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Dealing with Storms and Droughts

How to deal with an inconsistent job flow without increasing your number of employees.

Some lucky print providers have a smooth workflow. A manageable amount of work comes in the door and it’s predictable and profitable because the flow is constant and consistent.

For many of us, however, we see our business cycles varying from incredible highs to pathetic lows. My company, for instance, is in the middle of a two-month period where we have so much work we’re killing ourselves and working our people to exhaustion. Just six weeks ago, however, we had most of our production employees standing around without enough work to do. One reason for these near unmanageable ebbs and flows at our shop: exhibit work and signage for big tradeshows and the graphics for large events and architectural projects.

In the late 1990s, my philosophy was to overstaff. Money was good. The big jobs paid for a little standing around in the slow times, so we maintained three staff shifts throughout the year. We had a pretty good run of baseline production with a sufficient staff to handle the big projects. Then, of course, came the recession and we began maintaining just two shifts.

Today, we’re down to one shift – and having just eight hours of straight time a day to get everything done can be a challenge. It’s especially problematical when we land jobs requiring three shifts to complete. And one more variable has come into play this year: flu season. Our company was bit by the flu bug this year, which has exacerbated our staffing situation. As this column is written, I’m in the shop on a Saturday with a complete prepress, printing, and finishing crew on overtime, and we’ll all be here again tomorrow as well with no end in sight.

If you’re like us and you have the opportunity to take on more business than you can realistically handle, you have to come up with some options. Yes, you can certainly turn down the work, but turning down money when you need it is always painful. Your rejection can have long-term consequences – some of those companies seeking your services might be reluctant to call you again. So turning down work is an option we all want to avoid.

So what are your options? Marty McGhie’s “Business and Management” column this issue (see pg xx) also provides you with some solid solutions to this challenge, but here’s my take on how you can deal with an inconsistent job flow when you can’t simply increase your employee head count.

Sub it out
One solution is to take your work and have someone else produce it (aka “outsourcing”). Our company has subcontracted with other vendors to print, finish, install, and/or design for us. This past month, we employed this option very successfully and profitably.

Subcontracting, however, must be done with all due diligence, because it’s your reputation that’s on the line. We only sub out to companies with whom we have developed a good cooperative relationship and know well. You need to know not only their quality and capability, but their character, too. For instance, one very good company that’s conveniently located within a mile of our shop has done a good job printing for us over the years on a subcontract basis.

When it comes to installation work, we have six in-house guys we can mobilize. Our challenge, however, is that they’re all cross-trained and multi-talented. So if they are all on the job site for a big install, this can leave gaps in our cutting, welding, and other fabrication capabilities. So we sometimes rely upon specialized, freelance decal applicators and wallpaper hangers when we’re buried in finishing work and can’t spare our in-house staff.

Similarly, although we have maintained a full sewing department for more than a decade, the physical size, quantity, and complexity of some dye-sub fabric projects can tax that three-person department. When that happens, we don’t hesitate to turn to three subcontractors that we use for sewing overflow.

Overworking staff
For better or worse, our standard method of dealing with an onslaught of work is to pile on the hours. The good news for the staff is they earn lots of overtime. The bad news for the company is we pay lots of overtime. Time-and-a-half and double-time can really eat into any job’s profits.

Which brings me to a pet peeve of mine: Over the past 19 years we’ve hired a lot of people who came from shops similar to ours. A significant percentage of these people report they worked obscenely long hours as a matter of routine. That is not what upsets me. What gets my dander up is they were on salary. The only people we put on salary are administrators; all our production staff is hourly. Companies in our industry have gotten away with this illegal and unethical practice for years. The only bright side to this practice by other companies is that some very good and talented people have tired of it and migrated to companies that will respect their rights.

The other down side to overworking your staff is you run the risk of breaking them – physically as well as psychologically. They burn out and their quality of work begins to suffer; you see mistakes begin to creep into jobs. Their morale suffers. I recently felt this myself when I began a late-night project but wasn’t sure if I could physically (or mentally) complete my share of the work. I did finish the job, but the experience helped me empathize with our staff in those situations. At least they can experience a dramatic increase in their paychecks.

Work smarter, deal with deadlines
If you’re faced with more work than you can normally execute, efficiency and smarts become key. If you have little or no time to spare, nothing can go wrong or you risk meeting your deadline.

For instance:

* We order extra materials and ink. We recognize that we might be working in the middle of the night or on the weekend, but our vendors aren’t. We also have made friends with our competitors – when any of us runs out of ink or media or a machine breaks down, we help one another. This beats the bad old days of hating one another and wishing one another ill.

* For the past 13 years, we have had a full-time technician on staff, and we stock spare parts. This way, we don’t have to wait 24 to 48 hours for a factory tech to show up at our door. If you don’t have time to spare, you certainly can’t afford to have a key piece of equipment go down.

* We have regular team meetings and plan for the most efficient queues for work. You have to be serious about not only nesting prints, but also grouping similar media to cut down on media changes. Another important variable is having the staff only when you need them. For example, it doesn’t do you any good to have finishing staff standing around and waiting for the prints. Understanding printer and finishing timings becomes critical in efficiently staging staff.

When it comes to deadlines themselves, we’ve developed the concept of “comfort deadlines” and “drop-dead deadlines” for times when we’re faced with being under capacity. Too frequently, we’ve found, customers indicate when they want their product as when they need it. In reality, these are two different concepts.

So, when workload is heavy and deadlines are tight, we ask our project managers and CSRs to have a heart-to-heart conversation with their clients. We don’t want to meet one customer’s comfort deadline at the expense of another’s drop-dead date. Knowing the ultimate deadlines we must meet allows us to be creative with comfort deadlines.

In addition, we’ve tied prices to delivery-of-files deadlines. Several years ago, we began providing our customers prices contingent on when we received print-ready files. All too often, our capacity problems are a result of customers delivering files late. As a result, we’re forced into taxing our capacity due to the limited amount of time that’s then available to complete the project.

So, we look at our anticipated production queue and we give customers deadlines based on that information. If they get us files by x date, their price is A or standard pricing. If, however, their files arrive after Y date, their price is A plus 25 percent. And if their files arrive after Z date, their price is A plus 50 percent, and so on.

Call up the reserves
Finally, there’s this idea: The American military maintains reserve armies. When the US found itself in two wars and badly undermanned, the reserve was called up. I, too, wanted a reserve “production army” to call up when we need them, so our company recently began the development of a reserve staff.

Sewing is the first production area we’re trying this with, basing it on the idea that retired people and stay-at-home partners and spouses have the time and could use extra money. We’ve identified a group of women through their common church and their love of sewing. Some of what we do will fit into their existing skill sets; other things, like doing double-sided gigantic backdrops, do not. Some of our material is bigger and heavier than they’re likely accustomed to, and I doubt if any of them have sewn F-channel beading onto fabric either. So we’ll have these women come in for paid training; they can work alongside our skilled commercial sewers and learn by doing.

Our plan is to be able to bring in one of our reserve sewers after an employee has worked an eight-hour shift. This way, we’ll not work our employee into the ground and we’ll avoid overtime. All of the “reservists” will be 1099 subcontractors, but they’ll be under our roof and under our supervision. If it works, we plan to replicate this plan with other departments – CNC operating, hand trimming, prepress, and printing.

With our current storm-and-drought reality, we simply don’t have the ongoing regular production to warrant large-scale hiring. But if we want to avoid turning away good work and good customers, we have to come up with options like these to successfully complete the big projects and garner more work.

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