place or the one they inherited. Why? Too much work to move off a legacy system that relies on people to push buttons and pull levers to move work from the customer through to invoicing using old code. Furthermore, these systems have been "refined" to serve too many specific client needs...meaning the clinet ask and IT said yes without understanding the downstream impact.

 

By David L. Zwang on Jan 16, 2013

Thomas..you raise an interesting issue. I guess the first question would be; what is the role of the IT leadership in the organization? Normally IT should be in a supportive role to the business and production processes. The ultimate determination of workflows should be determined by the stakeholders in each of those areas, in consultation with others inside, and outside the organization if necessary.

Granted the IT staff may have a more intimate knowledge of the support structure, and I have seen some cases where they even use that knowledge as a way to hold on to a level of power in an organization. Although this isn't and shouldn't be the norm. Ultimately, building a complex IT infrastructure doesn't necessarily translate to efficient processes.

 

By Thomas Smith on Jan 18, 2013

...."even use that knowledge as a way to hold on to a level of power in an organization." I agree completely. And I'll make the assertion this is the norm in certain markets. Is this the norm in in Multi-channel marketing services...no...you have to have the good tech to get the job done. However, in transactional print, you can have old, antiquated, limited tech and still get the job done. What you cannot do is get "other" work from the client becasue you don't have the tech and you end up losing what you have.

 

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