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Taking a Stroll to Keep Your Company Whole

(November 2003) posted on Tue Dec 16, 2003

Stay in touch with employees and identify and eliminate potential trouble spots before they take a toll on your business.


By Mike Ukena

The August 2003 issue of Business Week Magazine presented these results from a study done by Buccino & Associates for Seton Hall University's Stillman School of Business. The study asked 1900 business professionals that specialize in helping troubled companies what they felt were the most common reasons that businesses fail.

I have seen several other studies like this one over the years, and they are all pretty similar. The most surprising point is how low on the scale lack of revenue ranks. You can essentially reorganize the list and say that inadequate leadership leads to poor planning, failure to change, and inexperienced management. The result is low sales, high debt, and ultimate failure.

In this article, we'll explore the consequences companies face when their owners and senior managers become too far removed from core activities that drive the business. More importantly, we'll consider specific actions company leaders can take to stay informed without becoming micromanagers.

Avoiding the pitfalls

The key to staying on top of your operation is to realize what you are missing. Think back to when you opened your business, and try to remember how and what you were involved with early on. If you started the business from scratch, you can probably remember cleaning screens, answering all the phones, purchasing, printing, shipping, and everything else. If you bought the business when it was smaller, think about the activities that you used to pay attention to, but no longer do.

One of the most effective ways to identify what facets of your business you no longer have a firm handle on is to write down all of the activities that occur in your business. Every function, no matter how trivial, should be noted. The list can be pared down and grouped later. Figure 2 is an example of a such a list that I once created for my business.

This list groups specific activities and areas of responsibility by department. In smaller businesses, some of these areas might be merged. In larger businesses, they might break down into even smaller units. But the size of the groupings is not important. What is important is that you realize who within your organization is responsible for what and make sure that those charged with specific responsibilities know it.

Figure 2 Tasks Sorted by Department
Task Dept Task Dept Task Dept
Art scheduling A Reception O Touch-up Q
R&D - art A Sample-request processing O Packing R
Benefits review E Shirt ordering (raw materials) O Receiving R
Chamber of commerce activities E Supply ordering - office O Shipping R
Insurance E Hazard communications (MSDS) P Supply ordering - shipping R
Landlord relations E Hazard disposal P Vehicle maintenance R
Long-term planning E Ink making - water base P Customer relations S
Management meetings E Ink matching - plastisol P Marketing S
Management training E Ink matching - water base P Sales S
Security E Job engineering P Showroom maintenance/updating S
Supervision E Press operation P Break room upkeep M
Trade-association contact E Press setup P Employee recognition M
Utilities E Press teardown P Equipment maintenance M
Vehicle leasing E R&D - production P Equipment review M
Vendor-communications review E Screen block out P Hardware review M
Benefits administration H Screen cleaning P Inventory control M
Personnel administration H Screen coating P Job allocation/scheduling M
Accounts payable O Screen exposure P Maintenance agreements M
Accounts receivable O Screen reclaiming P Software review M
Collections O Screen rinse out P Staff training M
Customer service O Screen stretching P Staffing M
Incoming calls O Screen stretching - retensionable P Staffing levels M
Invoicing O Screen stretching - rigid P Trade-publication review M
Office maintenance O Shop maintenance P Trade-show attendance M
Order entry O Supply ordering - production P Vendor relations M
Order processing O Waste-ink disposal P
Payroll O Quality control Q


H = Human resources P = Production R = Shipping/receiving
O = Office/administration A = Art E = Executive
S = Sales/marketing Q = Quality control M = Multiple departments

Although the previous point sounds very obvious, you'd be surprised how many times I've worked with senior managers and owners who aren't sure who in their organization does what. Most of the time, they know who is responsible for specific departments in the operation--typically other members of upper management. But businesses often grow rapidly, and as staff and supervisors are added, responsibilities split and split again. Pretty soon, even the most savvy owner can lose who takes care of each specific activity required to keep the business moving. Owners should be able to depend on managers to take responsibility for the areas they're charged with, but it shouldn't prevent owners from keeping tabs on some of the finer details of their operations.

Staying abreast of who does what not only prevents problems from growing unchecked, it also has a positive effect on productivity and morale. For example, when a manager walks the floor and knows who is responsible for keeping track of the mesh inventory, the manager can strike up a relevant conversation, interact with the employee, and demonstrate appreciation for the employee's efforts. If these kinds of walk arounds are done on a regular basis, employees will feel that the owner or manager cares and become comfortable communicating with their superior. But if company leaders only appear when there is a known problem, then seeing the boss will only become a sign of trouble they'll want to avoid.

Many managers avoid spending any time in areas they do not understand, which is a really big mistake. If employees believe an owner does not understand their departments or tasks, they can create their own little empires that can eventually impede the rest of the company and, at the very least, destroy morale. Getting involved with employees and asking questions makes the "empire" situation less likely to occur. Asking employees to show you what they do and explain their tasks leads to a greater appreciation in both directions.

Basic problem solving

Most problems that can occur in a screen-printing operation (or in any business, for that matter) will fester unless someone takes the lead in trying to solve them. An owner or manager can spur the discovery process in the right direction without having to be a process engineer. Asking three basic questions will usually get the ball rolling and lead to some pretty quick results.

1. What has changed recently?
2. Who have we called for help?
3. Who is responsible for each function or area affected by the problem?

The important thing to note is that when owners or managers are seen often--not just when problems occur--they become a regular part of the landscape that employees are comfortable with, not fearful of. A manager who is feared will never get complete answers to the previous questions. On the other hand, a manager who is seen often, participates, compliments, and tries to understand will be seen in a much better light by the staff and is much more likely to get straight answers--without having to ask.

Keep in mind that you should never make it appear as if you're on a trouble-finding mission when you do a walk through--employees will immediately clam up. Instead, the walk should look like a "how is everybody doing" visit and encourage employee participation.

Making regular walk throughs of your operation to interface with employees doesn't have to be a time-consuming process. The key is to understand what trouble signs to look for in each department and what questions to ask to get problems resolved. The sections that follow point out the main issues that should be verified during a walk through on a department-by-department basis. Each begins with a checklist of questions your visit should answer.

Art department

* Is the work area neat and organized?
* Do employees have adequate room to work, or are some of them crowded?
* How large is the backlog of art to be created? Is it manageable?
* Are the jobs being worked in the correct sequence, or have some jobs been set aside because of difficulties?
* Are sufficient supplies on hand?
* Are any materials being wasted?
* Is all of the equipment in good working order, and is it being used?

Art departments should be clean, well lit, and spacious. Crowded, messy conditions will not help the creative process. In the art department, it is essential for employees to have their own work areas. This is the one department where allowing employees to personalize their work spaces is usually a good idea--creative people need an environment that inspires them.

The art department can be a bottleneck for a lot of shops. Jobs stuck in the art department cannot be printed and billed. If certain jobs are being bypassed to get at "easier" work, you have a definite problem to uncover. If the holdup is caused by lack of information about what the customer wants, then the person who took the order needs to be contacted. If it is caused by indecision or a staffing problem in the art department, then fix the problem before it gets worse. The department should have an easy-to-view system that anyone can use to determine which jobs are being worked on, which ones are next, and which ones do not have enough information to be completed.

An art department runs on lots of little supply items. Pencils, inks, toners, films, pens, paper, vellums, knives, chemicals...they are all important. The lack of any one of these items can halt work in a hurry. Most of the items are not expensive, but because they are small, they can be missed. Make sure that these items are stored in a way that allows your inventory to be quickly checked on regular basis.

Take a look in the waste containers. If too much material is being discarded, it is coming right out of your profit. Waste also may indicate a level of confusion or misunderstanding about the jobs at hand. The waste also may mean that a significant amount of reworking is required...another issue to resolve.

Screen department

* Is the work area neat and organized?
* Do employees have adequate room to work, or are some of them crowded?
* Are the jobs being worked in the correct sequence, or have some jobs been set aside because of difficulties?
* Are employees spending excessive time performing touch-ups?
* Are sufficient supplies on hand?
* Are any materials being wasted?
* Is all of the equipment in good working order?
* Are exposure calculations up to date for each mesh and emulsion combination?
* Are sufficient clean and stretched screens available to allow the screen department to expose all of the jobs they have on hand?
* Is a backlog of used screens waiting to be reclaimed?
* Is a backlog of exposed screens waiting for touch-ups, blocking out, and tape?

One of the quickest places for a shop to get into trouble is in the screen department. More jobs get hung up waiting for the proper screens than from any other factor in a screen-printing operation. Production departments standing idle without work while they wait on screens is one of the biggest problems printers face. The owner or manager who can keep the screen department on schedule will go a long way to ensuring that the entire shop runs well.

Most of the questions in the checklist for this section are self-explanatory. It is important however, to stress the key elements. Rarely have I seen a screen department where there is not a fairly substantial backlog of screens waiting to be reclaimed. When this situation occurs, you can usually bet that there is a shortage of fresh, coated screens available for new jobs as well.

Any shop that wants to avoid lost production time should always have screens for several jobs ready to go to press at any time. The production department should never have to wait for screens. It also is important to maintain accurate statistics about which mesh counts are being used most frequently and how many screens at each count are typically required to keep production flowing.

In my own shop, we ran into screen-supply problems because I did not monitor the subtle shift in the mesh counts we were using over a six-month period--we had slowly shifted our emphasis from spot-color work to more detailed and halftone and process-color printing. Not only did we not have enough stretched screens available in the mesh counts we needed, but we also didn't have enough of the required mesh on the rack to stretch new screens. In the end, important jobs were delayed while we waited for new mesh to come in. It is always a good idea to have a healthy surplus of screens. Compared to idle equipment, screens are cheap.

Also look at the touch-up area. If there is a backlog of exposed and developed screens and it looks like each one is taking a lot of time for pinhole repair, something is wrong. This situation is a sure sign of a process problem or equipment failure. In my experience, excessive touch-up time indicates that the bulb in the exposure system needs to be replaced.

Exposure calculators are one of the most underutilized tools in the screen department. The use of these simple devices can greatly improve the quality of the screens you make and decrease the number of screens that you have to re-expose or remake from scratch. Their use also can go far to reveal the slow failure of an exposure bulb.

Many shop managers and owners assume that you only need to use the exposure calculator whenever you change the bulb(s) in your exposure unit or if you change your emulsion. An exposure calculator should be used much more frequently. A shop that exposes 50-100 screens per day should consider using a calculator on at least one screen for each mesh count/emulsion combination used. By recording shop conditions and the results of these daily exposure measurements, the exposure times for each screen and emulsion combination can be subtly adjusted as needed to compensate for different coating techniques, lamp aging, emulsion variations, temperature, and humidity.

Smaller shops should use a calculator at least once per week, following the same guidelines. It is usually not necessary to "waste" a screen to use an exposure calculator. In most cases, you should be able to come up with a screen image that has a large free area at one end or the other that can be used for the exposure calculation without affecting the printing image. After the exposure is analyzed, the area where the calculator was positioned can be blocked out. Several companies now offer smaller exposure calculators that are easier to use with actual production screens.

Inkroom

* Is the work area neat and organized?
* Are all the containers labeled and clean?
* Are the jobs being worked in the correct sequence, or have some jobs been set aside because of difficulties?
* Are sufficient supplies on hand?
* Are any materials being wasted?
* Is there an excessive amount of unusable waste ink?
* Is all of the equipment in good working order?

All of the points in the inkroom checklist are pretty easy to understand. The place where inkrooms usually fall short is in the first question. It is real easy for the inkroom to become a mess real fast. The staff must make an effort to stay ahead of the game by continually cleaning as they work. If they do not, it will be a losing battle.

One of the easiest ways for an inkroom to become messy is for unauthorized staff to do their own ink selection and mixing. These people often feel less pride or ownership toward the ink-mixing area. The shops that have a strict policy on who can and cannot be in this area are the ones that have much less waste and much more accurate ink matching.

Messy inkrooms will result in mixing mistakes, wasted materials, and contamination. Crowded conditions will cause similar problems. It is important to keep the clutter to a minimum.

Production

* Is the work area neat and organized?
* Are the presses clean, or are they covered with ink and dirt?
* Is the maintenance up-to-date on all equipment?
* Are the screens, ink, and substrates for the next jobs staged and ready?
* Is any equipment that is not being used (flash units, screen carts, etc.) stowed neatly out of the way?
* Are there electrical cords on the floor?
* Are safety lock-out systems in working order and being used?
* Are filters on the dryers clean?
* Are dryer temperatures or UV-lamp records up-to-date?
* Are quality-control and production records being filled out correctly?

While all departments are important to your company, your production area is your single most cost-intensive department. There are more people and more valuable equipment and substrates here than in all of the other departments combined. If production does not go well, you might as well shut the doors for good.

Mistakes in the production area get expensive. If you are printing with automatic equipment, mistakes get costly in a real hurry. If your dryers or curing units are not working properly or at the right intensity, you can ruin a lot of product in no time. If your equipment maintenance is not being done on a scheduled basis, frequent and unnecessary breakdowns are inevitable. Dirty equipment reflects a low commitment to quality among your employees.

Finishing and shipping

* Is the work area neat and organized?
* Do all of your people have adequate room to work, or are some of them crowded?
* Are the jobs being worked in the correct sequence, or have some jobs been set aside because of difficulties?
* Are sufficient supplies on hand?
* Are any materials being wasted?
* Is all of the equipment in good working order?

Even after the job is printed, there are still several opportunities to make mistakes. If the counts are wrong, if orders are not packed or labeled according to the customer's specifications, or if the orders are not shipped in a timely manner, your company can incur additional costs. A clean and orderly shipping area will help to lessen the chances for mistakes.

The office

* Is the work area neat and organized?
* Does everyone have adequate room to work?
* Do phones ring too many times?
* Is everyone pleasant when they are on the phone or working directly with clients and vendors?
* Are supplies adequate?
* Is anything being wasted?
* Is all of the equipment in working order?

The reason the office is included in the walk through is because it is often overlooked as a source of problems. Remember that the office is usually the first thing that clients see in your company. And office personnel are the first ones they interact with. Even if your office staff cannot answer specific questions from visiting customers and vendors, they can go a long way towards maintaining positive relationships for your business by being pleasant and understanding.

Another factor that is office related but difficult to see on a walk (unless your phone system has a light that shows messages waiting) is the number of calls going to voice mail. Backlogged calls and unanswered questions are one of the biggest impediments to business today. Everyone is at least mildly irritated when they have to play "phone tag." Customers should never have to put up with it. Call backlogs should not be tolerated, and managers should take every possible step to ensure that customer service and administrative staffs are as responsive as possible.


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