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The Road To Final Destination

In this article, David L. Zwang lays out the key steps necessary to prepare for a successful transformation of your current workflows and business, to prepare you for the new challenges ahead. Zwang will look at process transformation and automation, and the steps you need to take to be successful.

While it is important to look toward the final destination goal, without a map delineating the best path to achieve that goal, there are many more pitfalls along the way and unseen problems in the future.

The technologically driven changes in communications and market distribution have placed new demands on print and publishing service providers. These demands include cost and turn time pressures, new vertical integration requirements, and a host of new required services. While the state of the market and some of the newly required tools are starting to find some balance, most service providers have not made the necessary internal changes to adapt. Those who have will prosper, and those who have not will continue to struggle.

As a service business, your company is measured every day by many things. However, ultimately it is measured by your ability to deliver on a set of expectations. At times, that means doing whatever is necessary. As you all know, this can even get a bit ugly at times, but if you deliver on those expectations, and the client doesn’t see what goes on behind the curtain, it all works. However, this approach is a stopgap measure that usually results in slow bleeding and the ultimate weakening of companies that choose to take this path.

This approach is also not the best way to look at transforming your business. Some companies think that ‘plugging holes’ in workflow by throwing people at it or making a quick hardware or software purchase are good solutions, and even transformational. Of course, this is perceived as the easy way, and if you can afford it, shopping for ‘stuff’ is probably fun as well. However, while these actions may provide some short-term benefit, it isn’t usually the best long-term strategy.  Especially with the direction print and mobile media has been heading, it is time to step back and look at what you have and where you are going. It is time to stop the bleeding and begin to gain the benefits that a truly automated workflow can bring.

So what are the steps necessary to begin the process of business transformation? While we will look at individual process tasks, requirements, some solutions and success stories throughout this series, there are a few key questions that need to be answered before you can begin a successful transformation process.

Where are you now?

This first step is critical, since your goal for the transformation process will be to develop a roadmap of where you need to go and how to get there, and you must start from your current position. It is very important to fully understand where you are and what tools and skills you have to work with before you proceed.

You must start with a process map. Look at the all of the tasks from your customer-facing processes to order entry through delivery and billing. You should also extend this analysis even further to business development. Usually the best approach is to start by creating two workflow maps. One, map shows production flow and the other map shows the business transaction flow. In an ideal world, there are many intersections between the two, but it is usually easier to draw them separately and then look at where they currently intersect. The following is an example of a very basic flow that shows both production and business transaction. While this diagram is rather simple, each of the task boxes in the diagram can actually have a workflow of its own, which would also need to be detailed. That being said,  it is always good to start simply and then expand on the detail. And don’t forget that throughout the entire process, “the devil is in the details.”.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

The next step is to think about where your business is today, and where you would like it to be over the next 5 to 10 years. While it is always good to build new service offerings to support your existing client base, new services and new markets can also offer many great opportunities to acquire new customers as well as to gain more “share of wallet” from existing customers. And some of these new revenue streams can be built off of the strengths of your existing business team. Most businesses think it’s a luxury to spend the time looking ahead, while in fact it’s really a critical step in the ultimate survival and long-term growth of a business. Taking the time to go through this investigative step can provide real benefits in the needed transformation process and in growing your business. The other reason this step is important is that it can have both short- and long-term effects on your ultimate workflow designs and purchasing decisions. It can also earn you some short-term benefits that only require changes in process where you find inefficiencies, and these can often add up to a big impact on your bottom line. Keep in mind that workflow in many businesses evolved over time in a random sort of way. A problem arose, and a change in process was put in place to address that problem.  Over time, this can result in unnecessarily complicated processes and procedures that have a negative impact on both your business and the perception of customers.

Completion of the first two steps allows you to begin to create a plan of attack.

What are the missing pieces?

Once you have addressed the first two questions, you are in a position to identify the missing pieces required to get you to your end-point vision and look at possible solutions. These pieces can include skill sets, infrastructure requirements, software and hardware tools, processes, etc. This step should not be rushed. Too often companies are convinced by vendors that they have the ultimate solution that will address all of the problems now and in the future. However, the reality is that any solution can be force fit to make it workable, but this approach will likely not offer the longer-term flexibility you need in any future process or business changes; they are simply more stopgap measures piled on top of those that might already be in place. Taking the time to investigate, and discussing your thoughts with internal staff, business partners, clients, and outside consulting resources will help you make the right decisions. When looking at solutions, it is also very important to look closely at the company who is selling them. Are they financially stable? Do they have a growth plan of their own, and does it track your needs? Do they have a history of delivering innovative solutions, keeping them up to date and well supported? Are they someone who you can trust to be there and work with you for the long haul, or are they in it for short-term gain?  We will get into this much deeper in future articles, when we start to look at how you can begin to evaluate your choices in each area.

How can you get from here to there, and still maintain flexibility for the unexpected?

First of all, it is important to realize that you don’t need to attack the whole plan at one time. That’s why creating future workflow maps similar to the current maps previously discussed are also critical. The process of creating these future workflow maps helps you identify the benefits, visualize the tasks ahead, gauge your progress, and identify the best pieces to attack and in which order. During your investigations, you will undoubtedly find some “low hanging fruit,” things that can be addressed quickly, easily, and with minimal expense. They should be identified and evaluated for immediate action. Even if these do not find their way into the final plan, they are likely to offer some significant short-term gain, or just help show the staff that you are serious about change. In any transformation, the technology and processes are usually fairly easy to implement; getting the staff on board and working with you is always the tougher part. So being sensitive to this, and establishing a top down directive from the beginning, is another key to a successful transformation.

A Good Infrastructure is Key

So you have analyzed your current state and projected your future state based on your intended business direction. Of course, the reality is that you “don’t know what you don’t know,” so some of those projections may wind up missing your ‘real’ future direction. But that shouldn’t stop you from preparing your infrastructure, since a good infrastructure will be flexible enough to adapt to any change in direction of your business.

The diagram below from the PRIMIR Transformative Workflow Study provides a high level look at what it takes to prepare your business for transformation to support the demands of the new market realities. Obviously, the devil is in the details, but this gives you a good idea of what is possible as well.

While this diagram presents an ideal model, it may be overkill in its entirety for many service providers, or at least for this stage of their transformation needs. However the three bottom components; Business & Information Management, Process Management, and Production are at the core of any service provider’s requirements.

Business & Information Management Infrastructure

ERP systems

The heart of a company’s Business infrastructure is a good ERP (aka MIS) system. This system is crucial to any print production business that exceeds about 25-50 people. While a notepad or an Excel spreadsheet, may suffice for smaller companies, there is a point at which it becomes very difficult to manage a company with those tools. And trying to automate using an Excel spreadsheet as a basis is an effort in futility.

Print-centric ERP systems usually offer different modules that work together to offer information and connectivity that will facilitate the management and growth of the company through real-time analytics and data processing. In many cases, the selection of modules desired are optional, and others can be added as required. However, adding 3rd party ERP modules that have the same or similar functionality as modules available within the ‘core’ system’s own integrated components can present problems. This is important to note, since the more disparate components you add that are already included in the ‘core’ ERP solution offering, the higher the risk there is for breaks in the overall system functionality. These systems usually use their own proprietary structures, even if they use a standardized central database.

It should be noted, however, that these systems do usually offer varying levels of integration potential with outside systems and production components. Most ERP systems use JDF/JMF to streamline integration with 3rd party systems. For the most part, this works fairly well, and production data gets passed back and forth seamlessly between systems. These are a sampling of the standard modules, although depending upon the system, the packaging can vary.

•   Estimating/Order Entry

•   Job Ticketing

•   Planning/Scheduling

•   Shop Floor Tracking/Costing

•   Inventory/Purchasing

•   Invoicing/Financials

•   External Data Flow Integration

Properly implementing an ERP system requires some time and experience. Normally it should be a staged implementation to allow the company to understand how it fits within the structure of the organization. The implementation has to be a close partnership between the ERP vendor and the print service provider. In many cases it may also be beneficial to have an experienced consulting resource assist. Experience and taking the time upfront will ensure that the implementation will be smooth and successful. You can also expect that some tweaking will probably be ongoing after you start using the system and test the settings in your environment.

Alternative ERP

As a disclaimer, I should tell you that I am a strong believer in purchasing and integrating an off-the-shelf solution whenever possible. If you have to bridge off-the-shelf solutions with some scripts, you are still better off than building everything yourself. Remember, your business is probably not software development; it is providing graphic communication services. Most off-the-shelf solutions provide continual development and support, which is very important in an environment of changing requirements.

However, after reviewing the available ERP offerings, and taking my disclaimer comments into account, you may find that the solutions may not be suited to your needs. With that in mind you should still use the PRIMIR transformation model as a goal. You want to ensure that you don’t build your infrastructure on a Business and Information Management platform that creates an island, and inhibits further process integration. To minimize this problem, the first step is to do a gap analysis to see what would be the missing functionality to bring your existing state into alignment with the model. Once you have determined your gaps, it is time to try to fill them.

Since some of the ERP solutions do offer individual modules, that may be a good place to start. There are also many other solutions available that offer disparate components that were designed to be easily integrated into many different scenarios. These include solutions that are bundled with web2print solutions, job ticketing and tracking applications, etc. Some of these are server application based, some are cloud based, so there are many opportunities to build a solution if an off-the-shelf ERP doesn’t meet your needs.

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