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Mapping a Realistic and Fluid Workflow

Sit down, analyze your shop, and make appropriate modifications.

For many of us, it often seems easier to just "fix" improperly prepared output files than to step back and take an overall view of how these problems affect our entire workflow. To truly address the problem of bad files"?whether they be files you created or files supplied by a customer"?you need to know: what files are causing problems; why they are causing problems; and how you respond to each problem (and if there are better ways to respond). You also need to account for how the stop-and-start nature of encountering bad files affects your entire operation, not just the person who actually has to deal with a particular file. It may be that you are spending time, money, and energy fixing files, when what you really need to fix is your shop's workflow.

Mapping reality
At a recent workshop presented by Working Words and Graphics (www.work ingwords.net) on behalf of Enfocus, the presenters suggested the first step in evaluating any workflow is to sit down and map your system on paper. Seems simple, yes? After all, you know your workflow. Files come in, you preflight, RIP, proof, and output. Right?

Well, not usually"?not in the real world. If that's the map you are using for your workflow, you're missing all the detours, U-turns, traffic lights, and potholes. Your map should not be drawn on the basis of your ideal workflow, but rather on the basis of your actual workflow.

Also important to keep in mind is that the goal of mapping your workflow is not to find someone to blame when it doesn't work. Instead, the idea is to give you a good snapshot of just how things are working in your real world. Take the attitude that everyone wants things to work correctly, and that they will be just as happy as you are to see corrective action taken.

One approach to avoid, however, is just looking at the problem jobs. Evaluate all of your typical day-to-day jobs"?good ones as well as problems. Consider not just what goes wrong, but what goes right, too. Keep in mind that it's easier to see what has really gone awry when a job goes bad if you can compare it to a job that has gone through smoothly.

Also be careful that your operators don't see this as an attempt by management to play "big brother" and spy on every little thing they do. One of the challenges with operators not feeling part of the process is that they may be inclined to cover up problems as an act of self-preservation. If you want your operators involved in mapping the workflow, make sure they also are involved in setting up how the analysis is made. Not only will this make them feel that they are not under hostile attack, but it will also provide valuable insight into what really happens on the shop floor.

Finally, don't gloss over the facts. Take everything you learn seriously, and think of each obstacle you uncover as an opportunity.

Test and re-test
When you sit down and analyze what really happens in your shop, you are likely to be in for a rude awakening. In fact, the biggest hazard in going through this process is the tendency to try knee-jerk fixes and to point fingers at certain operators or vendors"?as though getting rid of an employee or a non-responsive vendor will set the world right. Proceed with caution.

Once you determine what really happens to the typical job in your workflow and where problems crop up, make the appropriate fixes and see how the new modifications work. There is a good chance that no matter how painstaking your research is and how detailed your map is, something will be missed.

Also bear in mind that although you might assume that these changes will get things back on track permanently, that may not be the case. Workflow mapping must be an ongoing effort. Things change rapidly in this industry. Even if you change nothing in-house, your customers will be changing the way they create files, the software they use, and the designers themselves. As a result, just when you have figured out how to get around one obstacle, another appears. Regular, ongoing analysis and testing are the way to go.

Putting it to use
This whole process will be rendered useless, if your workflow roadmap winds up sitting in a file folder or computer file. If you don't recognize any immediate solutions that need to be implemented, have your staff or even your vendors take a look at what you have come up with and see if they have some good suggestions to offer.

Most importantly: Keep learning. You may have thought of your workflow as a static part of your business; in fact, however, it's typically very fluid and constantly changing.

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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