Production: Never Miss a Deadline Again

By: Jerry Simpkins

Never Miss Another Deadline

A significant challenge or some might say responsibility we have in production is to keep the trains running on time, i.e. fulfill our deadline commitment. Advertising can sell all the ads necessary for a productive month; commercial printing can bring in job after job; circulation can increase rack sales; and editorial can produce some of the most riveting and informational stories in our coverage area, but if production can’t get the job done every time, on time, we all fail as a team.

Hitting deadlines and living up to our responsibilities in production does not happen by luck. In order to meet the demands for on-time delivery, we need to have a plan and execute it on a predictable basis. Effective scheduling is key to a structured workflow; the two go hand-in-hand. Each area of the operation has its specific responsibilities and the next department relies on the previous area to meet subsequent goals.

There are several analogies you can equate with successful (or failed) workflow. One I prefer to use is the process of dominos. When all the tiles are in line and correctly placed, the process begins and each domino falls in a predictable fashion; the next tile can always rely on the previous one and the process flows flawlessly until that one starter push completes the process. Good planning, statically implemented, relying on the previous area; success. But, one single domino out of place and the entire process comes to a less than impressive halt.

Sounds a lot like production workflow to me!

One way to successfully implement effective production workflow is to schedule properly and then hold each area responsible to meet their goals. Pretty simple, right? If it was, all of us would be hitting every deadline all day long, but we don’t. Many of the “derailments” are before production even gets its hands on things. Late ads, waiting on customer proofs, late breaking stories, computer / system glitches, inefficient coworkers—the list goes on. Much as we’d like it to be, it’s simply never perfect.

A Road Map to Hitting Your Deadlines

So with all these challenges how do we ever hit a deadline?  We plan well and we execute even better.

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Three key areas I have found beneficial in production scheduling are:

Create a detailed schedule for each and every job: in-house, intercompany and commercial.
Provide a clearly defined/detailed personnel work schedule.
Establish a well-structured delivery/distribution schedule.

To start, the basic schedule would include everything going to press, listed by day, job, etc.

This is the basis of the plan, detailing the workflow throughout the primary areas of production: prepress/page output, plate/press, and mailroom/distribution.

The order in which this process is undertaken is instrumental to its overall success. As reservations, print orders, insertion orders, special sections, delivery requests and commercial work flows in throughout the week, keep a written record of each job. Midweek, previous to the week I am scheduling for, I sit down and organize jobs according to the required time out.

At this point the old style of paper piles and pushpins can work best. Until you have every known job in front of you, there can be so many changes I’ve found that while entering them into a spreadsheet electronically ahead of time may seem like great organization, it just makes for additional work when you have to shuffle jobs around later in the cycle.

As you probably know by now, production is a department that works backwards when scheduling. Starting with when you have to “deliver” each product then planning your workflow backward from that point. Now the planning can begin.

Many newspapers have moved to one standard Web width; in my opinion, this is a mixed blessing. Sure you have a much more simplistic operation, much more straight forward, but you’ve also lost the ability to land varied Web commercial work and the opportunity to provide the organization with a necessary mix of products to increase revenues. In this trying revenue climate we need every product we can offer advertising and editorial to make ends meet.

But again I digress. The schedule for most of us presents varied product types, varied Web widths, varied paper stock and it can be downright demanding putting together the pieces of the puzzle.

After you establish the goal on the backend to meet an acceptable finish time, try to group similar Web sizes, color configurations, formats, and paper stocks in order to make the output and printing process as seamless and efficient as possible.

The schedule in Figure One is a guideline, a roadmap showing the starting point and the process (workflow) plan to reach your final destination. It is not meant to be the all-inclusive document; there should be back-up work orders or job jackets for each job with specific details related to each.

Progressing along day by day, place each job in its respective order based on when it needs to complete the cycle. Include an “estimated” run count (final count should be on work order provided to press), Web width, paper stock, format (again, try to keep as many of these grouped as possible to maximize efficiency). You can use a few spaces on the schedule for whatever is specific to your operation and your needs, I throw in stitch and trim products, products that are scheduled to be inserted and/or mailed.

From Planning to Final Delivery

Now comes a critical point in the process, planning the workflow from customer files through final delivery.

030_EP1215Obviously you need to plan this out well or all else fails. Allow enough time for each part in the production cycle, but schedule tight to be as efficient as possible. Be realistic, yet keep in mind that time is money and a well ran production department can be a tremendous asset to the organization and the bottom line. I will tell you that whoever said “things don’t always go as planned” was right, but without a plan poor results are inevitable. Be ready to roll with the punches. Plan well, improvise better. Run the best department you can with the hand you’re dealt.  If everything went exactly as planned we wouldn’t need production directors.

The process starts when we receive files from the “customer.” The customer can be internal (your prepress area), external (intercompany work coming to you preflighted and ready to go) or commercial/outside work. This one item can often be the most challenging. You can plan workflow in finite detail, but you can only control to a small degree when a “customer” will get you the file. It’s one of the most frustrating parts of in the production cycle, but it’s often unavoidable and how we react and adjust to the challenge is the true mark of a well-run department.

Once we receive files it becomes an internal process that we better plan well by allowing enough time for checking files, preflighting, correcting rich black color issues, checking templates, etc. Plan when you expect plates to start locking-up on press, and allow sufficient time for rolling up and having “first-good” in hand. I hate to keep being the voice of reality, but you’re going to have Web breaks, press issues and challenges; again, it’s how you react to these challenges that will spell success for the overall process.

Next allow a realistic time for the pressrun. Different jobs run at different speeds and efficiencies. Get a handle on how long it takes for a particular set-up and schedule accordingly.

Mailroom processes can vary greatly. Often they can begin immediately with first-good off press, other times the mailroom may need to wait while they complete a previous job. Like the areas before them, measure the time taken for each process and plan accordingly. The key is to provide solid guidance and set realistic yet challenging goals.

Workflow isn’t just about processes, it’s also about people. In many shops, individuals work established times. In a well-organized operation, with efficient workflow, individuals will be scheduled around the work, not the other way around. It might not be popular with some, but it is necessary to do to compete and maximize profits. In the shops I’ve ran, we make every effort to provide a somewhat predictable work schedule, yet everyone knows they are going to come and go depending on job volume and deadline requirements. Flexibility is a necessary component to the company’s overall success.

Regardless of if you’re in a large shop or a small operation, probably your largest expense will be labor. How you schedule your resources can make or break the operation.

The second key aspect to an effective workflow management is scheduling your people around the work. If there isn’t work at a certain time, there shouldn’t be a labor expense either. If there’s a ton of work than you certainly need to schedule accordingly.

Sure it’s extremely important to get the work out on-time, but it’s also important to be aware that every bit of overtime and unproductive time costs the company money that is tied directly to everyone’s continued employment. Schedule like you would if you were paying everyone out of your personal account. This will make you think hard about how many people you have working on each job and the time allocated to each production process.

The final step in the workflow is “delivery,” which can mean many things: delivery to a large mail house, bundles to carriers, the post office, a commercial customer, or to your inserting equipment. This final step in the process is where it all should have started (confusing, right?) and if you’ve executed well, where you can celebrate each well-planned success.

On some of our busier weeks we may run three delivery vehicles daily to get the job done. On slower weeks (such as the one shown in Figure Two), we schedule personnel appropriately and if possible use that resource elsewhere in the operation. Scheduling jobs to deliver on time often is a fulltime job in itself. From large trucks to SUVs we have deliveries to schools, large mail houses, print customers, etc. Often we map out routes that allow us to piggyback several jobs on one truck and achieve on-time delivery with the least amount of driving and most efficient use of labor and fuel. If you’ve ever driven on a freeway in Southern California (where I’m currently located) you know that scheduling any delivery can be challenging, yet with excellent planning we seem to get it done. If you deliver product to your customers, put the same amount of effort into this step as you have throughout the previous processes. It’s a shame to hit all your objectives on the front-end, just to end up late to the customer by not planning deliveries right.

A quick note regarding the spreadsheets I’ve developed for workflow and scheduling. There are individual detailed tabs at the foot of each that roll up into the master. When the production schedule is put into the master, individual schedules are also automatically broken out for each area. The personnel/work schedule is developed in an opposite manner, placing each individual and their hours within their department and scheduling them around the work, then this information is automatically rolled into the master work schedule for that week. I’m happy to share any spreadsheets, ideas or advice with anyone in need. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if I can be of any assistance.

Remember, the most important part is not how the spreadsheet works—it is the thought and effort put into making sure you’ve made the best use of all available time and resources.

Jerry Simpkins is the general manager at Hi-Desert Publishing in Yucca Valley, Calif. Contact him on LinkedIn.com or at simpkins@tds.net

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Published: December 14, 2015

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