Hit Or MIS: Managing Information Can Boost Productivity and Profits...If Used as Directed

Once upon a time, it was not uncommon for a printing company’s “management information system” to simply be the information carried around in the owner’s head. “Job tracking software” could be note cards push-pinned to a corkboard. This hasn’t been generally true in a very long time—although even today is not completely unheard of—but for an industry that has been changing as rapidly as the printing industry has for the past 20 or more years, digital approaches to a management information system (MIS) are increasingly desirable, if not necessary.

Although some of the specific functions of a MIS have changed and evolved over the years, its essential goal is to not only keep tabs on all aspects of the print business, as well as facilitate estimating and job tracking but, if utilized effectively, also tell shops where they can increase productivity, lower costs, and boost profitability. A MIS also has to be flexible enough to accommodate new kinds of businesses a shop may be getting into—digital printing, wide-format, etc.—as well as handle all the myriad variables that digital printing, be it large or small, can present. A fully integrated MIS is the “brain” of the company that oversees estimating, production, billing, accounting—the whole shebang. Still, the signs of an underutilized MIS include keeping all these different aspects of the business siloed, or separate from each other, and relying on other management tools—like Excel spreadsheets—to supplement the MIS when the hallmark of a good MIS is that it doesn’t need supplementing.

Legacy Systems

One of the biggest issues with the state of MIS today is a familiar one to anyone who has been involved with technology or bought any kind of software: obsolescence.

“The biggest trend right now is that there are all these legacy systems printers are being forced to make decisions about because those systems are no longer supported or being developed,” said Jane Mugford, managing director of Print Innovation, a consultancy that assists print companies with their MIS and Web-to-print strategy and execution. The problem with older, legacy systems is that they were designed predominantly for an offset workflow. “Now you have a digital environment, with wide-format and cursory products you need to support as well,” added Jennifer Matt, president of Web2Print Experts and a frequent writer and consultant on all matters MIS. “If you’re a printer and you’re not looking at diversification, you’re not going to survive.” Thus the MIS needs to support that diversification.

The ability for an MIS and its integrated workflow to support digital printing isn’t just a question of being able to provide accurate estimates and price quotes—although as we will see, that is a large part if it—but can be instrumental in deciding whether to print a job offset or digital.

Back in the 1980s, said Gerald Walsh, director of market development for EFI, “it was very common for a pressrun to be 10,000 units or more. Today, [shorter-run] jobs come in and you have to make a call: is this going to a digital job or is this going to be an offset job? It’s not always an easy call.” Digital presses have improved in quality and support longer runs, while offset presses now can handle shorter runs than has traditionally been economical. So the decision to use one or the other isn’t as clear as it used to be. Not only that, said Walsh, there are many other factors to take into consideration. “Inkjet capabilities, different types of finishing. There are a lot of variables that come into play.”

EFI has long developed the gold standards for printing industry MIS and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions, with its Logic, Printsmith Vision, Pace, and Monarch solutions. Recognizing that estimating has become a substantial challenge for today’s print shops, this year EFI is releasing iQuote, which was originally developed for the Latin American market by Brazil-based Metrics Sistemas de Informação, which EFI acquired in 2012. “All the estimator has to do is say, ‘This is a 32-page booklet that is 8x10 and I want to run it on this paper,’” said Walsh. “Then iQuote will go through and, for each [specified] quantity, figure out what is the best production path, what is the best equipment to use, and based on all that information, the best cost and suggested price for you to sell this job.”

It is also flexible enough to account for any special discounts salespeople may wish to add—if, for example, they are courting a new customer, or the customer haggles over price. Essentially, though, “You’re not operating in the dark,” said Walsh. “You get an upfront and exact picture of what that job will mean to your business.”

Finding the quickest and most hands-off route through the production process has become another of the major tasks of a fully integrated MIS.

“In all my conversations with clients and prospects, the words I hear more than anything else are ‘fewest number of touches,’” said Morrie Brown, owner of PrintPoint, Inc., whose eponymous product started in 1992 as a basic, entry-level, Mac-based MIS program, and has evolved over the past 22 years into a $4,000+, full-featured MIS solution. The company has since added a Web-to-print solution for customers, as well.

“They don’t have quality estimators anymore with enough experience,” Brown added.

In Our Estimation

It’s a common phenomenon.

“Our typical [customer] doesn’t have a full-time estimator position anymore,” said Eric Wold, vice president of SmartSoft, developer of PressWise. “A lot of customers want their salespeople and CSRs to enter the actual job.”

Some industry veterans may remember the name PressWise from the 1990s, when it was an Aldus product designed for page imposition. Although SmartSoft now owns the copyright to the name PressWise, it’s a full-featured MIS solution and is not related to the imposition software. Distinct from other MIS solutions, PressWise utilizes a “software as a service” (SAAS, pronounced “sass”) approach, with no client/server version. “I find that being a SAAS product keeps us honest,” said Wold. “There is so much shelfware in the industry. If [customers] don’t use PressWise, they’re gone, so we’ve got a pretty powerful incentive to ensure that adoption happens post-sale.”

Enhancing Client Communication

Another major goal of an integrated MIS system, in addition to effective estimating, is to offer “self-serve” functionality for print customers. This can include uploading files, tracking jobs, looking up old invoices, reordering past jobs, and other “transactional” functions. “Those activities are client-oriented,” said Wold. “They’ve got something they want to do now. Good service today has become enabling clients meet their needs as rapidly as possible, not necessarily waiting for your employee to return their call. If we can enable the client to self-serve, then the salespeople can ensure that the time they spend with the client is relationship-rich and not transactional.”

Whether it be quotes that bear some resemblance to their final invoice, easy tracking of jobs, or other benefits, a good MIS solution can foster “much better communication, better longterm relationships with clients,” said EFI’s Walsh. “Clients can depend on the information they are getting.”

Online, real-time tracking not only locates where in the plant the job is, but some customers would like it to go even further. “They would also love full integration with UPS and FedEx and other light trucking services they have,” said Brown.

Data-Driven Decisions

For MIS advocates, tasks like estimating and job tracking are just the bare bones implementation of a MIS—kind of like buying the full version of Photoshop and doing nothing more than resizing images. Ultimately, data gleaned and provided by the MIS should be used to run the entire business. “The MIS is supposed to be this rich data repository and they’re not using it as such, to track KPIs [key performance indicators],” said Matt. High-powered MIS users “use the data from the MIS to make all their business decisions,” she added. “Data-driven decisions are better than guesses.”

“When you’ve implemented an MIS correctly, it’s giving you the data to understand your business better,” Matt added. “On a tactical level, they can get a job through the system, but on a strategic level, they can spot trends through the data that’s coming out of the system. Can they see which departments is running at the lowest margin? Can they see where the bottlenecks are?

“It should be the central nervous system of the whole operation.”

Suggesting that a printing company install an MIS solution in the first place has always met with some resistance, which can stem from a resistance to change in general (“this is how we’ve always done it”), but in large part comes from the very real fact that implementing a MIS can be a long, unwieldy, time-consuming process that can disrupt the normal functioning of a company that can ill afford such disruptions.

“If you don’t have an MIS or have an old MIS, you just don’t have the time to get a new system,” said Matt. “It’s a real challenge, and they’re all busy. Buying is easy, but getting it installed is hard.”

It’s not just a printing industry phenomenon either. “Any business can struggle with implementing major process changes,” said Wold.

There is no doubt that a well-implemented MIS can reap rewards down the road—but it requires a lot of upfront work and configuration. “All of that upfront work so pays off,” said Mugford, “but it’s really hard to get that upfront time.”

This is why vendors and consultants alike have routinely seen companies underutilize—sometimes dramatically so—their MIS.

“The software keeps moving, the business keeps moving, and so therefore your implementation and your utilization of the software have to keep moving,” said Matt.

Still, it’s easy to understand why companies don’t use their MIS to its full potential. “As a user of so many software products myself, I am amazed every day about the next thing I learn about a product I own,” said Brown. But his customers “were very happy. It did everything they needed and they were profitable. We never tried to judge anybody on the way they used the program. If they’re successful and profitable in this industry, then they’re the winners.”

We Are the Champions

Matt and Mugford have found that often it takes a champion within the company to spearhead the MIS initiative, and Wold found the need for even more ubiquitous evangelists. “We try to get one champion per department,” he said. “There is a certain amount of cohesion across departments that can help reinforce the owner’s efforts to change things. We evangelized the champion thing, and now evangelize a champion per department, and we’ve found that to be a little more effective.”

Although “fewest possible touches” may be the MIS mantra, the fact is that the MIS does itself touch every individual in every department in the company.

Just like with other large-scale initiatives, baby steps are often the best way to approach MIS implementation. Start out with a few basic tasks, and keep adding functions as the need arises. “You don’t want to build yourself so many different reports and then never use them,” said Matt. “When a person walks in in the morning, what information do they need to get their day off a good start, and what information do they need at the end of the day? It’s easy to build complexity in, it’s so hard to take it out.”

“People come back to us having used the product for at least a decade doing only estimating and quoting and that’s it,” said Brown, “but in the past year, they’ve moved to doing job ticketing with it and they’re using other functions.”

If all goes well, the staff will start asking for more and more information.

“If you get to that point where people are driving you to add more data,” said Matt, “that’s when you know you have it.”

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