Be Lean: reduce waste, improve margins, sell more

How to make continuous improvement part of your business strategy

This is the second article in a four-part series on lean manufacturing for printers. This installment focuses on wastes found in the project management and prepress areas. In the final two articles, we’ll look at how lean principles can improve your logistics, administration, press, and finishing.

In our first installment of this series we explored the opportunities that exist in refining our ideation and sales processes. One of two things occur whenever a resource is used on a project: it adds value or it generates waste. By paring down activities that generate waste and improving activities that generate value, we can profit more from the work we do. Waste and errors that occur in early phases can cascade throughout a value stream. By not tending to those first, you’re left with inconsistent inputs that, predictably, can be the source of unpredictable outputs. Once we have developed consistent processes for the ways in which jobs are developed and submitted, we can take a hard look at the production process itself.

We’ll explore three wastes in prepress and project management:  waiting, defects, and overprocessing.


Whether it happens at the estimate stage or the time of sale, the hand-off of a job to the CSR is a significant source of delay. Usually this is because of faulty inputs: there is insufficient information, the quality of the inputs is in question, or there is poor communication with stakeholders. The CSR may need to be aware of specific approval criteria for each customer and those approvals may all be given in different ways. Sales reps may all have different ways of submitting information and they may not be available when the CSR reaches out to them for clarification.

In the hand-off from the CSR to prepress, significant delays can happen when a file is not suitable for print, or some crucial element is missing. Due to inventory backlog, this can sometimes develop into an embarrassing situation where, having had the job in-house for a few weeks, the CSR only requests the corrections in the days before a production run.


Frequently, defects are uncovered during the preflight/proofing stage. Therefore, the earlier in the production process this occurs, the less waste will be incurred. Unfortunately, it can be a continuous process with some projects, as customers refine their needs and make changes. When several versions are introduced to the production cycle before a final production version is arrived at, defects multiply.

Defects also plague the inputs: Is the production date achievable? Are the spot colours called out correctly? Has the job been properly approved? Is the substrate correct? Is the construction viable for its purpose and environment?


Overprocessing in project management is often the result of unnecessary touches and poor communication. With no simple access to a single source of truth, stakeholders keep verifying and validating, which wastes time and effort. Additionally, in order to create the illusion of process, projects may be filtered through inappropriate structures, such as overly complicated order forms or cumbersome approval procedures. Superfluous touches are an anathema to lean print production.

While it’s unlikely that one master process can govern everything a plant does, it is likely that three to five standard value streams can be adapted to most of the work a plant does and, when connected to downstream processes, can mitigate much of the waste associated with waiting, defects, and, overprocessing.

In a recent exercise, we established that CSRs at a large commercial printer that does myriad complicated projects were spending an average of 240 minutes per project from the sales hand-off to the shipping. Much of this time was spent chasing down information, using a half dozen different communication methods. We predicted that, by implementing an ideation portal linked to their automation-enabled platform, they could eliminate enough waste to reduce that time to 60 minutes per project by the end of the second year.

Prepress automation

To combat overprocessing waste, most printing companies have embraced some elements of prepress automation by now, and the extent of their automation predicts their overall efficiency. Some simply use a manually operated preflighting tool; with the best-in-class plants, the vast majority of files are able to pass through the production process with little intervention. This distinction can impact in large part the profitability of a job.

Historically, workflow tools have tended to be challenging to customize and are evolving into or are being replaced with automation platforms. Experienced automation platform users may have a few dozen standard process streams that they have customized into hundreds of customer-oriented sequences. With this approach they’re able to develop and modify workflows specific to the customer requirements and standards. Printers who formerly felt that their work was too complex to automate are able to do so with relative ease.

In best-in-class automated plants, a file is uploaded through the portal, and a preflighted PDF proof with validation and specifications is returned for approval within a few minutes, with no physical intervention. This can prevent time wasted on waiting, overprocessing, and defects. The result is better customer service at a lower cost of production and increased production capacity.

Automating prepress production is especially important for adopters of digital printing presses. Accompanying the economies of short-run production are the logistical challenges of significantly more runs per shift. When a digital production device is brought into a shop, it’s not uncommon for prepress to become a significant margin-draining inventory point (bottleneck). Automated prepress can bolster margins on those increasingly complex and competitive jobs.

In the end, automating your prepress workflows and connecting them to your customer ideation portal can significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to produce a project. This will reduce stress on your employees and systems, increase productivity and capacity, and increase the profitability of projects. At the same time it affects the eighth waste, capability. Customer service representatives can dedicate more time to customer relationships and service, while prepress operators can focus on the truly challenging projects and work with sales to develop better customer solutions.

“Today’s production tools and platforms allow us to create highly efficient, lights-out production environments for our clients,” says Marc Raad, executive vice president at Significans Automation, a professional services company that specializes in creating integrated graphic production environments. “The automated ecosystems we develop are agile, deploy rapidly, and serve to eliminate a good portion of downstream waste.”

Lean printing should be seen as a cultural transformation, not an efficiency exercise. By building a flexible production platform, you’ll make it easier to evolve with the industry and your customers’ needs while remaining competitive. By embedding a lean culture in your operation, you’ll ensure that your competitive edge is maintained.