Be lean: reduce waste, improve margins, sell more

How to make continuous improvement part of your business strategy

This is the final article in our series on lean manufacturing for printers. This installment focuses on the structures and processes that reinforce production efficiency.

In the first three articles we explored ways to identify and reduce some of the practical waste that occurs in manufacturing. We’ve seen that by developing ordering and ideation portals for our clients, we can drastically reduce errors and handling, while providing a service that customers will value. Then we explored the automation of repetitive tasks in prepress and project management, creating production ecosystems that ensure consistent results while minimizing processing time. Finally, we explored how implementing a 5S strategy can increase productivity and the quality of outputs. Now we’ll briefly explore what is arguably the most critical component of kaizen culture, which is the way we identify, monitor, and improve key performance indicators (KPIs) in our value stream.

It’s not uncommon to discover that graphics shops have a wide variety of systems and paperwork supporting production. Some systems may be unique to a specific production area. Some paperwork is only used as an active tracking mechanism that is physically archived immediately after production. These conditions create opportunities for errors and eliminate an opportunity to easily generate valuable business intelligence. 

Single source of truth

Data is one of any company’s most valuable competitive assets. Having it locked away in various physical archives or sitting on production-floor hard drives renders it impotent. Ideally, there should be a single source of truth for all data – that is, a centralized accessible digital master domain for any relevant set of data. 

For example, it’s not uncommon for customer data to be entered and stored by the sales, project management, accounting, and shipping departments. If each department manually enters this data into its own system, this creates four completely different data sets. If, instead, all systems draw the information from one centralized, accessible, digital customer-account record, then anytime there is an update, it’s available to every department.

Likewise, production planning may publish a hard copy schedule which gets manually overridden due to a production issue that doesn’t get reported until the hard copy is reviewed well after the shift has ended. That data may never get introduced into a centralized, accessible, digital system – meaning that the reasons for the change and the performance implications can’t be tracked and measured. 

The most common reasons for not following this common-sense strategy are: “Our systems are incompatible.” “My team can’t do their jobs without hard copy and we don’t want to duplicate effort.” “The costs to integrate our systems are prohibitive.” “I can’t keep that information online! What if we got hacked?”

Successful lean printers have made the investments into their digital infrastructure to ensure that they have a single source of truth that connects the entire value chain. 

Business intelligence

Ideally your business systems incorporate your entire value stream. Several companies sell systems that provide ordering portals, customer relationship management, accounting, ordering, payroll, project management, and logistics modules. This can be very convenient, but even companies which have invested in these systems eventually find that there is some nuance to their business or some capability they seek that isn’t accounted for in the standard packages. Consequently, an important feature in these programs is a simple, well-developed application programming interface (API) that allows for custom integration. 

If, for example, you want to take advantage of the data generated by a press through its internet of things (IOT) connection, it may be that your MIS solution doesn’t have the capability or fields to deal with the machine-generated data. So you can hire a programmer to develop a script that will convert that data into a form that can be used by the system, but without an API you can’t automate its entry. If for example you’re looking for real-time data on the productive uptime of a press as it relates to a particular type of work, or substrate, or customer, or operator—all of which might be useful business intelligence—it would be a labour-intensive project if that data capture wasn’t automated.

If it can’t be measured, it can’t be improved

If it is captured automatically, it can form part of a real-time dashboard, useful to both line managers and senior staff in understanding the production status. When the trend is understood, and all data is present, it’s possible to develop theories about correlations and key performance indicators. In a kaizen culture, the goal is continuous improvement: if you can’t measure something, you can’t improve upon it. KPIs are factors which directly influence improvement, and if the KPIs improve, the outcomes will improve. Many times, the KPIs identified through rule of thumb or observation simply aren’t the most reliable factors. Sometimes it’s a seemingly unrelated factor that, when changed, provides the most improvement to outputs. This is why data is so important, and why the companies that recognize this tend to be the most productive with the highest margins. 

When we view a value stream as an ecosystem, it’s easy to envision the concept of trophic cascades. By making a substantive change to a KPI, other changes throughout the value stream occur. Without ample data, tracking those changes becomes much more difficult. Conversely, by tracking as much data as possible, you may discover ways to enact new trigger points for ordering, or maintenance, or even customer interaction. Also, that data will help you to validate your selected KPIs efficiently by tracking their impact through your value stream and seeing if they truly affect the outputs.

Best practice

Obviously, there is a wealth of known operational best practices that can be simply adopted into your manufacturing plant. However, best practice does not account for the specific nuances of your plant, your equipment, your staff, your customers, and your markets. What’s best practice for one plant may prove highly inefficient in another. Also, a gain made through best practice may have a number of associated losses which wouldn’t seem to have a direct correlation if you weren’t tracking data and inputs from throughout the value stream.

If you make the investment in connecting all of your systems and establishing a single source of truth, you will reduce errors while increasing efficiency. If you further invest in establishing a culture of continuous improvement, you can make use of your newly integrated data to establish your company’s critical KPIs and track them in real time. This is where agility is created and margins are increased.

Adopting a lean culture is not a panacea but creates a solid and predictable foundation for growth. It’s not a quick fix; it requires diligence, persistence, and authentic cultural transformation. For companies struggling to grow, it is the most reliable way to break through the next revenue ceiling.