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Commentary & Analysis

No Time for Automation? Try Lean

You may not be able to make a commitment to implement full workflow automation, but this does not mean you should write off workflow efficiency gains entirely. Why not try going lean instead? This printer did.

By Heidi Tolliver-Walker
Published: May 30, 2017

In this industry, we’ve been focused on automated workflow for some time, but on the ground, automation has been a stop and start process. End-to-end workflow is rare, and while many printers are implementing limited automation for specific areas of their workflows, it is vastly underutilized.

Let’s face it. Automation offers real bottom-line benefits, but there are challenges, too. (See previous post on this topic here.) If you cannot make the level of commitment necessary to reap significant benefits of workflow automation, does this mean you should write off workflow efficiency gains entirely? Not at all. Trying going lean.

Lean is a process whereby printers look at all aspects of their workflow and identify ways to remove inefficiency. It uses the 5S system: sorting, setting in order, shining, standardizing, and sustaining, and the results fall into many of the same categories as workflow automation, including increased efficiency, reduced costs, and more productivity, just for different reasons.  Sometimes this involves making software or hardware investments, but often it doesn't.

At home, we do this all the time without realizing it.  For example, I unwittingly implemented lean principles in our coffee area recently. I got tired of running all over the kitchen in search of my morning java, so I emptied out the cabinet over the coffee maker, relocated the items in it, then took the coffee and filters from the pantry and the coffee mugs from the glassware cabinet and consolidated them into one location directly above the coffeemaker. By doing so, I removed time and inefficiency from the process. We do the same thing in our printing operations. When we do, we also remove cost. That’s lean.

One company that is in the process of putting this into action is The Standard Group (Reading, PA). It decided to implement lean in response to the demand from its customers for continual improvements in the print process without an increase in price.  “The mantra is that you can have two things — great quality, great service, or great price — but you can’t have all three,” says Thanh Nguyen, CMO of the Standard Group. “However, our customers are demanding all three. It’s hard to do that without optimizing the way we do business internally.”

The Standard Group’s early efforts in lean have already yielded tangible results.

The Standard Group began using lean principles in its postpress division, starting with the stitcher, followed by handwork and folders. By taking steps such as sorting out the tools the operators use most on the stitcher, placing those tools within arm’s reach, moving non-essential items to a new location, and having the manufacturer upgrade and replace old components of the machine, The Standard Group was able to improve average run speeds by almost 800 pieces an hour. With further enhancements, it plans additional gains of 100 pieces per hour.

Rather than employees being worried about the security of their jobs (which many people associate with going lean), Nguyen has actually seen an uptick in morale as a result of these efforts.  “The feedback from employees has been phenomenal,” he says. “The main focus of lean is to eliminate waste and make everyone’s job more efficient. As a result, employees gain a cleaner and more organized work environment, and it's easier and faster for them to find things, so they are less frustrated. If there is a rush job that has to go out, they aren’t scrambling around, looking for tools or other things they need.”

The Standard Group is now working through the rest of the facility and hopes to have the process completed within the next year or so.

Have you implemented lean in any areas of your facility? What were the results?

Heidi Tolliver-Walker Heidi is an industry analyst specializing in digital, one-to-one, personalized URL, and Web-to-print applications. Her Marketer’s Primer Series, availalbe through Digital Printing Reports, includes “Digital Printing: Transforming Business and Marketing Models,” 1:1 (Personalized) Printing: Boosting Profits Through Relevance,” “Personalized URLs: Beyond the Hype,” and “Web-to-Print: Transforming Document Management and Marketing.”



By ben shaw on May 30, 2017

I have personally witnessed significantly improved throughput, quality, and culture since the beginning of our Lean journey, which started 3 years ago.

The basis of empowering your people is the key to success, along w motivation and ongoing communication.

My teams and I have completed hundreds of events and projects, which have transformed who we are and how we work today. You can easily see the results in our financials, both internal and external quality and in the drive of our teams.

I highly recommend becoming Lean.


By Jeff McEnaney on Jun 01, 2017

Lean tools applied selectively to process problems is a great way to start a Lean journey without the angst that typically accompanies big Lean initiatives. A small successful project like the one in the article will help ease the fear of change and create believers in the value of Lean.


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