Killing Your Top 5 Time Wasters

Technology is widely available today that will make your most highly paid staff much more productive, improving your customer service as well as your bottom line.

In The Automation Issue, we present a collection of expert essays on perhaps the most important topic in the industry today. Here, Mike Ruff discusses automation in the front office.

How is your business doing? Does it seem like you are working harder yet making less? I believe most companies that have been around awhile go through such frustrating periods, and many of the causes are beyond their control. But remember this one truth of solving such a downturn in business: “Continuing on the path that brought you to your current situation is not a good idea.” It is a deadly mistake to think you can wait it out for things to return to normal, because they won’t.

Why? As you may have noticed, the hyper-acceleration of technology advancement is now dramatically changing every market in the graphic arts. The only way to survive such rapid change is to embrace it and prosper from it. It boils down to a four-point plan:

1. Accept that the rapid change we are experiencing is the “new normal.”

2. Quickly assess where you are with your competition, equipment, business model, and sales focus, and then map the direction that you believe is most likely to succeed.

3. Become as efficient and productive as you can with the assets that you have now to help finance the changes you know are coming.

4. Start executing your plan. Don’t wait for everything to be perfect. Move now. I’m going to be focusing on just the third point of this process: efficiency, which I believe is the first and most profitable place for any business owner to begin in making their company more productive.

Start in the Front Office
I’ve noticed that most owners in the graphics industry like to start with what I call “horsepower solutions,” including bigger and faster printing presses. That type of equipment may very well be part of your plan, but it shouldn’t be at first. Before you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in production, look at automating the most expensive labor in your business: the staff that generates the sale and provides front-end services. I’m talking about executive management, salespeople, customer service representatives, accounting staff, and the internal and external resources that collaborate with them. These key business developers need to be freed from profit-killing, redundant processes and procedures. Improving their productivity will be less costly than revamping your production and you can do it immediately – probably with a better ROI.

Why would you automate production first?

Think about how your business evolved. If you’re like most companies, you added people when you were growing. If sales weren’t where you wanted, your hired more salespeople. When things were falling behind in accounting, purchasing, or production, you hired more people in those departments. After a while, you probably got to the point where you had to ask one of your top managers, “Who is that person over there in the corner and what do they do?”

In a typical medium-sized graphics facility, the most highly paid people are the ones who get the jobs from the client into the shop. These include your highly paid executives and A-class managers, who often outnumber the production staff. Yet this is the last place that most business owners consider automating. If you save these people time, then they can do more; if they do more, you will produce more – a lot more, and at a lower cost. Salespeople can’t sell if they are doing unnecessary paperwork and procedures. Your executive staff can’t focus on where you want to take the company if they feel as though days flash by and they never have enough time to do what they really need to accomplish. In today’s business environment, it’s easier, less expensive, and more imperative to eliminate these time leaks than ever before. Time-saving solutions that were developed by some very smart people are now widely available and they can be a gold mine for your company.

Time Leak 1: Email
According to a 2015 online study commissioned by Adobe, 400 white-collar workers who were surveyed said they spent 78 percent of their time on email, and nearly half believed that percentage would increase in coming years. Nineteen percent said it will go up substantially. More than 90 percent of the workers said they check personal emails at work, and 87 percent looked at and responded to business emails outside of working hours. Altogether, the respondents estimated that they spend 6.3 hours a day checking and responding to emails.

That’s a lot of time on email – and if your business is typical, most of these messages are going back and forth in the same building, or even the same room. Let’s say someone sends one of your executives a message, copying three others in your company. It may take the executive an average of two minutes to read the message and take an action with it. What about the three people who were copied? They act on the message too, and then copy other managers interested in the subject. If everyone who gets the message spends two minutes with it and copies three more people, then you’ve just lost 26 minutes of high-priced management time – all in a span of six minutes.

When those people decide to hit “Reply All,” then the time consumed by that one message can double or even triple. And the chaos doesn’t stop there, because the potential for mass misunderstanding is rampant. Those added to the email string along the way won’t understand the context. Coworkers who only read the message halfway or don’t look at the subject line before responding can change the entire nature of the communication. It can get downright comical. And before you know it, some of your most highly compensated people have just lost the better part of their morning.

So put a stop to it! The reality is that email was never intended for this purpose. Email provided a step up from phone calls and interoffice memos, but it is now a major contributor to mis-communication and poor productivity. Over the past few years, social collaboration software has emerged that can help you kill email in your business and allow your staff to share information and work together to solve challenges much more efficiently. Examples include: Slack, InVision, Twilio, Yammer, Red Pen, and GoVisually. Print-specific MIS packages are also available, some of which provide extensive production management capabilities.

Time Leak 2: Internal Collaboration
The office is not where you should get your walking exercise for the day. Time spent walking from one office to another or to the plant isn’t productive (it should really be coded as “travel” on a time sheet), and most of it is unnecessary. A clear sign of this internal communication problem is when you see executives and A-class managers wearing pedometers. This should not be a priority for the people in your office who wear high-priced Cole Haan and Christian Louboutin wing tips.

Another problem is that these people inevitably get distracted from what they set out to do on their journey through the office to the plant and back. Try it yourself; take notes the next time you need to go into the plant for something. You will find that when you finally get to where you intended to go, your laser-focused plan on what is most important for you to be working on at that moment has changed.

Good communication and effective collaboration are critical, yet in most businesses, they aren’t happening efficiently. When you hear members of your team say, “Well, that’s the first time I heard about this,” you know you have a problem. A social collaboration platform solves this issue, too. Instead of trying to retrace where the communication went wrong, you can simply point to a social software post and say, “Here’s the information – it was posted two days ago.” Problem solved. Soon, your people will start to look for their own information, more efficiently, accurately, and quickly, and without interrupting their day.

Time Leak 3: Production Meetings
Production meetings may be a necessary evil, but most of them are a waste of time. The content that the managers communicate is primarily about job status and priorities. A good social collaboration platform eliminates this conversation and is much more accurate and informative. Although you can’t totally eliminate production meetings, you can change their focus to production issues that need to be solved and discussed face-to-face as a team.

Production status should be accessible at any time by everyone on your staff who needs the information. Does your production scheduler say, “I should have an updated job list as soon as I can get the information from production?” This tells you that your information is not automated. A lack of accessibility and slow speed to update job status and priorities slows down everyone in your plant. A good social collaboration platform will give them each their own dashboard and real-time updates on every job, 24/7. It will take email and paper printouts out of the equation. It will allow everyone – internally and externally – to access all of the order information with graphic images of the product, job history, order date, due date, current status, and comments from anyone involved. Everyone who needs the information can have it at any time, without having to wait for a production meeting.

Time Leak 4: Customer Communication
The process of communicating with your customers is often another major profit drain. Once again, email is the primary offender. Other sources of inefficiency include phone calls and text messages. Hundreds of hours can be wasted on this every month, and it all can be completely automated. Some salespeople think taking a call from a client to explain a job’s status is better customer service than an automated system. It’s not. Once a client is connected through a good social collaboration platform, they’ll be thankful for your efficient service every time they receive a real-time update on their smartphone.

Did you know that such a system will provide your customers with a dashboard that they can use to upload jobs, monitor their status, communicate changes, and approve artwork – all at no cost? Or that the better systems are as easy to use as Facebook? Many companies are finding out too late that a competitor has furnished this capability to one of their major clients. You may not understand the trend or even like it, but the fact is that millennial print buyers want online access to information with no human intervention. They expect to do more with their time and they don’t have the patience to call your company and leave voicemails three times a day.

Time Leak 5: Job Entry
Print jobs that come in require a lot of time to preflight and resolve questions about missing or confusing information in the order. Again, handling these communications by email, phone calls, and text messages fails. I have seen occasions when a shop’s software and procedures were so slow that rush jobs were sometimes printed and ready to pack before the job ticket even made it to production. This is obviously not a good practice, but some printing com-
panies with outdated technology do it to avoid losing the work. The reality is that slow response time will cause more lost sales than high prices.

With a good social communication platform, print jobs can be uploaded by the client or anyone else with access to a dashboard. They are auto-preflighted, so problems that can be fixed are corrected automatically and the customer gets a PDF proof and preflight report in seconds. Once permissions have been set up for the people at your company and your clients whom you want to have access, everyone is notified in real time. The job and all of its information are in the production queue. The software can even write the order if you have a modern MIS that can be connected to your social collaboration platform. The job is now ready to move into production in minutes, with very little human interaction.

Finding the Right Solutions
A number of software companies have done a very good job of writing and testing good social collaboration platforms. Some of this software is open-source and some isn’t. Personally, I prefer open-source software; the best workflows enable us to easily connect data from multiple programs. Open-source software provides source code that anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance. Here are some additional attributes to consider:

1. Be sure the program eliminates the need for email or FTP. It should post comments and status changes, and allow everyone assigned to monitoring that specific activity to look at these notices anytime from their computers or smartphones. When they comment or respond, these messages should also be posted, not forwarded or emailed. All job information should be available to everyone in an easily searched format.

2. Look for easy-to-use dashboards with features such as point, click, and drag operation. You want your customers to use the platform, so it should be so simple that anyone can upload an order.

3. Another important feature is simple installation and training that can be done remotely, and that you can offer to your clients.

4. The software should be cloud- and browser-based, with no extra charge for your clients to use it.

5. The system should also have server-sent events (SSE) technology, which means it will update in real time. The user works on a client screen while the large file stays in the cloud. Such a remote server can process many files at once and is extremely fast.

6. Look for programs that are compatible with Callas pdfToolbox version 9. This provides the owner of the software with unlimited software automation capability.

Prices vary a lot depending on what you want to do, so take the time to learn the features of each option. Make sure you know all the hidden costs and extra charges.

These programs offer a quick and relatively inexpensive way to improve productivity and increase sales. They won’t diminish the importance of an overall strategy for other major changes you need to implement to remain competitive in today’s changing market. But, remember that having a good social collaboration platform is something that soon will not be optional, but something your clients expect from all of their vendors.

Explore the rest of The Automation Issue:

The Automation Issue, Steve Duccilli

Going Digital: Automating Sales and Marketing, Mark Coudray

The Benefits of Screenroom Automation, Johnny Shell

5 Steps to Take Control of Your Printroom, Marshall Atkinson

MIS: Whipping Your Data into Shape, Eileen Fritsch

An Automation Wish List for Your Printroom, Marshall Atkinson

View more from this Screen Printing issue