You can hardly step into a trade show, tune into a Webinar or turn the page of a trade publication without coming across the term "workflow." But what does that really mean?
Over the next several months in a four-part series, we will provide a historical perspective on workflow, and how workflow-related concepts have changed over the past few years. We will follow that by discussing various concepts associated with streamlining the production process, including LEAN manufacturing; the role and impact of various standards organizations and certifications processes, and what they mean for your business; and finally, a look into the future of workflow over the next two to five years with a view toward helping print service providers frame their thinking about where to take their businesses.
But first, let's define workflow. Interestingly, the Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries do not include this word. But it does appear at Dictionary.com, complements of the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2006): The flow or amount of work to and from an office, department or employee.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language offers a different, and more relevant definition in its 2006 edition: The flow or progress of work done by a company, industry, department or person.
I suppose we can take comfort in the fact that these definitions from respected sources, or lack thereof, show confusion about what workflow means is not solely restricted to our industry!
What Is Workflow?
Legend has it that the term "workflow" was first used in its modern form in the software industry by document management firm Filenet in the 1980s, who named its business process automation software "Workflow."
Historically, many printing companies have focused what could be described as "workflow" in the pressroom. In order to improve production, a newer, faster, bigger press with more bells and whistles was just the ticket, and there were a rash of significant productivity advances among press manufacturers that justified this approach. However, today even press manufacturers will tell you that this alone is not the answer.
If I were to create a definition of workflow for our industry, it would be this: The integration and coordination of all business and production processes to ensure streamlined manufacturing and the alignment of the surrounding business processes, eliminating as much time and cost as possible while still delivering to quality expectations.
Streamlining Workflow vs. Processes
In the old model, streamlining the pressroom addressed just one process in the overall picture. As we began to reach a point of diminishing returns in that arena, attention was turned to prepress—again, simply one process that has its defined inputs, outputs, and purposes. Important, yes, but still not fully effective all by itself.
Often this type of focus simply moved bottlenecks from one part of the organization to another. In prepress, we saw major advances in file preparation with desktop publishing, PDF workflows and beyond, and computer-to-plate production replacing film. Introduction of digital presses also made a difference both to prepress and the pressroom in terms of the time it takes to take a job from order to invoice.
Many suppliers to the industry—starting back in the 80s with Filenet—would have you think of workflow as a particular software package, system or solution. Prinergy, Prinect, FreeFlow, PRISMAFlow, printnet, BackStage, Omnium, Odystar, Switch—these are just a few of the solutions offered. These do, in fact, have a huge impact on an efficient and productive workflow. However, I am sure any of these suppliers would also tell you there is work to be done before you can effectively implement any of them. The good news, especially in light of the economic uncertainty we are currently facing, is that this initial "workflow work" can be accomplished with little or no capital outlay.
Getting Started the Affordable Way