Transforming Business with Workflow

Much has been said on the topic of workflow over the years, and even more on the promises made by technology providers claiming to help companies better manage it. But, before another solution hits the market, I’d like to offer some guidance as to what workflow is, while addressing the following:

• How can you drive costs out of your operation, introduce new levels of automation, and reduce redundant tasks with workflow?

• How can you integrate existing/new products into your existing workflow?


What is Workflow?

At the risk of oversimplifying, workflow is a series of tasks designed to complete a function. Workflows vary from the simple—comprising one party or device—to the complicated, which can involve multiple steps and numerous personnel or pieces of equipment. Depending on the environment, other critical factors in managing workflow include: information and documents that are mandated by government compliance, regulatory issues, research and development, legal processes, and audit systems issues. This shows us why managing workflow is a critical component of successful businesses ranging from sole proprietorships to diversified, global enterprises.

For the digital imaging industry and today’s print service providers specifically, we typically think of workflow in broad terms as any tool that facilitates file management through the print production process with greater efficiency, lower cost, better device/service integration, and value-added services. For example, some tasks that are performed within a workflow may include file pre-flighting, imposition, proofing, and output. Existing software tools allow the automation of workflow so that tasks can be performed on files, automatically ensuring that similar files are processed in the same way, time-after-time, without user intervention.

When used appropriately, workflow is more than just a buzzword, offering providers significant business implications and productivity gains. For small print shops and quick printers just starting out, to diversified print operators expanding their range of services, approaching and managing workflow can become easier with a few key understandings of trends, tools, and guiding principles.


Who Needs Workflow?

According to InfoTrends’ Production Software Investment Outlook 2010, almost 60% of establishments polled have already adopted some form of workflow management system. Their findings suggest that the adoption rate of these tools is highest in mid-sized and larger establishments, while investment by smaller firms has remained low. While that may currently be the case, smaller companies will likely find that in today’s digital printing environment, workflow systems are crucial to keeping efficiency up and maintaining consistent quality.

As the dynamics of our industry continue to change, with Web-to-print applications increasing and run lengths declining, workflow is an important factor in generating greater productivity and improved profitability across a broad spectrum of business models. As many companies have made significant capital investments over the years in their equipment—and are certainly not looking to start over—it is essential that they adopt a workflow system with the flexibility to fit their existing infrastructure.


What’s in It for Me?

As workflow encompasses a range of tools that allow print service providers better, more sophisticated services to help them improve their businesses, the benefits of a workflow management system can be found in both time and monetary savings. For example, the pre-flight tool, mentioned above, can be used to triage digital files coming into a print shop by running “good” files through the complete workflow and outputting them as productively as possible. The same pre-flight tool can also be set-up to catch “bad” files that require further evaluation and treatment before they can be sent to output.

Color management tools, a key piece of the workflow system in any graphics-intense environment, help by ensuring that color is accurately communicated to devices as intended. Color management can ensure that one output device (offset or digital) can accurately match to another—again saving time and money. It also ensures that colors, including spot or brand colors, are accurately reflected and reproduced time after time.

Should print services become more of a commodity, the key for some providers will be in differentiating output from the competition and bringing additional value to customers. Tools that enable cross-media communication such as VDP, Web-to-print, and QR Codes are all readily available and offer printers a way to sell value-added services that can keep customers coming back while, at the same time, attracting new ones.

Perhaps the most significant problems faced by quick printers today are how and when to start offering value-added services and how they can be successful upon launch. Best practices and industry experience dictate that new service offerings should start small—and concepts and objectives should be considered first instead of leading with a full-on, multi-media campaign.

Oftentimes, smaller print companies may not have all of the resources required to launch a solo campaign and should consider partnering with another company—such as an advertising or branding company—to expand their range of services. Another popular strategy is to work with a manufacturer that will be a strategic partner and help leverage the investment made in workflow technology. A hybrid workflow where offset and digital presses can leverage one unified workflow solution is one such example.

Once the workflow system is in place and operating efficiently, companies should consider taking on additional roles as marketing specialists. Alternatively, for larger print companies, there are likely new opportunities among their top 50 customers. Analyzing their existing client roster can determine if there are any opportunities to work with a customer to expand a relationship. This experience can be replicated across similar industries for other customers, helping to establish the printer’s bona fides as a vertical market strategist.

Web-to-print enables easy order filling and keeps customers coming back to order repeatedly. Why wouldn’t a provider want to invest in a tool that ties them directly into their customers? Imagine creating a flyer or mail piece for a customer, then posting it on the Web so that they can re-order the same piece (even with changes), over and over again. Why would a customer go anywhere else for print services when it’s possible to make it so easy for them to get what they need at the click of a mouse?

Slightly newer to the list of value add print services is the use of QR Codes, which are relatively simple to integrate into a workflow. Adding a QR Code is another way to win new business or offer higher value services. For example, a print service provider could create a “House for Sale” flyer for a local real estate firm, incorporating a QR Code so that potential buyers could instantly access specific information via their mobile phones about the particular home.

Additionally, Web creation services can provide a significant boost in the type and number of customers seeking print services. Even without an in-house Web designer, if a provider can outsource Web services, their ability to pair print with Web design could provide additional revenue.


Where to Begin?

Print service providers seeking to adopt workflow should begin with a business/marketing plan and consider undergoing a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis to examine how workflow could play into each component of their business. Knowing an organizations strengths and weaknesses allows you to build a tailored workflow to address them (and makes good business sense in general). If a shop is seeking to be a low-cost provider, then automation will be a key area to invest in. If a shop seeks growth through service differentiation, it must look at its current resources as well as where it wants to be in three to five years, and invest accordingly.

As many print providers are aware, the marketplace is tough and pressure on pricing continues. Making changes to workflow and service offerings requires addressing many factors, including the investment in human capital and the ability to manage an implementation timeline within budget, to name a few. So before jumping into any major change, companies would be prudent to take a step back and consider their existing workflow in order to examine how they might modify it to meet their current business goals and whether a new workflow will be required to remain competitive in the future.

In addition to the guidance provided in this article, here are a few questions to keep in mind:

1. Consider staff support/employee count. Critical activities requiring more/fewer workflow management tools will need oversight from capable support staff. Does your company have that support or will you need to allocate new resources?

2. What types of new or different technologies do you need to integrate into your workflow setup to achieve maximum effectiveness?

3. Do you constantly struggle with “bad” files coming into your facility and have to spend hours fixing them for your clients?

4. Do you have several output methods, including a mix of digital and/or offset, that don’t output consistent color or don’t match each other?

5. Do you have access to an in-house design team?

6. Do you have customers who might benefit from adding some of the “newer” services mentioned above?


Forrest Leighton is director of product marketing for Canon U.S.A. Contact him at