Be lean: reduce waste, improve margins, sell more

How to make continuous improvement part of your business strategy

This is the third article a four-part series on lean manufacturing for printers. This installment focuses on wastes inherent to the press and finishing areas. In the last article, we’ll look at how to tie together the whole value stream creating a single source of truth that can be integrated to your clients.

Presses and finishing equipment tend to be the largest capital investment for any printing company. Consequently, a considerable amount of thought has gone into the efficiency and connectivity of the equipment. Most manufacturers have made investments in proprietary workflow systems which share information and, in many cases, automate processes based on that shared information. Bodies such as CIP3, the International Cooperation for Integration of Prepress, Press, and Postpress, and subsequently CIP4, International Cooperation for the Integration of Processes in Prepress, Press, and Postpress , have worked to develop open industry standards for process automation. These are based on Job Definition Format (JDF) and Job Messaging Format (JMF) standards. JMF is the protocol which allows machines to communicate production information back to the information systems platform which can then make decisions, initiate appropriate processes, or raise an alarm. 

Unfortunately, integration requirements can vary greatly depending on the needs of different equipment. This means that there is still no one common integration format for all devices and adding equipment may require additional investment.

Printers’ experiences with integration also vary greatly based on the products they manufacture, the manufacturers they align with, and the extent to which they’ve integrated their automation systems. Therefore, when conducting lean exercises, it’s difficult to identify areas of waste that are consistent among many plants. What is common to many, and what we’ll discuss in this article, are wastes related to organization and process flow. Like the other wastes we’ve discussed, these wastes have a direct impact on quality, productivity, and margin.  

The 5S organizational methodology

The 5S organizational methodology is a technique derived from the Toyota model which supports a lean manufacturing culture by creating standard practices and language at each work cell. 5S improves tactical efficiency while making it easier to identify issues when they occur. 

It can be easy to recognize a plant that uses 5S methodology and, after taking some time to familiarize yourself with their master production document, it’s very easy to understand what’s happening in the plant. The 5S system is a continuous cycle and relies upon a culture of open communication and collaboration from cell operators to line managers to administrative staff. 

Sort (Seiri)

The first S is Seiri, which we translate as Sort. The purpose of Seiri is to unclutter the work areas. Nothing that does not contribute to production is kept in a work area and those items that remain are generally kept in a proximity and position in keeping with the frequency of their use. 

In the printing industry, kaizen exercises continually expose work areas that are inundated with old proofs and mock ups, antiquated paperwork, tools that are no longer required, materials and supplies that may be needed at some point, and things for which either there is no home, or the home is deemed too inconvenient to return the items to. Clutter breeds waste – waste in time, waste in unnecessary motion, waste in excess inventory, and ultimately waste in capability. When organizing a production cell, items can be classified as a safety requirement, daily need, weekly need, periodic need, or unnecessary. Infrequently used items should be stored away from the production cell, with a process developed to return them as required.

Set in order (Seiton)

The second S is Seiton which we translate as Set in Order. Seiton ensures that everything an operator needs to do their job has an ergonomic home in the production cell. 

When a tool has a place on a shadow board within the ergonomic range to the operator, it becomes far less likely that the operator will leave the tool in the equipment they’re about to use. It’s also very easy to determine if a tool is missing or damaged if it is placed in a visible, accessible location. Communal tool boxes or remote drawers simply cannot provide the same efficiencies. An operator spending time looking for a necessary tool is an operator who is not being productive. Further, operator safety and comfort is enhanced when tools are positioned with respect to kinetics and physics. 

Shine (Seiso)

The third S is Seiso which we translate as Shine. Seiso becomes a clear indicator of whether a plant has adopted lean manufacturing culture. 

Processes must be designed to minimize messes and messes must be cleaned up immediately. Clean equipment operates better, and clean workspaces are safer and enhance productivity. It’s vital that when a mess occurs it is remedied immediately. If the culture supports this as a priority, messes will not be allowed to accumulate. If one mess is ignored, it’s very easy for things to go bad quickly. When I’ve been asked to explore issues with production consistency, messiness is common to plants and equipment which are not being cleaned and maintained properly. Conversely, due to Seiso, 5S plants find that they can often identify production and equipment issues before they escalate, because the symptoms aren’t hidden by a mess.

Standardize (Seiketsu)

The fourth S is Seiketsu which we translate as Standardize. Standard work is a requirement of consistent outputs. 

Without standard work, operators each establish their own production methods leading to inconsistent outputs and productivity. While open communication and collaboration help to improve processes, once a process has been agreed on, it must be adhered to until a change is implemented. Daily schedules of standard operating procedures increase output consistency and keep everyone on the same page. If platforms and equipment can also be standardized, the potential for consistency increases even more. Seiketsu is constantly targeting the most efficient way to create an output, and the resources it creates makes the hiring, training, and transitioning of employees much easier.

Sustain (Shitsuke)

The final S is Shitsuke, which we translate as Sustain. This is where 5S transitions from a methodology to a culture, as we develop the controls and procedures to ensure that the methods and standards we’ve created are being adhered to. 

Standard work with a clean, ergonomic, well organized production cell makes visual management much easier. A sustainment plan with reporting on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis can keep line managers in intimate contact with plant operations and allow them to make well-informed and concise reports to senior management.

In action, 5S ensures that operators have the resources they need at the time they need them and that the resources and equipment are ready to use. In one plant, operators were spending between 10 and 25 minutes looking for plates for their next job in a plate room. By creating job carts that arrived as one job ended, with all of the supplies for the new job, and carried away remnants from the old, hours of production were recouped. 

Simple processes like that can help to bolster margins but they really aren’t simple. They require the process to be mapped out. Who is responsible for loading the cart? Where will the supplies be stored and what system will be used? What happens to the plates and supplies from the previous job? All of these questions must be answered, the processes documented in the master production document, and the staff trained. Then, when everything is running well, it all needs to be explored again to find the next level of efficiency.


To be effective 5S needs to be implemented at every production cell. Each cell engages in visual reporting and line supervisors monitor the reporting to ensure that standard work is being adhered to. Everyone collaborates on ways to improve the standard work with respect to 5S, and always with an honourary sixth S, Sahou translated as Safety, in mind.

It requires diligence and persistence, but when 5S is combined with optimized production planning and flow, senior leadership can assess the state of plant simply and accurately. The efficiencies realized by implementing 5S will result in greater employee satisfaction, additional plant productivity, and higher margins.