The sixth annual InterQuest conference targeting government and higher education in-plant printers was held November 30 at the Omni Shoreham in Washington DC with less than 100 in attendance. Digital printing, electronic workflows, and in-plant case studies of successful technology and management transitions often involving newly hired, experienced private sector employees were the reenforced themes of the forum.

Keynote speaker William Boarman, newly appointed Public Printer and CEO of the US Government Printing Office, emphasized the new role of the GPO as the “(federal) government digital application platform.” While printing is a vital part of GPO’s mission, their evolving expertise and skills involves facilitating digital applications and services to enhance access to public information for the benefit of government users and all citizens.

In his brief 11 months in office, which will end January 1, 2012 if the Republicans don’t approve this Obama appointment, Boarman cited a number of GPO accomplishments. One of which involved an emphasis upon receiving payments from overdue chargebacks. In the private sector vernaculor this means chasing accounts receivable to get paid for services rendered. While cash flow is not really an issue for any in-plant, the internal transfer of debits and credits is still essential.

Conversation with one attendee on this delayed chargeback issue was enlightening. He was a new federal government employee of only a couple of years with decades of experience in the private sector printing industry in both production and procurement. As a newbe, one of his first assignments was getting old GPO chargebacks approved for payment by his Agency. Some bills were literally seven years old. Apparently most of his fellow agency colleagues were aware that if the buying agency does not object to a printed piece within 90 days of delivery, there is no recourse against the printer.

Acceptability of the printed piece rarely seemed to be the issue. The often unspoken concern was that delay of payment was among the few recourses available to clients who are unhappy with GPO’s customer service. While Mr. Boarman mentioned numerous examples of satisfied federal clients in his address, it seems the underlying current included the opposite sentiment as well. This is no game. It must be corrected.

Where can the large and unique GPO go to get candid, constructive critique on any of its systems, procedures, or processes such as customer service? Printers of all sizes in the private sector turn to benchmarking their peers and specifically often the recognized leaders performing nearly identical processes.

Who Could the GPO Benchmark Their Processes Against?

One of the difficulties of all print managers – inplant and private sector alike – has always been to find credible sources, i.e., same or extremely similar process(es) to compare, measure, and observe firsthand for the purpose of self evaluation and improvement. Before proceeding with a potential “who,” it is vital for the GPO staff, management team, and operators to acknowledge (1) we’ve got a problem, (2) others seem to have resolved similar problems, (3) what can I learn from other practitioner(s) that can be applied in our operation to help improve our situation? If this basic human buy-in isnotconfirmed, much time and effort will be wasted when the participants submit their final report saying, “these guys aren’t like us at all and therefore their solutions won’t solve our problems for these many reasons.”

For years the “I’m unique” excuse seemed to hold water for the GPO print procurement entity as no one else was buying hundreds of millions of dollars a year in printing throughout the country. That is up until now.

Innerworkings, founded during this past decade, has grown to be purchasing over $600 million annually of printing and graphic services for hundreds if not thousands of corporate clients. Among their several distinctive competances is a proprietary software system, trademarked as PPM4, that allows clients to interface via their Internet browser to arrive at well written specifications and ultimately access to thousands of printers.

These printers access the INWK portal to review RFQs for specifications that meet their capabilities. Plus PPM4 actually earmarks a series of printers whose proven capabilities align with the specfications issued. Free enterprise results, as it does with the GPO’s procurement system, in extremely low prices being bid by these printers.

I do not know if Innerworkings would be willing to serve as a benchmark for the GPO’s print procurement model. Here is an example of how this benchmarking project might be organized tobenefit both firmsand ultimately the Federal Government Agency clients of the GPO.

Hypothetical Benchmarking Process Between INWK & GPO

Ideally there would be 3-4 federal agency clients of GPO, who would be willing to put at least a half million dollars each worth of their own jobs in the INWK system to be benchmarked against the GPO system over a 6-9 month time period. Once placed with INWK vendors, each subsequent step should by mapped and measured for both organizations. This would include the client interfacing steps as well. The $1.5-2.0 million pool in the benchmarking package would hopefully be economic incentive enough for INWK to welcome the benchmarking trial. The number of jobs across twenty of more print product specialty catagories would provide statistically valid sampling for the project.

The annual S and M contracts maybe excluded initially since the project should not need to be over that duration of time. Each individual GPO “Jacket” could be submitted to both the GPO network of vendors and the INWK network with the job being awarded to the lowest qualified vendor. The first benchmarking measure would be which system delivers the lowest price.

A few additional basic questions would help establish the benchmarking parameters and objectives:

1)   What is the relative price differential by various product catagories between INWK & GPO?

2)   How many employees are involved in each phase of the different processes for the two procurement giants? Why the differential?

3)   How does INWK measure the effectiveness of their various customer service people, teams, and processes? Could any such methodologies be replicated either in the GPO regional offices or the Central Office?

4)   If the INWK PPM4 is recognized as being superior to the GPO’s proprietary software system for any of the various product catagories, could the GPO license PPM4 from INWK? (Considering that the life blood of the GPO is the commission revenue generated by their procurement service the alternative of outsourcing print procurement to INWK is recognized as not being a practical option.)

Other considerations for maximum future buy in by all stackholders of the results and potential improvements derived from this benchmarking exercise might be;

  • Representatives of the Interagency Council on Printing and Publications Services should be active members of the committee monitoring this on-going benchmarking project. The ICPPS is comprised of nearly 50 federal agency clients of the GPO, whose goals include developing recommendations to help the GPO provide efficient, effective, and economical services.
  • There are several other Internet-based print procurement services that claim to have proprietary software and an unbeatable database of hungry private sector printers. To compare them with INWK would be a waste of the GPO’s time, unless of course INWK did not want to participate. The reason is simply that none of them have the economy of scale as reflected by their annual revenues to be on par with the GPO’s procurement effort.
  • Should a final conclusion be that it would be advantageous to the GPO and its clients to license the PPM4 then this INWK software should naturally be compared against the other print procurement software offerings available.

Production Benchmarking Opportunities

 It was learned during the conference that a couple of years ago the GPO installed a second passport production plant in Stennis, Mississippi that has identical equipment and technology to the GPO’s North Capital Street passport entity. While the original DC plant has total backup of equipment in every single production process, this southeastern plant provides the State Department with universal backup andgeographicduplicity for this valuable and security conscious production entity.

 An unexpected benefit of the Mississippi enterprise is the production benchmarking opportunity for the GPO passport teams. This is an apples to apples comparison of productivity, efficiency, spoilage control, and actual per unit costs for producing the exact same product with the same equipment, technology, and presumably workflows in the two different plants.

It would be interesting for a future InterQuest Forum to have a presentation by GPO on what they learned from such benchmarking and how this on-going measurement process is helping each sibling plant to improve for the benefit of the client, the taxpayers, and the employees.

Other GPO production processes could be benchmarked against the dynamic benchmarking database available to the National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL) members. It is understood that NAPL is eager to include more of its in-plant members into this benchmarking database. They have indicated that they are even open to including additional dashboard criteria should there be any that in-plant members find unique to their segment of the industry.

 Part II of this InterQuest Conference article will highlight case studies of transformations of government in-plants. An underlying thread of commonality in many of these successful transitions is the hiring of experienced personnel from the private sector.