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The Dirty Job of Rooting Out Workflow Problems

Improving your digital workflow.

Improving productivity in the graphic arts has become a topic that gets tossed around at conferences and in the press, yet when trying to get beyond the basic work 'smarter and not harder' principle, you quickly begin to feel as though you’d have more luck pinning Jell-O to your office wall. The slippery nature of what it really means to improve your workflow reminds me of a story I recently heard that’s an example of making productivity improvements a solid reality.

I was discussing workflow with Dwight Kelly, CEO of Apago, Inc., which specializes in software tools and development projects for the graphic arts, and he told me about an experience helping a major daily newspaper client improve productivity without increasing labor costs. Although the example is from a newspaper, its lessons apply to any shop in the graphic-art field: Kelly made rounds in the newspaper, assessing each department's current workflow, and discovered that all production files were sent to one person a few floors above the production department, but nobody knew why the files were going there or what was done with them.

A quick visit with the archivist upstairs revealed that, despite her title, she spent most of her day manually renaming some of the thousands of files sent to her so they could be retrievable later. Understandably, she was unhappy doing a repetitive and boring job and wanted to do more archival work, as she’d been trained to do. Yet she understood that without a proper, consistently applied naming scheme, the digital archive would be a disorganized mess.

After more conversation, Kelly asked her how she would feel if he could completely eliminate the manual renaming process. Her response was classic: "But I’d lose my job!" Well, you can probably guess the rest: Kelly wrote a short script to rename the files and store them automatically, and today that same archivist is doing the job she was hired to do. The newspaper gained the equivalent of another staff member without spending another dollar.

Challenge the status quo

One of the quickest ways to become unpopular in your company is to start asking "Why are we doing it this way?" on a regular basis. Your colleagues will begin to avoid you, and your boss will ask you into the office for a chat.

But maybe an outsider can ask that question and get real answers because he or she is being paid to do so and isn’t an employee. Sometimes it’s easier for staff members to tell an outsider the truth about what they do every day and how they feel about it. That archivist at the newspaper might have griped to friends, but chances are slim that she would have complained to her boss and asked that alternatives be considered. This is especially true since the alternative she feared most was that her job would be eliminated. If you want to improve your work process, you’ve got to get to the truth about the whys of your workflow, and sometimes you can use professional help.

One way to gain efficiency is to find processes that lend themselves to automation, such as repetitive segments of production workflow. The archivist may not have known that a program could do what she was doing in minutes rather than hours, and why should she? She’s an archivist-not a programmer or specialist in workflow management. The benefit outside consultants can be their expertise in knowing what questions to ask about the process, what to do with the answers, and which solutions might work best.

Find the right help

Industry consultants are often professionals who have specific expertise in helping print shops and other graphic-arts service providers. Some, like Kelly, work for companies that sell workflow-related tools, while others don’t sell anything but their time and expertise. You can’t tell a good workflow expert by title alone, so here are a couple of pointers for finding-and making the best use of-workflow experts:

* Ask around for recommendations, and ask specifically about track record. If the colleague can’t point to specific benefits that his company has realized by working with this person or company, keep looking.

* Beware of anyone who has just one thing, or a few things, to sell-including ideas or a plan. Useful workflow improvements don’t come out of a can.

* Start with a general practitioner, then bring in specialists only if necessary and only if you’ve pinpointed specific areas for change. In other words, get the routine check-up first.

* Expect slow, but demonstrable, progress. Be suspicious of instant improvement claims, but months shouldn't pass without seeing some progress in profitability or customer satisfaction.

Ask tough questions

"Why are we doing it this way?" is an essential question shop owners and managers can ask themselves and should hear outside experts ask. Here are three other useful questions for reviewing workflows:

* Where are the bottlenecks?

* What’s causing the bottlenecks?

* Which part of the process could a computer do?

An example of a common graphic-arts bottleneck: a point at which work slows or stops. Each file that’s destined for imaging must be checked to ensure everything required to image the job correctly is present before the file is sent into production. That’s standard practice (or should be), and sometimes the resolution is too low to reproduce at the size the customer has requested-a common occurrence with customers who try to take brochure images to make a poster or something larger. The easiest fix is informing the customer so they can provide higher resolution images.

But let’s say there’s only one person tasked with contacting customers who have problematic files, and this person also has many other daily responsibilities. Subsequently, jobs that could be generating money languish on a hard disk somewhere, and the clients who submitted the files aren’t kept informed. Do you put more people on the task, rearrange the one person’s task priorities, or look for relevant software tools? Could a combination of these strategies be effective? The answers to these questions vary from company to company, and they can take time to discover, but it’s critical to find right solutions-and it all starts with the right questions.

Do the smarter thing

Musing about that newspaper archivist, I wondered what would have happened if one day she decided she’d had enough and quit. Would the new archivist have asked tough questions about the job, or hung on for a while before leaving for more interesting work? How much would the company have spent on replacing archivists before someone discovered the real problem? How much extra would the company have spent just to get the job done?

The smarter thing is accepting the reality that workflows need periodic maintenance and review. Sometimes a simple tune-up will do, but sometimes the entire system needs revamping. An objective review is essential to spotting problem areas and crafting effective solutions. If that can’t be done in-house, find an outsider who knows how to ask the difficult questions and knows what to make of the answers.

If you believe a workflow review isn’t important, consider how many people in your organization are like an archivist renaming files all day long. That should motivate you.

Based in Gilbertsville, PA, Molly Joss is the former technical editor for The Seybold Report and is the author of 'Getting and Keeping the Printing Staff You Deserve,' 'How to Do Everything with Photoshop Elements,' and other books on the graphic arts.

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