Production: Avoid Delays By Fixing These Simple Problems


With the general challenges of declining circulation in our industry, on-time delivery seems more important than ever. How’s your on-time performance, how do you track it, what’s an acceptable goal, what stop-gaps do you have in place, do you have a plan for equipment malfunction and emergency recovery in house? Have you developed a back-up printing plan if you can’t get production operations up and running? Are you “wired-in” to vendors electronically for diagnostics, and have you established relationships with local contractors for emergency service in the event of failure?

Often it seems there are more questions than answers when it comes to meeting our deadlines and delivering consistent on-time performance to our subscribers. Let’s start with the first one.

How do you approach deadlines, and how important are they to the publisher, readers, or to you?

The first thing you need to do is establish your desire to meet deadlines. What importance does your organization put on deadlines? I’ve worked for publishers who don’t feel it’s a big deal to miss a daily deadline by a half-hour or so, and I’ve worked for publishers who five minutes before deadline will run you over in a heated panic to help meet deadline.

My personal feeling on deadlines is don’t have them if you’re not going to take them seriously, strive to meet them 100 percent of the time and don’t make excuses when you miss them. Establish achievable deadlines, plan well and execute the plan. Sure you’ll have the occasional equipment breakdown, and occasionally, you’ll have a good reason (notice I didn’t say excuse) to miss a deadline, but for the most part 100 percent on-time performance is the only acceptable measurement of performance in production.

In my newspaper career outside of operations, I’ve served as an editor, vice president of advertising, circulation director and general manager. Until you walk in someone else’s shoes, you might not fully understand the challenges other departments face. Production is not the only area that needs to meet deadline, but it’s also not the only area that can have challenges doing so.

Often when we have an issue it’s easy to track it back upstream and assign blame. Don’t use that as an excuse. Put forth every sincere effort to make up time in your area. Function as a team with other departments and just because a department before you may miss deadline, don’t use that as a reason why it’s okay in the end to deliver late papers; it’s not a good reason, but it can be a lame excuse.

What’s the result of not hitting deadline?

Anyone who’s been part of a press installation or upgrade knows things can and will go wrong. All the best planning seems to unravel at some point in the process. I’ve seen installations that have delayed printing by hours, deadline challenges that have went on for weeks, and seen subscriber confidence go down the drain right along with deadline performance.

With interest in the printed product facing new challenges daily, the strength of on-line publications surging and our industry as a whole falling on what many refer to as “tough times,” missed deadlines and inconsistent delivery are not acceptable and will simply accelerate the death spiral many in our own industry keep telling us is inevitable.

I’ve sat in customer service departments numerous times to experience what our subscribers go through. I have spoken with subscribers who are so sick of late deliveries that they just don’t want to hear it anymore and end up cancelling their subscription. Losing subscribers and the revenue that comes with it can slowly erode circulation revenue and with that go jobs—our jobs. If you don’t want to be fired by your readers, meet their expectations and do what you’ve promised them by meeting their delivery expectations.

This nightly deadline report posted on a common drive is available to all departments and shows performance to plan for three daily publications.

Deadlines on weekly and monthly newspapers

Regardless of your publishing cycle, weekly, monthly or otherwise, you’re no different—your readers have the right to expect the product reliably and consistently on time.

I’ve always found it strange how some non-daily publications regard deadlines. Most monthly publications I’ve worked with take a very nonessential view on meeting their deadlines. I understand that some of the ongoing challenges they face are similar to that of a daily, but I’m still amazed that when you have 30 days or so to get things together, you can still miss the deadline in the end. I see this as either a serious flaw in planning or blatant disregard for deadlines in general.

Evaluate your current situation/performance

I assume most of us, hopefully all, track deadlines on a daily basis and know our percentage of on-time performance. Having a reporting tool for tracking on-time performance and pinpointing where the problems exist is essential.

Whether your production reporting procedure is a daily phone report to your manager at the end of shift, an email detailing nightly events and deadline performance, or a more elaborate electronic tracking mechanism, the importance of knowing where you’re at can’t be overstated. It’s a critical management tool and essential to meet optimum deadline performance.

Fixing the problems

Let’s be clear that the list of things that can go wrong and cause us to miss deadlines would take more pages than I have available to write about it, so I’m not going to solve your problems here and get you back on track to 100 percent on-time performance, but I can give you some direction.

Don’t be shy about getting involved in finding solutions to problems that create poor deadline performance outside of production. If page flow from editorial is creating issues with late plates, meet with your cohort in the newsroom, go through a tracking report with them and make creative and positive suggestions. If your editor is like most I’ve worked with, they are as concerned with meeting deadlines and retaining subscribers as you are.

If your advertising department is consistently turning in late ads that create deadline challenges, meet with your ad director. I can’t tell you the late ads I have squeezed in at the last moment in the interest of revenue and cooperation with the ad department, but I can tell you that nine times out of 10 late ads result from poor time management and not a customer deciding they just have to have an ad in the paper that day. A good ad director will be just as interested in fixing this problem as you are having it fixed.

For problems that occur within production, two-way communication with maintenance crews is one of the first things to look at. Frequently press operators can have issues on press and “fix on the fly” to get the run out, but leave the root of the problem not fully addressed. I’ve worked through nights where having a “MacGyver” on the crew was the only way we were able to get paper out. I can’t say enough about some of the press operators I’ve been lucky enough to work with, who have that unconventional ability for problem solving and the skills to back it up. A little bit of baling wire, a cable tie, some crazy glue, and you’re back up and running in minutes.

The problem comes in when your MacGyver keeps things running day after day with baling wire and doesn’t address the core problem by either fixing it right or communicating the issue to the maintenance staff responsible for making the repair. Then MacGyver “fixes” another issue, and another, and before you know it, you’re missing deadline because things have not been addressed and correctly repaired. Communication is a two-way street and I’ve worked with many press crews that don’t interact effectively with maintenance crews. This type of behavior will catch up with the operation and can contribute to downtime and missed deadlines. Put processes in place to write-up and communicate issues to maintenance before they stack up and create problems.

 What’s the plan for equipment malfunctions/emergencies in-house?

Help comes in many different ways, as do situations that leave us wondering if we’ll even publish that night.

You simply can’t have every spare part in stock, and good luck reaching the one vendor who can help at 3 a.m. Sunday night. If you haven’t figured it out by now nothing, I repeat nothing, breaks down in the middle of the day when vendors are available. It’s an unwritten rule of newspapering.

Keep as many key parts on hand as you can. You’ll never have everything that you need, but make sure to keep a decent stock of the small and inexpensive parts that can stop you dead in your tracks. Bearings, switches, spray bars, rollers, blankets, etc. won’t necessarily break the bank, but they can keep you from printing.

Make arrangements with a local electrician and plumber who you can call 24/7 if things go bad. I can’t tell you how important it is to establish these relationships and maintain this contact information.

Many vendors provide round-the-clock on-line assistance. These companies can dial into your systems to troubleshoot and repair electronic issues and get systems back up and running. Make sure to review things with these vendors and have contact information available so when you need it you have it.

A deadline summary provides a snapshot of monthly performance showing day by day variations (hits & misses) in deadline performance. This spreadsheet contains conditional formatting that automatically turns green for deadlines achieved and red for missed goals making it easier to evaluate overall performance at a glance. It also details the percentage of on-time performance and deadline progression throughout the shift.

Equipment back-up

I’ve worked in a shop with three CTP devices and another with only one. Care to guess which shop gave me more sleepless nights? You can’t have a back-up to everything and when machinery fails you will miss deadlines.

In the shop with one CTP, our vendor contract was on East Coast time and we were on the West Coast. Right around the time the unit would crash, the online support team would be going home for the night and we’d call on our in-house MacGyver to get things back up and running. Two hours later, we’d still be playing catch-up and another missed deadline would go into the books.

Develop a back-up plan. The plan will vary with whatever conditions exist in your shop. How many times have you lost a press unit and had to jump a lead, drop color or reduce page counts? If you don’t have a solid plan in place, get going on one now before you need it.

If you only have one CTP (I feel your pain), you better make sure to have a good contract with your vendor for online trouble shooting, a good relationship with your local electrician, a maintenance member who knows the CTP inside and out, and have MacGyver in the wings just in case all else fails.

When things really go bad and you find yourself not only missing deadline but perhaps not printing at all, you better have some good relationships established with your friendly neighborhood print shop. You’ll need a written plan with contact information and you had better have tried FTP sites, discussed web sizes, formats, color capacity, available print windows, etc. before the need arises.

Teamwork is key

There’s no master plan for consistently hitting deadlines. Each shop has its own inherent challenges. In past articles I’ve preached many times about the basics, the nuts and bolts of our operations. I’m also a firm believer in teamwork, not only interdepartmental but cross-departmental. Following the simple basics is most times what it takes to be successful. Common sense, effective advance planning, understanding the pitfalls and addressing them before they become bigger problems, and establishing achievable goals are all necessary components of deadline management.

Jerry Simpkins is vice president of the West Texas Printing Center, LLC in Lubbock, Texas. Contact him on or at



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