By Carro Ford One important consideration for achieving better workflow management is to understand which aspects that may not be in your control. September 7, 2004 -- Even if you think your shop doesn't "do workflow," the processes you use to produce documents probably fit the definition used by somebody somewhere. Acknowledged or not, every commercial printing operation has some sort of workflow, at least to my way of looking at things. It's simply the process of getting jobs done. The difference is some shops have raised workflow to an art form, but there's no reason you, too, can't create a workflow masterpiece. It's a matter of taking a close, hard look at your processes, and documenting, mapping, measuring, and changing for a better, faster, smarter workflow. today's workflow model is anything but simple, however. The growth and evolution of the digital document world have expanded the concept for printers, and thanks to the many tools available to them, workflow can now include design, production, finishing, delivery and fulfillment. "Sound workflow management can help commercial printers and service bureaus differentiate themselves from their competitors. It also helps customers look at print as more than just a commodity," says Mark M. Fallon, president and CEO of The Berkshire Company (www.berkshire-company.com/), an independent management consulting firm specializing in print and mail services in Sharon, Massachusetts. "Workflow management is the first step in process improvement. You can't improve what you do until you know what you're doing. Mapping out your workflow will reveal what you need to enhance." The Workflow Roadmap When trying to map workflow, start with what you know, says Fallon -- your shop and the completed product -- then work backwards and forwards. He offers these questions as starting points: What equipment was the piece created on? Why did you choose that piece of equipment? How was the job created? Why did the operator choose that method? How was the job received? Why was the customer's file in a certain format? "Follow the path to the beginning, asking both how -- the process -- and why -- the decision point. Involve everyone in the exercise -- customers, operators, customer service and partners," Fallon recommends. "Final delivery to the consumer must be considered as well. Are you going to use the U.S. Postal Service or one of their competitors? Will the material be drop-shipped? Can the product be printed in several locations to speed delivery (distribute and print)? After drafting the process map, allow people to make comments and corrections. Then hold a joint meeting, so that everyone understands everyone else's involvement." Measure and Treasure The biggest myth about workflow is that it is built around straight-line processing. The other key issue is metrics. "Establishing a system to measure production takes time, but it is critical if you are serious about success," explains Fallon, adding, "Peter Drucker, the great management guru, once said, 'If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.' But don't just measure and leave it at that. Use the data. Review the metrics on a regular basis. Data sitting in files doesn't add value." Indeed, if you go to all the trouble of gathering it, don't procrastinate about using the information to improve your operation. One important consideration for achieving better workflow management is to understand which aspects that may not be in your control. "You don't have to be a designer or a mailing expert, but you do have to understand those issues, and be able to talk with experts in those areas," Fallon says. "Build a network of professionals and take a team approach to projects. Don't be afraid to ask for help. It's a sign of intelligence!" Build Workflow Around Your Customers Perhaps the biggest myth about workflow is that it is built around straight-line processing. According to Fallon, "Communication with customers isn't a straight-line process, but a cycle. Companies create documents to cause an action by their customers. It may be a poster advertising an event (action: buy tickets). It may be a direct mail piece (action: visit website, order product). And after the customer completes the action, the company will take another action, repeating the cycle." In developing their workflow, printers need to think outside their shops, and integrate themselves into the customer's communication cycle. Printers need to understand where they fit in the cycle, and how they can help their customer improve the communication cycle. "While commercial printers and service bureaus don't have to be designers, they need to be involved in the design stage," he explains. "What does the customer want the document to do? How can the printer's tools (e.g., digital color, VIP, etc.) help the customer deliver their message?" It's not just raised awareness that has made workflow such an interesting area. Vendors have also raised the stakes with new and enhanced technology that takes workflow to a whole new level. While production has always been the central focus, the new tools impact and even add other points on the workflow continuum. For example, technology to allow online proofing is now readily available and adds a new dimension to commercial printing workflow. How would online proofs impact your processes? "Finishing has always been important, but with the explosion of intelligent inserting and advanced tracking, it is now a critical step that impacts the printer," notes Fallon. "Is there room for a barcode? What about 2D barcodes and glyphs? Personalization is more than just having my name on a piece of paper." Getting work quickly from point A to point B isn't the only reason for workflow management and process improvement. "Strategy is the key word," declares Fallon. " In developing their workflow, printers need to think outside their shops, and integrate themselves into the customer's communication cycle. This transforms them from a vendor to a true business partner." And that's a process worth following.