Be lean: reduce waste, improve margins, sell more

How to make continuous improvement part of your business strategy

With this article we begin a four-part series on lean manufacturing for printers. Our first installment focuses on implementing a sales and continuous-improvement culture in your company. In subsequent articles, we’ll look at how lean principles can improve your prepress and project management, logistics and administration, and press and finishing areas.

In an increasingly competitive printing market, you, as a printer, can benefit by making lean practices an integral part of your business strategy. It’s one of the best opportunities to increase margins on existing work and significantly reduce the burden on people and resources, while freeing up plant capacity. Trying to raise prices might well lose an account, but providing better service and a higher-quality product through standard work and automation can actually protect that account from competitors.

The world of lean manufacturing may seem overwhelming at first because there are several aligned philosophies that can confuse the conversation: Lean Six Sigma; The Toyota Way; Agile; Total Quality Management; Lean Manufacturing; Lean Services; and more. But, common to them all is the objective of improving operations by eliminating waste: kaizen. Kaizen is simply the Japanese word for improvement. When presented as a business culture, it communicates to other companies that you are dedicated to continuous improvement. This culture of continuous improvement includes the whole value stream of a given product, all the way from initial customer contact to delivery. Companies with a kaizen culture share a common language, meaning two such companies, working in concert, can integrate to create new value with relative ease.

One fundamental kaizen exercise is called Value Stream Mapping (VSM). In this exercise, we explore all the processes involved in creating a product, for the purpose of identifying waste. The goal of a VSM is to summarize the current state of operations, set a vision for the future state, group and prioritize waste, and develop a strategy to eliminate that waste. Waste is a drain on margins, resources, and capacity, and can also impact employee morale and your customers’ experience. Waste is found throughout the value stream but at the originating point it can be particularly costly as it tends to trickle down and affect subsequent inventory points. For print manufacturers, VSM exercises consistently identify the ideation and sales functions as significant targets for waste reduction.

Reduce touch-points in the ideation process

Ideation is a function that generally rests with the customer and agency side of the value stream, but improvements here can have significant financial impact for the customer and operational impact for the printer. Time to Market (TTM) is a metric that measures the length of time it takes from conceiving a product or service to making it available for sale. For most brands—your clients—reducing the amount of waste in this area is a priority and if you can help them do it, you can solidify your relationship and encourage your client to spend more with you. If you get involved early in the creative process you can help guide some of the creative development. This can result in a much more consultative—read higher value—sale, an improved product, a correspondingly better result for the customer, fewer downstream errors and less waste.

Ideation solutions for the print industry range from traditional technologically simple, high-touch, customer relationship management (CRM), to advanced ideation portals with high-security Data Asset Management (DAM), workflow management, automated proofing, ongoing automated preflighting, version tracking, approval notification and tracking, and, when integrated into an MIS/ERP system, automated estimating and build of materials.

Most printers are still working in a high-touch world with perhaps an FTP site and a manual email-based estimating and approvals process. Those who have taken an incremental step toward a business-to-business (B2B) web portal find that they eliminate a significant number of errors, reduce motion—the unnecessary movement of any element in the value chain—and save time. However, this move alone does little to improve a customer’s efficiency and, consequently, many printers report difficulty in getting their customers to use the B2B web portals consistently.

An ideation portal is an effective tool for any customer to reduce their time to market and accelerate their approvals process. Customers use the site to engage everyone engaged in the project: files can be annotated, approved, or rejected; versions can be updated and authenticated; quotes and proofs can be quickly obtained; and fully approved projects can be submitted with a mouse click. In many cases, projects can also be tracked from submission through to shipping. Most importantly, this can all be done remotely and at the convenience of the stakeholder.

Make the sales process more efficient

Arguably, by necessity the sales function is another high-touch element of the print value stream. Successful e-commerce platforms aside, this industry is largely relationship driven. However, the average printer’s sales practices can be rife with waste due to waiting, too much travel, errors, and over-processing. Again, waste incurred in these steps can lead to greater waste downstream in the cycle. In recent VSM exercises it’s been common to see requests for quotes rejected three or more times, on average, due to inconsistent inputs.

These requests arrive by phone, email, text messages, face-to-face conversations, and the ubiquitous back of a napkin. One of the driving principles of kaizen is: The right process will produce the right results. This is to say that if we use standard work, we will get standard results and problems will quickly become apparent. While printers may argue that they have trouble driving new business to their portals, they should not have trouble driving their salesforce to a sales portal. Once again, the caveat is that the portal needs to provide some clear benefit to the user.

The above ideation portals might be overkill for a sales portal, but if a printer has an ideation portal, it can also be configured as an online ordering system for the salesforce. Order forms can be designed to validate inputs or even prefill fields for certain types of jobs. It would essentially become an ideation portal for ad hoc projects for smaller clients. This will ensure that the estimating department gets everything it needs to make an accurate estimate. If integrated to an MIS system, the portal may be able to auto-generate some estimates. The effect of a system like this would be to reduce the number of human touch points, improve the quality of quotes, reduce the turnaround time on quotes, improve job submission to prepress and CRM, and create an audit trail for each job submitted.

Abbott Action in action

Abbott Action, a corrugated manufacturer with digital capabilities in New England, has a strong kaizen culture. Despite being a highly efficient Kanban manufacturer, a VSM exercise identified several opportunities for improvement in their ideation and sales areas. By implementing an ideation platform for key customers and also using it as an order portal for their salesforce, Abbott has been able to significantly reduce waste. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the impact of the portal on our customers and staff.” says Chuck Slingerland, vice president of sales at Abbott Action. “Our clients appreciate the agility that the portals provide, they are able to get through their approvals more quickly, and our communication starts much earlier in the creative cycle. Our sales staff is adapting well to the new tools and we’re seeing increasing utilization as they come to understand how easy and efficient they are. We can see the ideation portal with its connection to our MIS system evolving into a very effective B2B e-commerce tool.”

“The VSM exercise helped us recognize that our focus had largely been on manufacturing efficiencies but there was still room for improvement in other elements of the value stream,” continues Sam Abbott, CEO of Abbott Action, “Many manufacturing efficiencies we wanted to realize were actually dependent on upstream tasks. Better quality inputs are, not surprisingly, yielding better results!”

Kaizen is a culture not a single exercise, so the processes and tools will continue to evolve but clearly ideation and sales are important components to monitor and improve in an efficient and profitable print business.