By John Giles A number of printing companies take a "hands off' approach to their prepress departments. July 1, 2005 -- Should the production manager be in charge of the prepress department? I recently wrote an article recommending production managers be in this role because I believe someone has to be in charge of the entire production process to properly schedule work to maintain a smooth workflow and assure delivery dates are met. The reason I suggested out the prepress department was because a number of printing companies take a "hands off' approach to their prepress departments. Work goes directly from sales and customer service to prepress where it is prepared for production. The production manager doesn't even know the job is in the shop until it comes out of prepress. When that happens, other production departments come under the gun to meet the promised delivery date. Some times these situations create overtime or missed deadlines. Conflicts are created between the prepress department and other departments as to who was at fault for the production problems. Striking a nerve This idea struck a nerve with several prepress people who wrote saying they didn't think the production manager could properly manage prepress. "The first obvious problem in the lack of knowledge," said one reader. " How can the production manager correct [prepress] pricing problems if they have no knowledge about how long it would take us to do a job? How are they going to get us the information we need from the sales staff if they have no idea what information we need? How are they going to schedule the prepress department if they have no clue as to how long a job is going to take? How is a production manager going to answer questions for the sales staff if they don't have any knowledge of the job prepress does?" I have to agree. Lack of prepress knowledge by a production manager would greatly hamper his or her ability to effectively manage the prepress workflow. Yet when the writer asks the questions, he has provided an excellent outline as to what the production manager needs to know to help make the life of the prepress staff easier. And it raises the key issue of pricing prepress work, which has always been an issue for prepress departments. Some companies price prepress functions based on the time it takes to do a task. Others price on the value of the work. I propose that a printing company price based on value of the task rather on time. I propose that a printing company price based on value of the task rather on time. If a prepress person can complete the task in less than the budgeted time because of newer, faster equipment or their special skills, then the prepress department has made more money for the company. If all pricing is done based on the time the task takes, then any improvements in production are passed on directly to the customer without the company profiting. Since many of the tasks are common, a value price can be assigned for selling purposes. Communication is Key There is still the question of how long will it take a prepress person to perform a task. The production manager should quickly learn the standard times for standard tasks by working closely with the prepress staff. Any orders that don't fit into the standard task times can be treated as exceptions and handled accordingly. The production manager can learn the answers by communicating with the prepress staff. How long should it take to produce a business card? Or an 8-page newsletter? How long should it take to output plates for a full-color order? The prepress staff can give the production manager the time estimates for the different tasks so he or she will know how long things will take within the prepress department. The production manager should meet daily with the prepress department to review the progress of current jobs and the status of the day's work. Then, as the production manager enters jobs into prepress production during the day, he or she can review the status of current orders, learning the time required to produce the work already in, and schedule new work accordingly. If work needs to be shuffled to meet customer requirements, the production manager can discuss the scheduling changes with the prepress staff and know how the changes will affect the entire schedule. Standards Essential "How are they going to get us the information we need from the sales staff if they have no idea what information we need?" If each order is treated as unique, then it becomes impossible to schedule or price effectively. Usually the lack of information comes when accepting a customer-created digital file. The printing company should have a list of what standard software applications are supported, how graphics and photos are handled, the requirements for color, and procedures for dealing with fonts. Everyone in the company should know what the standards for customer-created files are. It is up to the production manager to review the orders and make sure that the necessary information is provided. If the information isn't there, then the production manager needs to allow more time for the prepress staff to work with the order and make sure a higher price has been assigned to cover the costs of the additional time. If a production manager doesn't know what information the prepress staff needs, then it becomes obvious there are no standards for prepress work within the organization. If each order is treated as unique, then it becomes impossible to schedule or price effectively. Since most printers do certain kinds of jobs over and over, standards can be established to make sure the prepress people are getting the information they need. There are no "bad" files if the cost of fixing the files are covered. You have a "bad" file when you lose money getting the file to print. Most issues with customer-created files deal from the fact that the estimated price isn't enough to cover the cost of the prepress person playing "digital detective" and trying to figure out the file is. There are no "bad" files if the cost of fixing the files are covered. You have a "bad" file when you lose money getting the file to print. Learning the tools "How is a production manager going to answer questions for the sales staff if they don't have any knowledge of the job prepress does?" The production manager is trainable. Most production managers come to the position from a production job. Many were press operators. They know the printing process. All they need to do is learn the tools. There are plenty of resources available. Online classes, trade show seminars, and industry publications offer training solutions. Although the production manager can be trained to answer the questions relating to the standards, most production managers will never have the depth of knowledge that a prepress person has. The prepress person is the company's expert in prepress. The production manager will be using the prepress person's expertise to answer more technical questions. This may mean talking with the sales person or the customer. This may mean customer training. It will be up to the production manager on how best to use prepress' services to meet the production demands. How much time would be a prepress person save each day if he wasn't being interrupted with the question from a sales person, "How long will it take you to do this job?" Still, there will always be questions only the prepress person can answer. What the production manager should be doing is filtering the questions from the sales staff. How many times must a prepress person tell one of the sales staff, "Yes, we support Quark" or "We don't print RGB colors" or "Are the fonts included with the file?" If the production manager can make sure that the simple questions are addressed, then the prepress person can concentrate on answering more specific and difficult questions. How much time would be a prepress person save each day if he wasn't being interrupted with the question from a sales person, "How long will it take you to do this job?" The production manager is the prepress staff's biggest ally. He or she can protect the prepress staff from unnecessary interruptions. The production manager can assure time is available for the prepress staff to update software and maintain equipment and archives. The production manager can help assure that the work begin done by the prepress staff is being charged to the customer and all costs are being covered. The production manager is the captain of the production team and the prepress staff is an important part of the team. Working together, they can keep the work flowing smoothly.