Planning: It's All About the Customer
(This article was originally published in 2016, but Ray Chambers' advice is still valuable today.)
There is never a wrong time for in-plant managers to evaluate their operations and start thinking about what they need to change to improve performance. As you make your plans, consider two perspectives: Where we are now and where we want to go.
Determining the current status is a fairly straightforward process. It uses the data found in machine logs, work order analysis, financial records, customer feedback and the like. This is your history. This is where you answer questions like:
- Are my machines being used within their recommended ranges, or do I have unused capacity?
- Am I recovering all of my costs?
- Are we meeting customer expectations and needs?
- What did we do well?
- Where can we improve?
The other perspective, and the one we seem to struggle with most often, is that of future direction. Should you replace that aging Speedmaster, and if so, with what? Another offset press? Should we go all digital? Does keeping an old duplicator for envelopes make sense? Do my team members have the skills to be productive in the emerging digital world? Answers to these questions are arguably the most important decisions you’ll make all year, so we need to get them right. The problem is, there is no book to guide planning for in-plant managers.
Where Do We Go for Answers?
Frequently we reach out to colleagues through one of the print forums. “Help,” the posting goes. “My administration wants a five-year plan. I have offset and digital equipment, but the offset will need replacement and I can’t decide whether to replace my presses or recommend going all digital. What have you done, and was it successful?”
This type of information gathering is commendable, but it has its limitations. Why? Because no two in-plants are the same. Colleges and universities, school districts, non-profits, government agencies and businesses operate in a variety of diverse environments, and a best practice for one may be a disaster for another. It follows that your operating environment may be — and probably is — substantially different from that of the respondents to your call for help. So while hearing from fellow managers may have anecdotal value, you need more information to make a wise decision.
Let me give you an example. The argument for continuing offset capability often cites quality as justification. “Offset is the gold standard,” one respondent noted in a recent discussion. The implication was that digital print may be acceptable for some applications, but it did not meet offset quality, so moving to an all-digital shop would somehow compromise quality. But is that really the case?
A Quality Test
A few years ago I did a presentation on offset versus digital printing at an in-plant managers’ conference. As part of the presentation, I sent full-color files from the host organization to several in-plant managers and asked them to run a few copies and bring them to the conference. I purposely selected in-plants with a variety of equipment. One had a six-color, 40˝ press; another had a four-up five-color press; another a Kodak NexPress; another a Xerox iGen, etc. In the end, most of the high-end marking engines available at the time were represented.
On the day of the session, we spread all of the samples out on tables in the back of the room, masked where they were produced, and invited participants to identify whether each piece was produced on offset or digital equipment. At the end of the day, no one, including the offset press sales representatives in attendance, could consistently identify which was offset and which was digital.
The Real Issue
The issue to me is not offset or digital; the issue is how institutions choose to communicate with their constituencies. Moreover, constituencies are changing. In higher education, for example, the population of high school students — our future market — is declining in some states and increasing in others. Some states have more graduating high school seniors than available seats in colleges and universities, and student recruiting may not be a high priority. In other states, high school enrollment is declining and public and private institutions are competing in a declining pool of potential students. These schools will likely depend heavily on print as a recruiting tool. Clearly, in-plant managers from these two diverse climates will face different challenges.
We also know that today’s incoming students have different values and communicate in different ways from previous generations. Will these factors have a bearing on the way your school markets? Probably. My point, and this is not new, is that these market-driven institutional decisions will not happen in the print shop. We can’t drive the way our organizations communicate, but we do need to play a key role in shaping the strategy. Your long-term planning should consider these types of factors and stress the importance of the in-plant manager’s role in planning for institutional success.
Your planning should be informed by two very important components. First, you must demonstrate a thorough knowledge of your organization — its mission, goals and values — and how print contributes to organizational success. It’s not enough to “print stuff.” You must understand how what you print contributes to the overall success of the organization, and use that understanding to guide your planning.
You also need to thoroughly understand how your key customers use print to do their jobs, their perceptions of your service, and what changes they anticipate. This should be an ongoing process built on regular conversations about their current and future needs and how you can address them. Then, and only then, can you begin to plan and set goals.
The planning question is not, in my view, offset or digital. The planning question is how can I help my customers be successful. When you can answer that question, the rest should fall into place.
Related story: The Anatomy of an In-plant Closing
Ray Chambers, CGCM, MBA, has invested over 30 years managing and directing printing plants, copy centers, mail centers and award-winning document management facilities in higher education and government.
Most recently, Chambers served as vice president and chief information officer at Juniata College. Chambers is currently a doctoral candidate studying Higher Education Administration at the Pennsylvania State University (PSU). His research interests include outsourcing in higher education and its impact on support services in higher education and managing support services. He also consults (Chambers Management Group) with leaders in both the public and private sectors to help them understand and improve in-plant printing and document services operations.