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Cutting Down Turnaround Time

Advice from production guidelines to dealing with e-mail.

As deadlines get tighter, it's become an even greater problem in the production area to meet increasingly faster turnaround times. Getting control of file production is likely one of the top items on your to-do list"?but what are some of the best ways to do so?

One of the last resorts most of us wish to take when it comes to meeting this demand is to simply say, "No." When a customer makes an unreasonable demand, however, you might be better off exercising this option. Often, production managers can be so concerned about not alienating the customer that they'll lose track of how much taking a job can actually cost in terms of overtime or lost opportunities with other customers.

You also may have noticed that the customers who make these demands are the ones who often do so consistently. I would argue that even they may actually be better off (and more time-conscious) if you say "no" once in a while.

But, of course, saying "no" will always be a last resort, and doing so will never make the sales office happy. so think of the following as alternatives to saying "no"?alternatives that can really boost your shop's turnaround time.

Firm deadlines and incentives
Many shops set deadlines according to whichever customer is screaming the loudest, which of course is the least efficient way to handle this. The salesman or CsR comes in and says, "I need a proof of this by end of day," without bothering to see if that is possible. Typically, then, the production manager hands it off to the crew and says, "Make it happen."

One company I'm aware of has the following system:

  • Hot, Hot, Hot Rush = the top of the pile;
  • Hot, Hot Rush = as soon as possible;
  • Hot Rush = in the next couple of days; and
  • Rush = whenever you get around to it.

Nothing ever is entered into the system unless it is at least a "rush" job. Understand, of course, that the sales office considers all of the various rush codes to mean their job should be done first. But there are still only so many hours in a shift, and only so many employees to push the jobs through. Piling on unrealistic expectations helps no one"?not company sales, not company employees, and not the customers. Cutting Down Turnaround Time

It might help to build in some incentives to establish realistic deadlines. We tend to think of negatives when it comes to deadlines: If the job is late the customer will be angry, the job will cost more, or the profit will be reduced. But when deadlines are not realistic, these factors have little meaning, and ranting about missed deadlines won't fix the problem.

Instead, try some positive rewards: perhaps a free lunch, or tickets to a sporting event (both of which cost far less than a missed deadline). If there is some reward for both sales and production when a job is completed on time, two things happen: The sales rep has some incentive to establish a deadline that can reasonably be met, and production has incentive to meet it.

In addition, it's not unreasonable to establish higher shop rates for producing a job when the customer demands that the job be done in less-than-standard time. When the CsR says, "We can have the proof for you today for $60 and tomorrow for $30," you might be surprised how quickly tomorrow becomes an acceptable due date.

Don't be afraid to ask the customer
When a question arises about a job, the average print shop often wastes time by not asking the customer some specific questions. It's not uncommon for jobs to get produced incorrectly, even though a question has been raised in the production department"?all because the customer was never contacted.

Of course, it's important to handle such queries professionally and to not approach the customer in an accusatory manner. Make it clear to them that you are trying to provide them the best service; you're not questioning their ability to create good files.

At the same time, it's important to know exactly what the question is before you ask. For instance, how often has this happened in your shop: The production technician says a font is missing. The CsR calls the customer and says a font is missing. The customer says, "I did a collect for output so they can't be missing." The CsR then calls the production manager who talks to the technician who says, "Well, actually, he used Mortimer sans with a bold style applied and there is no Mortimer sans Bold." so the production manager calls the CsR who calls the customer, and on and on. and of course in all this time no one is actually getting any production done.

It's a matter of effective communication. Whoever is actually talking to the customer needs to understand precisely what the problem is"?and what must be done to correct it.

How e-mail can help and hinder
If your shop is like most, you rely heavily on e-mail to keep things moving through production. There should be a consistent company-wide policy for writing and sending e-mails, particularly those going to customers. Yes, e-mail can be a great automator and aide in cutting down turnaround time, and it has the added benefit of leaving a paper trail. But it can have a negative side as well. Some folks really aren't all that proficient handling their e-mail account (e-mails get "lost," are simply not read, or are inadvertently thrown away), plus it can allow people to see information they are not supposed to see.

Keep in mind that e-mail originating from your employees represents your company, and you have a right and responsibility to make sure it's being done properly. For example, you may want to insist that employees use a spell checker before they send an e-mail, and append all of their contact information and appropriate disclaimers to each e-mail they send out. E-mail can become a legal document in the case of a problem with a print job, an employee, or a customer.

And although you do want to generally limit the number of e-mails, I would also advocate one topic per e-mail. People generally read e-mails by skimming. If you have more than one topic to cover in an e-mail, make that very clear at the outset, or send two e-mails.

Staying on time
Of course, many shops will also say that they could really speed up production if only they invested in more computer horsepower. The truth is, however, that today's print shops are not late with jobs because their computers are slow. They are late with their jobs because they have not managed the production well, have overcommitted their available resources, or they have not held the customer responsible for bad or incomplete files. Following these few tips will go much further toward staying "on time" than the latest computer hardware will ever do.

Stephen Beals (bpworkflow@verizon.net), in prepress production for more than 30 years, is the digital prepress manager with Finger Lakes Press in Auburn, NY.

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