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Managing Workflow

Capturing actual vs. quoted time/material on a work order allows a shop to maintain or increase profitability and identify production bottlenecks.

It really doesn’t matter what you do in life. A commonality, from kid to cook, screen printer to scientist, is the necessity to organize and accomplish the tasks that you face each day, week, month, and year. Some do it better than others. Some get obsessive to the point of letting their system of management overcome their production process. Some have no system at all.

Most of us in the print world, from a one-person shop to a large operation with hundreds of employees, manage their workflow with at least one clear objective in mind: Get the job out the door. The smart ones run a system with three other important aspects: maintaining high quality at each step, eliminating mistakes and interruptions from the process, and—above all—staying profitable. When all four of these goals are met by the system in place, only then can a shop claim to have effective workflow management.

I worked in a few different screen shops when I was a young guy just starting out. It didn’t take me long to realize there were problems. Knowing what I know now, I can easily identify them. Their workflow system lacked the four pillars outlined above. Like a chair with a short or missing leg or two, they were wobbly businesses because of this. I was pretty stupid back then—not that I’m much smarter now, but I have picked up a few tricks along the way that allow me to at least keep up with the conversation.

Back then, I was just happy to have a job and an opportunity to gain skills in screen printing and graphics. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the most important parts of the game were the business side and the organization of the work going though the shop. While I was busy learning about the technical part of screen making and printing, my bosses were demonstrating the consequences of running their operations without respecting and implementing those four pillars in work management.

The chair didn’t just wobble at my first job in a screen and sign shop, it fell over and broke. About the only thing we had going for us there was the ability to produce good work. That’s no secret. Just maintain high standards and aesthetic values, and instill this in all your workers. Don’t let a job progress through a production step unless it is done correctly.

Unfortunately, eliminating production delays, maintaining profitability, and getting the job out the door on time were either secondary values or non-existent ones. We seemed to have lots of work—it’s what happened to the job after it entered the shop where the problems started. We had no written work orders. Everything was done verbally. My boss might have had a job board or some other system of keeping track of progress in his office, but we workers were in the dark, except for carrying out the tasks assigned to us.

I was an apprentice, so it didn’t affect me too much. Unfortunately for the business, it was fatal. At least once a week an irate customer would show up looking for their job, which was invariably half done, the deadline blown, with the boss out of the shop running around picking up supplies or chasing work. Meanwhile, the workers would complete their assigned tasks, and then have to wait until El Jefe returned. Too often, if we tried to start something new, without proper instructions, we would end up having to do it over.

The lesson from that place was simple, and the basis of any proper system: Write it down. The benefits from a proper work order and a visual job board available to the entire workforce cannot be overstated. After the company went broke, they sold the equipment, and I went with it to my next employer, an ad agency. They were big on writing things down—not only the facts regarding the customer’s job for the benefit of we schmoes dragging squeegees in the back, but also recording the actual print times and quantities of materials used in completing the job.

Capturing actual vs. quoted time/material on a work order allows a shop to maintain or increase profitability and identify production bottlenecks. This gives the shop two more solid legs to stand on.

The shop that doesn’t analyze its real production values and compare them to its quotes—and make the necessary changes to align one with the other—will not last long. Too many shops base their costing on a competitor’s price list. This might work to get jobs, but it will not guarantee a profit. And let’s be honest. A quote is just a bet with your customer that you can do the job, pay the costs, and still end up with some money in your pocket. A proper system that allows you to capture production data and compare it to quoted prices and estimated times on a constantly updated basis is the only way to hedge that bet and make sure you always win.

Things have changed and continue to change in this crazy industry, but a few things stay constant. A solid workflow-management system, regardless of whether it is analog (paper and job board) or computerized, will always give a business a better chance of survival.

Accurate and complete information going out onto the production floor allows the workforce to do their jobs properly and efficiently, with minimal time wasted on unproductive activities or searching for missing info. Harvesting the real data from the job by the workers performing the tasks allows management to identify bottlenecks and correct production times used in quoting jobs. This cycle of information going out and coming in from the shop floor is the lifeblood of any successful graphics shop and the basis of successful workflow management.
 

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