Is your workflow as efficient as it can be? Are you experiencing the operational efficiencies you expected from your last workflow makeover? For many companies it is a hard question to answer. As each new tool is installed there is anticipation that jobs will move more smoothly through the process. The tools may speed some processes but cause additional steps in others. Team members begin to question if the workflow can ever be efficient or automated. When the next opportunity to add a tool or rethink the workflow comes along, everyone is suspicious and resistant.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
There are ways to incorporate workflow automation into your environment, but it takes three big steps. The first is an honest situation review. The second is a tool analysis. And, the third is a plan that includes accountability. The goal is to make what you have as efficient as possible using the automation options you have, and then look toward adding relevant automation once you have a stable platform.
Remember that workflow automation is intended to take the human touchpoints out of the process, reducing costs, maintaining consistency, and optimizing capacity.
A common talking point when workflows are reviewed is that the business has so many unique properties that automation is not an option. The belief is that each process has already been carefully reviewed and the current level of manual handling is required due to the sensitivity or complexity of the production.
That leaves two competing concepts. One is that the current workflow is unique and cannot be automated. The other is that automation can free bottlenecks and open capacity. How do you bring these two camps together?
The process starts with an honest review of each touchpoint in your workflow, including those that are already automated. If your shop has an existing process map (and you should for disaster recovery purposes), start by walking through it to see if it is accurate. Many shops discover that the actual daily process has variations from what everyone believes. Document what really happens for each type of work you do. It is usually different for contract work, ad hoc work, and it may also vary based on finishing and mailing or other delivery needs.
Once you have a good framework, identify where you are already automated. Most shops find that some of their processes are very automated. Other processes require hand-holding at one or more points in the process. If your shop hasn’t invested in automation tools, you may still have some automation. Look for the places in your workflow where a job moves seamlessly between processes.
Now look for the places in your workflow where people are moving the job between processes. Look for how jobs are brought into the system. Is a salesperson writing something down and handing it to a Customer Service Representative to key in for review by a production planner who walks over to a scheduler to find time for the work? Is there a job that arrives in a hot folder that someone opens every time to see if it has all its required resources? Focus on those. What stops those jobs from being put through your existing automation processes? It might be the time it takes to set up the automation. Or, you may have jobs that no one has had time to evaluate for automation. Build boxes for the common reasons and identify the jobs that fall into them.
Now review the software tools that are installed. This is more than a quick look at what is on the screen. You may find that you have multiple tools in place that are similar. They may have come in to meet the needs of a specific project, or they may be the result of mergers and acquisitions.
Look at what you are paying maintenance for and look for the directories on your servers containing software. You want to identify an owner for every piece of software. If you can’t find an owner, move the software to a dedicated place where it cannot be accessed. Once some time has passed, uninstall it. Keep the accounting team in the loop if it is software that has a maintenance package.
Map people to software by identifying who uses each package. In some cases this is as easy as looking at administrative permissions and the number of licensed seats, but other software may not be gated, so you might need to walk the workflow to see who all of the constituents of each product might be.
What often comes from this analysis process is the discovery of tools that don’t appear on any list. Downloaded freeware, tools brought in with a new employee, and tools acquired by a department to solve a specific challenge are common. Another common discovery is that the software suites installed to ensure consistency and efficiency are circumvented by privately managed spreadsheets and notebooks.
At the end of your review you should have a list of your primary, approved software for each of these processes:
- Job Onboarding, including Web-to-Print and e-Delivery
- Design and Composition, including Variable Data tools
- Make-ready, Prepress, and Color Management
- Data Stream Transforms
- Commercial Print MIS or Transactional Process Management
- Output Management, including print, email and application pushes
- Postal and Data Quality
- Data Capture, Analytics and Display
Once you know what you have, now you have what you need to build a plan toward automation.
The Plan and Keeping Everyone Accountable
If your shop has some automation today, your plan should be to become more automated, adding efficiency, reducing costs, and increasing throughput. Your plan may include extending the use of existing software tools or replacing tools with a software suite that offers end-to-end automation.
If your shop has no automation today, your plan should be to identify the touchpoints production jobs experience from the point of onboarding to the point of delivery. The path to automation will be a comprehensive software suite that enables fast and consistent job onboarding, easy flow through the production process, and on-going visibility during production.
Your review may bring to you consider RICOH ProcessDirector™, which has the features you need for end-to-end automation. The rich feature set and modular approach to automation enable every facet of capturing, manipulating, and managing production work. And, it has the features that keep everyone informed during production.
The goal of workflow automation is to improve every facet of the environment, streamline costs, increase capacity, and ensure that every communication is produced to the highest standards. With RICOH ProcessDirector every member of the team has access to the tools they need to create seamless flows that speed work through the shop. It helps meet the integrity required in “touch and toss” environments while also ensuring that the quality of every communication meets the toughest specifications.
While RICOH ProcessDirector is a best-in-class solution for workflow automation, it also meets the requirements for accountability. A common concern of print shop managers is that they are missing visibility into audit trails and other output tracking measures that help them ensure integrity in their production. This vendor-neutral solution provides access to everything needed to track every piece and every process. You can start with a basic workflow framework and build it out over time to bring all work into a single workflow that enables accountability at all levels.
Your Next Steps
Start with that honest review of your current environment. If you have not walked your workflow in the past year you may be surprised at all the creative ways that work moves through the process. With the best intentions, team members find ways to make sure that work comes in, gets into production and gets out the door. But their best intentions aren’t a good substitution for a business-focused, documented workflow that is as automated as possible. Automation brings a measure of reliability that doesn’t rely on a specific team member knowing how to prepare a job. An automated workflow doesn’t go on vacation. Day in and day out, as jobs arrive, they are interrogated to identify their characteristics, mapped to appropriate processes, and turned loose through a successive set of processes. You may find that over time some team members can be re-directed to more valuable work as the need to monitor jobs is reduced.
This level of consistency and efficiency should be the goal for every print shop. Talk to a Ricoh representative to learn how the solutions you have installed today can enable workflow automation and discuss what additional modules might bring to your processes. There are dozens of ways that they can help you.
Meet the Author
As the Global Software Product Manager for RICOH ProcessDirector, Andy specializes in critical communications and transactional workflows, providing product and business development leadership for both customers and Ricoh teams around the world. An entrepreneur at heart, Andy grew up with strong roots in the industry being raised in the family printing business. Later starting his own electronic publishing services company specializing in early applications of Adobe Acrobat and PDF technology, his business was acquired by IKON Office Solutions, now Ricoh USA. With a print career spanning 25+ years, Andy continues to drive high-value customer-centric workflow solutions for the Ricoh Global Production WorkFlow Software and Solutions division.