Workflow Watchwords

Benefit by paying attention, not just to basics, but to a wide variety of potential add-ons.

Fifteen or so years ago, Sean O’Leary and I, then writing for the then-named The Big Picture magazine, interviewed Chuck Edwards, the president of ONYX Graphics who was an encyclopedic information source for raster image processing systems, or RIPs. We three met at an SGIA tradeshow press room and had barely sat down when Sean said, “Chuck, what’s the difference between a thousand-dollar RIP and five-thousand-dollar one?”

Chuck didn’t blink. “Four thousand dollars,” he said.

Several months later, digital-print guru Dean Derhak and I ate sandwiches at a downtown Cincinnati bar and grill and discussed design software and RIP sales. Dean was an Onyx product manager exploring new ideas. RIPs, then, were as Edwards later described, singular, page-translation algorithms that got you from point A to B in a print sense, short of lures and charms. In Cincinnati, Dean said his firm was planning to add workflow assets to their RIP software and I offered that workflow, in sign manufacturing, ran from the sales contract to the paid bill, stretching beyond the digital-print machine aspects of a given job.

Chuck’s point was that buying a RIP is like buying a car, i.e., you get a motor, wheels, doors and windows – other options are extra. In an undeveloped form, a RIP is a page translation algorithm that, like a car, is easily rigged with accessories. Dean’s future-thinking point – bolstering RIP features – has come to pass and due to his foresight, one regular RIP feature is being described as workflow software.

Workflow can be offered as a software, a production method or a combination of both. Generally, it’s a control system for production processes that allows you to manage production floor tasks, processes and information, and govern them through a set of procedures designed to get work done effectively at each stage. Then, as part of the process, forward it to the next processing station for its workflow-controlled action.

See it like the lean-production models standardized by Toyota. The Toyota Products System (TPS) comprises Just-in-Time processing that reduces inventory (and related costs) and eliminates costly bottlenecks. TPS also involves such production floor analytics as “The Five W’s” (who, what, when, why and how), and the four “S” aspects that, when Americanized, express sifting, sorting, and something described as spick and span. In Toyota terms, it’s a policy of maintaining a clean and orderly work environment, and worksite discipline.

Other TPS policies include genchi genbutsu, which roughly translates to “Go and see the problem,” because Toyota believes on-site experience surpasses theoretical knowledge. And jidoka, the tenet that empowers employees to stop the production line if they spot a critical inconsistency.

Obviously, TPS is a highly-refined workflow system, but note that many of its aspects incorporate human activities that could be defined as organization, action and investigation methods – all of which says workflow is not just a software solution. It must be accompanied by people and policies.

All of this is a component of the Kaizen continuous improvement standard that, The Kaizen Institute says, becomes an ever-increasing baseline for further improvements.

Did you get that? You analyze a process, find the most effective standard and then use that standard as a foundation for the next scheduled analysis and improvement. See it like finish sanding and clear coating, followed by steel wool buffing, followed by another clear coating…

Kaizen proponents say it’s the most powerful lean-process tool anywhere.

You know this: All business operations should center on profit-making. Therefore, in a production environment, workflow control becomes a primary tool for profit-making because it monitors and controls production costs.

A workflow process forces you to examine the efficiency of all business processes, and can help you transform your shop’s necessary production-expense culture into a profit culture. A workflow system’s primary value is that the system’s analysis often reveals shared but previously unrecognized costs, those that are a part of the overall cost structures but are not directly attributed to singular products, revenue or write-offs. Finding these costs and reducing them from early, middle or late stages of the workflow process positively impacts your end-run operating margins. Knowing such costs – and where they occur – allows you more leeway when competitively pricing your products.

A caution, however, is that such investigations may also inspire you to create other complexities that could negatively affect productivity, which takes us back to Toyota’s genchi genbutsu – go and see the problem.

Some call it management by walking around.

As a small business manager, you may not concern yourself with artificial intelligence (AI) systems and how seers say AI will reduce the future demand for human workers. AI is, after all, a realm for higher-echelon businesses, such as the Corvette factory robotic manufacturing systems in Bowling Green, KY or, in Stuttgart, Germany, Porsche’s giant robotic arms that raise and twirl monocoque sports car frames to align them with other component-installing systems. Obviously, signshops are light years away from such robotics; however, a February Wired magazine article titled “Artificial Meets Reality” begins with an interesting statement: “There was a time – not very long ago – when the very idea of advanced artificial intelligence was discussed only by futurists, speculators, and sci-fi writers. But today, due to swift developments in machine learning and data analysis, AI is on the cusp of surpassing science fiction and becoming science fact.”

Now, you may suppose that AI machine structures don’t pertain to your shop, but a closer look indicates that an imperceptible AI creep into present-day small manufacturing businesses has been underway for some time.’s Kris Hammond provides a textbook definition of AI. He says artificial intelligence is a sub-field of computer science that enables the development of computers that do things normally done by people, especially things associated with people acting intelligently. He adds, “If we start with this definition, any [computer] program can be considered AI – if it does something that we would normally think of as intelligent in humans.” Hammond said AI can be smart, but not smart like us. His belief, and I agree, is that it isn’t how the program does the job, but that it can do it at all.

By this definition, digital print machines, cutting plotters, CNC routers, channel-letter benders, GPS systems and smartphones are signshop AI systems. I’ll add software, especially design software that leads to both sales illustrations and fabrication drawings. And, no surprise, RIP-based software that’s developed and marketed in diverse packages by Adobe, Colorgate, Roland, EFI (Fiery), Onyx, Wasatch, Caldera, SAi, CADlink, Shiraz, Harlequin, Ergosoft and others may include such workflow assets as sign estimating, design templates, file storage, bid preparation, contract preparation, materials sourcing, inventory control, job tracking, customer relations management, billing, accounting entries and costing.

Odds are, you’re already saturated with AI.

Before buying workflow-fortified RIP software, confirm that its pre-press element includes an effective pre-flight system, one that examines incoming digital files to recognize (and respond to) all embedded software assets or tasks residing within the file. Otherwise, an incoming file may include instructions from software your print system doesn’t recognize, which could contaminate the print process or result in a costly misprint. Such a misreading of files might also result in color shifts, the wrong resolution, changed object sizes or substituted fonts.

Automatic and overlooked font substitution is the most subtle and dangerous oversight because a slight difference in fonts is easy for your staff to overlook, but not your client. A classic example is an Adobe Illustrator error message to this effect: “Font is missing and a stock font will be substituted in its place.” There are various ways to handle this, but Adobe recommends you convert the original text to vector art via its Create Outline tool. However, I recommend you make the change in a copied file, preserving the original as is, should you need it for other purposes. Also, once the conversion is made, carefully review a proof image to ensure your revised file matches the client’s original.

Shop proofs let you see your mistakes before the client does.

Sales workflow? Sure. Remember, workflow is a system that aids, tracks and evaluates measurable processes, and sales-workflow software may be a valuable addition to your shop. It may include such assets as opportunity management, lead scoring, lead management, contact management, collaboration, forecasting, messaging, reports, data, intelligence, product line, sales history, pricing and more. Because I have not worked with this software, I telephoned Samantha Simmons, then ST Media’s publishing and brand services coordinator, who worked with the SalesForce customer-relationship software, a sales workflow software, every day. Samantha warned of the garbage in/garbage out problem, meaning that the software, which she thinks is terrific, can only be as effective as the entry accuracy. “In essence, it’s a big Rolodex,” she said, and added that the software also allows her to hyperlink relative sales activities. The ST Media system features tools that incorporate and cross-reference client information. It will also sort client names by characteristics, provide references for clients and assist in staff sales training. Further, the system manager can separately or jointly communicate with the sales staff and, as well, flag certain files for attention, updating or maintenance. In addition, Samantha said SalesForce buyers can sign up for different levels, so there may be one appropriate for your shop.

Keep in mind that any workflow process is a nebulous system that may or may not comprise software to help manage scheduled variables and hopefully rope in outlying evils. Thus, your shop’s workflow processes must be flexible and your shop management team needs to recognize that future changes – staff, machines, processes, products, software or client requests – can quickly change the picture.

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