In my bindery supervisor days I recall a few PIA salespeople (and I don’t mean Printing Industries of America) following client’s jobs through the print shop, snooping around in what seemed to be a random fashion. They might pick up a press sheet, glance at how a skid was wrapped, or pull a few folded brochures from a box. If they glared at me and walked back to the office with brochures in hand I knew something was wrong.
Hindsight tells me it’s because they knew precisely the first thing their client would inspect when the job was delivered. The dreaded glare meant I had screwed up one of those critical items. Of course a good salesperson doesn't have time to baby-sit each job from pre-press through bindery and shipping, nor should they have to. But they DO know those one or two critical items which if botched will cause rejection or at best, raise more red flags for the client.
Do you know the first thing your customers look at when they receive your job? If you do (and I suspect you do) then you can institute a very basic form of quality control by ensuring those items are perfect every time. The concept is simple. Quality control is basically a process to ensure you always deliver exactly what the customer expects. It’s the implementation that’s not easy. You probably have as many different client expectations as you have clients (or more) since those expectations can vary from job to job with each client. The good news is that it can indeed be systematized.
While there are lots of systems and products available for managing quality control in the pre-press and press departments, quality control in the bindery is usually left to the machine operator. If you’re a bindery supervisor with a nervous salesperson looking over your shoulder, all is not lost. We simply need to take a page or two from the big-time QC systems by taking that first step to improve the system you have. Yes you have a system, even if it consists of Jim-Bob drooling chewing tobacco juice on the boxes as you yell at him to hurry up, adjust the fold, the truck’s waiting.
In this micro-lesson we can do three simple things to improve the system:
- Document expectations, especially ‘hot buttons’, for all your clients
- Figure out how to measure or quantify these items
- Make it part of your production process, with feedback and accountability
First, someone (usually the salesperson) needs to talk to the customer about their expectations. To put it another way, what’s the first thing the client will look at? Since our focus is bindery and finishing, your list of answers could include, but is certainly not limited to:
Folding register, scratches, scuffing, fiber cracking, cutting register, batch counts, unauthorized overages or shortages, overweight cartons, broken cartons, bad collating sequence, missing pages, wrinkles, wrong size, size variations, poor trimming, mal-formed spines, and so on.
Second, now that our dialogue is started, you need to get specific which means you have to quantify or measure it.
- For instance, if folding register is a hot button, then you need to find out what is acceptable to your client. A job with +/- 1/16” tolerance for folding on a bleed might be acceptable to one client but cause for rejection by another. You also need to be perfectly clear about what it is you are measuring.
- Are you supplying printed and perfed sheets that run through a client's copiers? Then I suspect the perf strength will top their list of critical items and sheets that fall apart in the copiers will result in a phone call. Sounds like minimum acceptable burst strength will need to be determined, documented and sampled throughout the production run.
Obviously it should be standard practice to check most of the common sense items. No one wants a collated set out of sequence, or a printed piece with wrinkles. Yet things will happen even in the best-run shops. The point here is that if one of these items is a hot-button for your customer, then you want 100% certainty that their job has zero defects in the hot-button area.
This brings us to the third point. Critical information, once it has been gleaned from the client, should then be available to all who need to know, and should be part of the job specs and workflow. Let’s return to our folding example. When the job hits the folding machine, there should be a system in place to ensure that the job is being inspected and that it falls within the client’s expectations.
For example, most binderies require a supervisor sign off on a job once the operator has samples and is ready to run (accountability.) As the operator runs he might sample production pieces based on time intervals, such as every half hour, or quantity intervals such as every 10,000 pieces. In my experience most good operators will look at nearly every batch they pick up or in the more automated systems, they’ll check a folded piece every few minutes. If a batch is outside the acceptable limits written in the specs, the job is stopped and decisions are made. (This is statistical ‘sampling’ in a very basic form.)
With these three simple steps we are in effect using the Pareto Principle of the vital few and trivial many (the 80-20 Rule.) There are a vital few hot buttons for your clients. Document them with a simple system and my bet is that you will eliminate 80% of your bindery “quality control” problems. The concept is easy, but the implementation will require some work if you are lacking in systems.
If you’re ready for an in-depth quality management overhaul, then consider one of the popular systems such as ISO certification, Six Sigma or Deming’s Total Quality Management (TQM). There’s an entire industry devoted to the subject. In the meantime, even the simplest of steps you take toward improving customer satisfaction by meeting their primary expectations will pay big dividends.
As always you're welcome to share your experiences, comments and suggestions below.