Printers generally are a notoriously skeptical lot, me included. Many years ago when I was managing a small commercial printing company, a couple of clean-cut fellows in suits entered our shop. They said they were from the FBI and wanted to talk to the manager. I laughed a bit too heartily and replied “OK, sure you are, show me some ID.”
Although we had a storefront, it was a matter of convenience and we didn’t really cater to retail traffic. But when you leave the door open you can’t help but get your share of crazies. As I’m trying to figure out what kind of scam these two suits were pulling, they glared at me and produced legitimate FBI credentials. I tried to make light of my skeptical nature but no matter what I said they wouldn’t crack a smile. They didn’t find me amusing and fortunately they weren’t looking for me or my boss. The target was some scoundrel known to be sourcing print jobs in the region.
When it comes to change, most of us are probably as skeptical as I was with the g-men. This is especially true when heavy-duty change is attached to a buzzword like Lean manufacturing. We might respond, “OK, I’ll go along with you but show me some proof!”
According to various sources, the failure rate for implementing Lean practices is cited as being anywhere from 50-90%. It’s only natural to ask then, “Why would I invest so much time, energy and resources into something when the odds are stacked against me?”
There is an excellent, easy-to-read book on the subject of Lean manufacturing for printers that will almost certainly put to rest some of this skepticism. Setup Reduction for Printers: A Practical Guide to Reducing Makeready Time in Print Manufacturing is written by Malcom G. Keif and Kevin Cooper, both of whom are professors in printing related fields at California Polytechnic State University. It sheds light on this question and more importantly, urges us to ask some hard, probing questions about our printing or print finishing businesses.
Their book details the concept of Lean as it began in the 1940’s with the Toyota Production System. Printers today face many of the same challenges that car manufacturers of the time did. Their customers valued choice in cars, yet the requested volume didn’t accommodate long production runs for which they were equipped, much like offset printing. With far fewer assembly lines, how could tiny Toyota produce a wide variety of “short-run” cars to compete with the big Detroit players who outgunned them?
There were two ways to do this:
1) add new, expensive assembly lines for each new model or
2) figure out how to quickly change over the production line and get more from what they had at hand.
Against all odds and conventional manufacturing practice, they set out to do the second. Operators were challenged to come up with ideas. At the time it took at least 24 hours to change over an assembly line, yet they needed to get it down to minutes to be competitive.
Enter the Single Minute Exchange of Die (SMED) program devised by Shigeo Shingo. It was a radical idea which challenged all conventional thinking and processes, but it produced radical results. The book goes into more detail but suffice it to say that through the years, they managed to get their changeover down to a remarkable 10 minutes. The rest is history.
The concept of Lean and the basis of the book are quite simple: “Value creation, as defined by the customer, is the central goal for all printers and converters…Customer value is defined as those items a customer is delighted to pay for.” Everything else is “waste.” Lean is the continuous process of eliminating or minimizing waste.
Setups are not something the customer really values, even though he pays for it. They pay you to run machines which produce something they value, whether it’s books, brochures, forms, etc. Even if the customer doesn’t mind paying for setup, reducing setup is needed to stay competitive. If you’re an offset shop competing against digital, you already know this.
Thus to provide more value to the customer and remain competitive, you must minimize setup times. While this is the focus of the book, the authors stress that setup reduction is maximized when it’s part of a sustained Lean management program.
Lean itself is not radical. Countless companies do it. It is the results that can and should be radical, just as SMED was for Toyota. In order for Lean to work it must revolve around the people and not a particular system, machine, or process. As the authors say, “Your biggest competitive advantage is with your people, not your equipment.”
As printers and binders, we tend to focus immediately on the equipment and processes for becoming Lean. We like to "do" so we can see results. The authors maintain that you can’t buy continued competitive advantage with equipment alone. Even if you are the first to buy, others will be buying too, so it merely keeps you current and gives you at best a temporary advantage.
It’s what you do differently with this equipment that will give you an advantage. This can only come through the people who run and manage it, through those who continuously search for ways to provide more value to the customer. It’s only through people that any radical, significant competitive advantages will be possible. And if the people in a company are passionate about delivering more value to the customer, they will undertake the quest with pleasure.
The fact that Lean is a “deep” subject might put you off from reading anything about it. Don’t be. The book is clear and easy to read with plenty of printing and print finishing-related suggestions. Reading it is well worth your time, no matter what your position is in your company. There is no doubt you will pick up enough setup reduction ideas to make a noticeable difference. Considering the rate of change in the printing industry, this is reason enough to review the topic. You can buy the book here.
Even if your company never embraces Lean, you can use it as your own personal micro-strategy to improve how you do your job. In this sense you will provide more value to your customer (your employer) which in turns makes you more valuable as an employee and gives you a personal competitive advantage.
Feel free to share your Lean experiences below. Or better yet, if you ever made a government agent smile, tell us how you did it!