The Value of an Outside Opinion
It all happens behind your back. By the time your boss calls you in, weeks of high-level discussions about your in-plant have already taken place.
You’ll be stunned when you hear what they have planned for your in-plant. You’ll post frantic information requests to listservs; you’ll call magazine editors looking for useful articles to help prove your value; you’ll throw together data on your cost savings — and it will all be for naught.
“If you wait till they ask the question, ‘should we outsource printing?’ you waited too long,” warns Ray Chambers, principal of Chambers Management Group.
He should know. As the former manager of several in-plants and a consultant who has evaluated some 70 in-plants, he’s seen nearly every type of in-plant threat unfold — from the new VP looking to make changes, to the outside vendor planting outsourcing ideas in upper management’s minds. But despite the skepticism of some administrators about the value of having an in-plant, Chambers says he has never recommended outsourcing.
“I’ve always been able to show the value of the shop,” he says. “The value was there; they just needed somebody to help them tell their story.”
And that is the value consultants bring. They provide an outside opinion — an authoritative voice that makes upper management take notice.
“I can walk into a C-level executive’s office or administrator’s office, and I can say the exact same things that the printing manager has been saying for years, and it will be listened to more, just because I don’t work there,” agrees Howie Fenton, president of Howie Fenton Consulting. “When somebody from the outside comes in, there’s a lot more credibility to that person.”
A Fresh Set of Eyes
Though many in-plants will collect their own justification data and report it to management, that may not be enough, Fenton says. You may be blind to a problem your management will use to close you down.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know,” Fenton observes. “A consultant’s going to come in with a fresh set of eyes.”
Things that are important to an in-plant manager are not the same things the people they report to consider crucial, notes Chambers. A consultant can help you explain why the in-plant is important to the parent organization. Furthermore, you may be so focused on your own operation that you don’t consider what other in-plants are doing and how you can learn from their best practices.
“What the consultant brings ... is not only your story but 40 or 50 other stories,” Chambers says.
Also, he adds, it’s difficult for managers to know whether they’re doing a good job because customers often won’t tell them to their face about problems and disappointments.
“I hear things that your customers aren’t going to tell you,” he says.
Fenton notes that customer dissatisfaction was one of the problems he uncovered while consulting for the University of Michigan’s in-plant a few years ago, along with too many layers of management and high prices. His recommendations helped save that in-plant from closing, he says, and boosted customer satisfaction tremendously.
“Now people love them,” he says.
“We most likely wouldn’t be here had it not been for him,” affirms Roger Meyers, Printing Supervisor at the University of Michigan.
Bolstering Your Position
Outside consultants can also help confirm what in-plant managers think they know and give them the expert endorsement they need to justify their plans. For example, the University of Georgia used the RFP process to find a qualified consultant a few years ago to evaluate its two autonomous printing operations, which it was considering merging.
After determining the printing needs of the university and assessing the financial quality and business processes of each operation, the consultant recommended eliminating the offset presses, expanding the use of third-party printers and reducing staffing levels through attrition. As a result, the university has now combined three separate shops into one central design, printing and binding facility and seen significant cost reductions.
The decision to bring in a consultant was a good one, says Harold Waters, manager of Bulldog Print + Design. “You wouldn’t have had the same level of certainty in your decision had you tried to do it yourself,” he points out.
Though in-plants may acknowledge the benefits of hiring a consultant, the cost can often be a roadblock. While some equipment vendors may offer to do a “free” in-plant assessment, both Fenton and Chambers caution organizations not to fall for this.
“The vendor has an underlying objective,” Fenton says. “They’re trying to sell something.”
“It’s not objective,” agrees Chambers. “The vendors are in it to sell equipment.”
He’s seen these vendor assessment reports and says they are disingenuous and tend to exaggerate in order to support the vendor’s underlying goal.
“Frankly, they’re embarrassing,” he says.
Rather, Chambers suggests managers include the cost of a consultant in their management plans, focusing on it as an opportunity for improvement. Link it to the annual evaluation process, he says. If upper management sees it this way it will more likely be approved.
“It’s just good management practice to actively look for external evaluations,” he says.
Fenton notes that industry leaders routinely bring in consultants so they can benefit from outside ideas and best practices, and be more competitive. In-plants should suggest hiring a consultant as part of their goal to be the very best in the industry.
Fenton encourages all in-plants to collect and report data showing not only their cost savings compared to outside printers but also their other benefits, like protecting the organization’s brand and providing rush service. Ask employees to make a record of every time a job comes in with the wrong logo or tag line, and keep track of every rush job and last-minute change. Having data on how many times a year these things happen will do much to bolster an in-plant’s case.
But even so, hearing information like this from an outside consultant will always carry more weight, Chambers says.
“It’s one thing for you to talk about how valuable what you do is,” he says. “They need somebody to reinforce what you’re telling them.”
Bob has served as editor of In-plant Impressions since October of 1994. Prior to that he served for three years as managing editor of Printing Impressions, a commercial printing publication. Mr. Neubauer is very active in the U.S. in-plant industry. He attends all the major in-plant conferences and has visited nearly 170 in-plant operations around the world. He has given presentations to numerous in-plant groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia, including the Association of College and University Printers and the In-plant Printing and Mailing Association. He also coordinates the annual In-Print contest, cosponsored by IPMA and In-plant Impressions.