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Aug 1, 1999 12:00 AM

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The dream is always the same. You are walking through your sheet-fed pressroom. Not a sound can be heard. No one is there. The silence unnerves you. You stop to examine pallets of paper near the end of a press. Only it isn't paper. It's money. Stacks and stacks of it as far as you can see. Just as you are about to grasp a handful of bills, the money spontaneously combusts and Johnny Cash is standing next to you singing "Ring of Fire."

A fire engine roars up, sirens wailing. "Let's get this fire put out!" yells a familiar voice and you look up to see your pressroom supervisor. You wonder why he is carrying a Dalmatian puppy and if the dog is housebroken, until you notice that the firefighters do not seem to be doing anything.

"This fire doesn't match the proof," you hear one complain. "Who's gonna pay?"

"Well, who scheduled the washup before the fire?" demands a second firefighter.

"This fire wouldn't have happened if I'd been consulted," huffs another.

"Mr. Cash, did you know your guitar is out of tune?" inquires the supervisor. "Let me just show you how to calibrate that."

One firefighter seems to be drinking coffee from the oxygen tank on his back. "Y'know, Prometheus stole fire and consequently was afflicted with terrible liver problems," observes the coffee drinker. "Interestingly, the liver is one of the few organs capable of some regeneration."

"Really?" asks Johnny Cash. "I didn't know that."

You are about to grab a hose and start fighting the fire yourself when you notice a television crew clustered around the press console. Ted Koppel is holding the dog, which in turn is holding a microphone in its mouth. "America wants to know," intones Koppel. "Will this job ever get up to color? It's Day 47 and the makeready continues. More on this crisis after this commercial message."

Sounds like a big nightmare, doesn't it? If you're spending too much time fighting organizational fires, your profit margins are going up in smoke. Sure, problems will happen. But in today's market, inefficiency is not an option. On the surface, business may seem better than ever. Thanks to a booming economy, profits are on the rise--the 1998 Printing Industries of America (PIA) ratios found U.S. printers' before tax profitability rose from 3.25 percent in 1997 to 3.36 percent over the past year. On the other hand, as most printers are well aware, labor currently is at a premium.

"We've got an environment with fairly good sales growth, but printers are still paying four to five percent a year in wages and salaries, and about five percent more in health benefits because of the tight labor market," explains Dr. Ron Davis, chief economist at PIA. "Our data shows printers are charging about the same as they did for printing products last year. They're being squeezed, but they can't raise prices. If they are going to hold their profits, they need to increase productivity."

What can you do to boost productivity? In recent issues, we've outlined quick-response/pitstop makeready strategies as well as how to overcome human factors that can impede productivity. Regardless of how you improve your manufacturing process, you must clearly define your current position--i.e., you need to do some benchmarking.

Benchmarking often is misconstrued as doing some brainstorming and imitating a perceived leader. ("I've heard fantastic things about Nordstrom's customer service. Why can't our CSRs be more like that?") Successful benchmarking, however, begins at home.

"Benchmarking begins with a thorough understanding of your own organizational products and processes," writes Michael J. Spendolini in The Benchmarking Book. "In most cases, benchmarking the activities of others when you don't understand yourself is a waste of time. If you are going to compare yourself with someone else, you had better have a good sense of your own performance first."

You will get no argument from Bob Diehl, the co-author of Benchmarking the Sheet-fed Pressroom and CEO of Master Graphics (Memphis, TN). Diehl defines benchmarking as "establishing productivity reference points to be used as a standard of comparison in future pressroom activity.

"You're not managing what you're not measuring," explains the exec. "People need to stop worrying about the industry standard for platemaking and measure their own performance. The industry standard is insignificant. What's significant is what's happening in your shop and what you're doing to change that number."

What should you benchmark? While it is important to look at the organization's performance as a whole, you can't do everything at once. "You can benchmark on a per-job basis to see whether you performed within what you expected, based on what you sold the job for," says Craig Press, president, Profectus Inc., and a PIA/Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (GATF) consultant. "Doing it on a job-by-job basis shows you whether you're profitable on certain types of jobs or if production improvements are needed. You can compare equipment--this press has a faster makeready and run speeds than that press. You can also benchmark employee productivity and efficiency." Beyond performance issues, such benchmarking can be used for strategic planning, e.g., evaluating the need for new equipment, defining your niche "or maybe even changing the focus of your business," submits Press.

"What business are you in?" asks Diehl. "Where are you charging the most hours? Lots of people are in the makeready business. They charge more time to makeready and all the things involved between producing saleable sheets than they do to run time. Reducing that time immediately flows to the bottom line."

Although past performance is no guarantee of future results, it is the best source of benchmarking information. "You have three numbers you want to compare staff and equipment against," relates Press, "your estimated hours, running speed and running waste. You have estimated the time it's going to take to makeready, sheets of paper that will be wasted until you get good copies and washup time. You look at historical information--how long has it taken operators in the past? You try to compare similar jobs --and that becomes your standard. That's your benchmark and, of course, your goal is always to do better."

Press further explains that making an estimated vs. actual comparison for benchmarking purposes requires looking at the job from its first hazy outlines to the final printed piece. "When you estimate, you don't always have all the facts," says Press. "Key information could be missing. So when the job comes in, you review it and come up with a planned set of standards. Your shop floor data collection system provides actual performance information--typically people compare the initial and subsequent estimates as well as actual performance against the benchmark."

What do you do if estimated and actual performance doesn't track very closely? "If there's a variance, you don't know who to blame," responds american printer contributing editor and estimating guru Don Merit. "Is it the estimator or the people doing the work or a little of both? You have to get everyone involved. Have a meeting and explain the problem. You need accurate estimating to predict what jobs are going to cost and how long they're going to take so you can price and schedule them wisely. Ask if your standards are reasonable. Ask everyone, especially the people in manufacturing. If everyone agrees the standards are reasonable, ask why they're not being met--what can you do to help?"

Management should also ensure that the estimator doesn't lose sight of why estimates are generated. "An estimator is getting requests for estimates thrown at him or her all day," notes Merit. "If the estimator's goal is to go home at five with the lowest possible in-pile, he or she will simply grind out estimates. But if you remember your job is not to produce a lot of estimates but to win profitable orders, you're going to look at those specs and ask why the customer is printing the job and what you can suggest to get the job done equally well or better for less money. You bite the bullet and make more work for yourself, but you're delighting the customer."

Diehl echoes the importance of getting employee buy-in for the benchmarking/continual improvement effort. "How do you define good pressroom supervisors?" asks the exec. "Most people will say it's guys who get the work out on time. But's that a schedule-driven approach as opposed to management-driven."

The hallmark of a well-run pressroom is that problems are not merely solved--they are resolved. "A lot of activity in the pressroom results from problems that keep occurring," claims Master Graphics' Diehl. "When you have problem-solvers for managers, sometimes there's a tendency to create problems because of the importance attached to that role."

A majority of employees want to do a good job, maintains Diehl. The problem is, management does not set expectations. "When employees leave the building, do they know how to feel?" asks Diehl. "If you don't measure their performance and tell them how they're doing, they will not know. Should they wait for you to say 'Good job,' when it's a hollow message without any facts? If you give them the numbers, they'll know the definition of a successful day. They'll know if they met management's expectations."

Management should avoid a punitive approach to process improvement. Rather than a do-it-or-else approach, encourage employees to take ownership of the program by sharing the rewards with them. Explain what you are trying to do and why it is important to establish standard operating procedures. For example, if you are trying to improve makeready times, Diehl suggests working with one press crew at time. As that team embraces the program and meets its goal, it will allay others' fears and convince skeptics that past performance can be improved.

Williamson Printing (Dallas) implemented a Share Our Savings (SOS) program as part of its benchmarking effort. "We measure our spoilage and unplanned waste," explains Jerry Williamson, chairman of the board and CEO. "Four or five years ago, we were at about 2.5 percent--at a $67 million company, that's serious money. We instituted a plan setting a target of two percent for the first year. We measure it on a monthly basis and have a formula tied to that number for sharing that savings with employees. It's well publicized--everyone can see how we're doing. It really does put it in team members' hands--they're policing themselves."

Does the program work? "We have cut our spoilage and unplanned waste significantly," responds Williamson, who was recently honored as the NAPL/GATF Sheet-fed Executive of the Year. "It's now less than 1.5 percent."

Williamson originally paid out the savings once a year. To maintain employee enthusiasm, it now conducts a monthly drawing tied to the savings. Although it's impossible to offer monthly incentives for all, up to 20 lucky employees are eligible to win $100 each.

As part of its benchmarking efforts, Williamson subscribes to PIA ratios ("for the past 25 years," according to the exec) and has GATF-conducted audits done two to three times a year. "We have a formal quality effort measuring our improvement in every area," notes Williamson.

Accentuating the positive also makes a difference. For example, although preventive maintenance is one of the best strategies for keeping productivity on track, it is often perceived as a form of punishment. Avoiding preventive maintenance sometimes enables a crew to post better numbers than those crews that are doing it. "One thing that works for us is to break the press down into units: infeed, delivery, coater and the cylinders," offers Diehl. "Each crew is then responsible for certain units. It's obvious who's doing their maintenance, and all the crews are on a level playing field when measuring productivity."

Press stresses the role of data collection systems in managing the benchmarking process. "You need good management reports," the consultant counsels. "If you tried to look at every single job, you wouldn't see the forest for the trees. While someone in the job costing/billing area should be determining the profitability of jobs, summarized information is most useful for benchmarking."

Echoes Diehl, "It's important to track trends. One job does not a business make. Most companies do about 2,500 jobs a year. That's a couple hundred jobs a month. Look at the trends that make up those individual jobs."

How do you choose a data collection system? "It's a big project," Press concedes. "We evaluate companies' needs, their workflow, paperwork, how they conduct their business and build a list of requirements. Our list is up to 70 systems just for the printing industry and about 120 systems total. You need to identify your priorities."

How does ISO fit into printers' benchmarking efforts? "ISO registration does not mean that every produced piece achieves both internal and external customer satisfaction," writes GATF's Ken Rizzo in Total Production Maintenance: A Guide for the Printing Industry. "It means that the implemented quality system is capable of satisfying customer requirements. One of the biggest benefits of being registered to ISO 9000 is that the printer is forced to acquire discipline. Without discipline, the printer will be unable to consistently adhere to operational procedures, preventive maintenance procedures scheduling and effective materials procurement."

ISO is also an effective means of communicating management expectations. Pictorial Offset (Carlstadt, NJ) recently had its management system registered under both ISO 9002 and ISO 14001 standards. Registration for ISO 9002, a Quality Management System, involved written documentation of all procedures used to ensure repeatable performance. ISO 14001, an Environmental Management System, involved documenting all potential parts of the business that could negatively impact the environment. All Pictorial personnel have been trained on normal operating procedures as well as emergency actions in case of failure. "The driving reason was to make us more competitive and give every employee in the plant a level playing field of what we expect and how to achieve those expectations," explains Donald Samuels, managing partner. "We try to benchmark ourselves against local competitors, too. I belong to a group called the Young Presidents' Organization and within that group, there are about 20 printers from around the country. We benchmark ourselves against those printers, too."

Trade associations are another excellent source of benchmarking assistance. GATF, for example, recently conducted its inaugural Sheet-fed Benchmarking Study. Approximately 40 U.S. and Canadian printers participated in the study. GATF gave each participant the same file and asked them to record their prepress times and makeready times as they ran the job. Each participant was also asked to include information about their firm and the equipment used. Participants submitted at least 10 satisfactory sheets from the job.

"Our attempt here is simply to measure participants' ability to take a file, preflight it, image it, check the plates, take it off press, put it on the press and run it to the point a customer okay would be given," explains GATF's James A. Workman. "We take individuals' information and compare to everyone else's. Ultimately the goal is to identify some best practices. We also hope to find out which automated technology has a significant impact."

"The survey breaks out automated presses vs. semiautomated and manual presses," submits study participant Ken Huizenga, pressroom supervisor, Spectrum Printing Co. (Tuscon, AZ). "It's also broken down by sizes--half-size sheet-fed presses up to 29-inch and then 40-inch. You can really take a look at how you compared with others who had similar equipment. It was really interesting to see that we were still able to stay competitive without full automation on our presses."

Huizenga is a firm believer in applying the tools of quality control. "There's a densitometer at all of our presses. At the four-color press, we have a scanning densitometer, manual densitometer and spectophotometer. Jobs run using the scanning densitometer are logged so when we rerun them, we just throw in the magnetic card that recorded the data-- making sure the first sheet matches the old numbers. We bought the scanning densitometer at the same time we bought the four-color press. We saw it being used in the field and knew we had to have it." The general commercial shop works with many ad agencies, doing everything from business cards to annual reports.

Another Tucson printer, Sunshine Media Printing, also is enthusiastic about participating in the GATF benchmarking effort. Because of its niche, it's difficult for Sunshine to compare itself to other operations. "We are an unusual operation," explains general manager Howie Hibbs. "We are a publication printer that has one client. We're similar to an in-plant; we produce trade publications for building, restaurant, medical and real estate associations. We don't do any other commercial work."

Hibbs says the bindery is his next benchmarking target. He's also lobbying for a computerized data management system. "Without it, it's like taking a sailboat out without any kind of charts," muses Hibbs. "If you stay in sight of land, you're doing well."

Benchmarking isn't a flavor-of-the-month management idea. It's a way to take control of your manufacturing process by coming to grips with existing inefficiencies. If nothing else, benchmarking is one way to break the fire-fighting cycle and banish your worst production nightmares.

The GATF 1998 Benchmarking Study can be ordered by calling (800) 662-3916. GATF also conducts a two-day workshop and condensed seminar on benchmarking for the printing industries. For more information, call Jim Workman at (800) 910-4283, ext. 111.

Continuous Improvement Network (CIN) brings together printers, customers and suppliers that have a common interest in improving their processes. For more information on this PIA/GATF Special Interest Group, call (412) 741-6860, ext. 116.

Statistical Sampling in the Pressroom. This 20-page guidebook explains how to accurately sample pressruns. Readers will gain insight on establishing average solid ink density, dot gain, contrast and trap of a pressrun. Call (800) 662-3916 for more information or see

The First Step to Long-Run Success: Build a Knowledge Base, an NAPL Long-Run Growth Leaders series booklet. In addition to benchmarking financials, Long-Run Growth Leaders evaluates clients, employees and production. Look for a benchmarking booklet to be published this fall. Call (800) 642-6275 or see

Benchmarking the Sheet-fed Pressroom. Luke Welsh and Bob Diehl offer step-by-step instructions for tracking where and when your sheet-fed operation is losing money. Call (800) 642-6275, ext. 1315; or see

Workflow Reengineering (Adobe Press). Consultants and american printer contributing editors Gary Poyssick and Steve Hannaford offer 36 Process Improvement Points (PIPs), including real-world case studies. Call (800) 642-6275, ext. 1315; or see

Printing Industries of America offers the following publications. Call (800) 662-3916 or see for more information.

Productivity Benchmarks: Sheet-fed Printers Production Characteristics--Survey data includes run speeds, run lengths, waste and spoilage ratios, and other job characteristics. Technology Benchmarks: Printers' Use and Assessment of New Graphic Communications Technology--More than 500 printers from throughout North America weigh in on 45 new technologies.

PIA Production and Costs Standards Report--This report is said to help readers improve estimating, evaluate operating costs and develop accurate cost rates.

PIA Ratio Series--Published in 17 volumes for most types and sizes of businesses, this benchmarking tool helps users assess individual company financial performance against industry averagesand profit leaders.