I recently had the chance to attend PIA’s annual Continuous Improvement Conference (my employer, SGIA, was a co-sponsor of the event), and among the many kernels of information I left Indianapolis with was the concept that innovation and efficiency go hand-in-hand.

Regardless of print process used, market served or product area addressed, efficiency—and the drive to improve the business on a continuous basis—is a critical step toward business success. While there are many formal approaches to continuous improvement—5S, Kaizen, Lean Manufacturing, and the like—the basic concept comes down to something astoundingly simple: plan, do, check, act. This can be restated as: decide what you need to do, do it, see if it worked, make adjustments, then do it all again. By undertaking these simple steps, doors to process efficiency, improved product quality, improved workflow, reduced waste, and improved profitability can result.

In the production printing that keeps wide-format producers operating in the black, one primary goal should be on strong, carefully controlled outcomes: knowing the result even before you start the process. While wide-format inkjet has significantly fewer process variables than, say, traditional offset or screen printing, it still has variables: color challenges, media/materials challenges, finishing processes, all of which can derail any well-intentioned project and directly affect profitability. Controlling these variables—truly taking variability out of the process—results in what Donald Rumsfeld once referred to as “known knowns.”

While so much of continuous improvement is about making sure you carefully evaluate, adjust, and control your process, innovation is also a critical step toward success in today’s wide-format business, where differentiation is critical and developing something unique for your customers can bring strong opportunity. It’s also about using materials, labor, press time, and more to determine if something will work. But innovation is messy. Simply put, its outcomes are at best uncertain, and in some cases unknown.

So how, then, do we take the “messy” process of innovation and apply it to the orderly, well-defined footpaths of day-to-day production printing? Certainly not by doing it on paying jobs.  “In too many wide-format operations,” said one conference attendee, “printers act as though they can take numerous tries to get the job right, and it adds a great deal of cost to a lot of jobs.” This attendee made a great point that speaks to the dividing line between production and innovation.

At another conference a couple of years ago, I was speaking with a wide-format graphics business owner about how his business came to be, and how they used product innovation to further their business. “When we first bought our flatbed inkjet printer,” he said, “we invested some production time to running different materials through the machine to see what would work and what wouldn’t.” To me, the critical word in this quote is “invested.” The company invested valuable print time toward experimentation, with the goal of expanding their product reach. The investment has indeed paid off: the company today serves a unique niche, working with architects and interior designers to create custom environmental graphics for hospitals, offices, and other public and private spaces.

While innovation can be about many things, it should not be about chaos. It should instead focus on planning to try something out, learning from your failures, then taking steps to make things right—just another way of saying plan, do check, act. Testing and experimentation should be a part of a broader plan, and not a daily quest for serendipity. In fact, for those companies that need two or three tries to get even the most basic jobs right, a little less “innovation” (either real or perceived) should give way to improvement. Bleeding money is not a step forward!

For the more than 10 years since wide-format inkjet burst on the display graphics scene, wide-format producers have enjoyed some of the highest margins in the printing industry—a reality not lost on the myriad commercial printers who are looking to wide-format as a process that can bolster their bottom lines and help them combat strong commoditization. Yet, strong margins will not last forever, and some of the most common product areas served by wide-format producers are already becoming commoditized.

This calls for a three-pronged attack: improve, innovate, repeat. Wide-format producers should get their processes in order as soon as possible. By doing so, they will be able to take advantage of today’s strong margins and prepare themselves for inevitable downward pressure on prices. They will also allow themselves the room they need to invest in innovation as a planned part of their business approach, and to benefit from the strong benefits that innovation can bring.