Printing Lean

Don't fall back

October 7, 2009

I was struggling to come up with a suitable topic for this month's issue when my wife suggested something related to the upcoming autumnal equinox, "falling back," and "What could a company do with that extra hour?" Light bulbs (eco-friendly, of course) went off.

As this column hits the newsstands it will almost be time for the equinox, time for most of those in the northern hemisphere to "fall back" and set our clocks back one full hour. It's only fitting, then, that this column centers on the theme of "falling back" and, by that, I mean that I hope that you don't.

Over the past two-plus years that I've been writing this column I've brought up a number of important topics. Some of them have been on specific tools used in a Lean transformation, such as using SMED (single minute exchange of die) principles for set-up reduction, kan-ban signals to connect upstream and downstream processes to control inventory levels, total productive maintenance to keep your equipment available and capable of running product at peak quality and productivity levels, and 5S (Sort, Set In Place, Shine, Standardize, Sustain) to maintain an organized, visual workplace.

What's more important than the tools, though, is the need for companies (company leaders) to not "fall back" into old, bad habits.

The recession

While I write this column I am cognizant of the fact that many of you are preparing your budgets. Many of you, probably most, have been asked to cut back even more than you already have and this usually means cutting headcount, maintenance, and supplies. It also usually means holding off on filling vacant positions and eliminating any skills training for existing employees. All of these would be mistakes, and I've said this numerous times before.

There's one thing that all recessions have in common: They always end. This one, too, will end, and many leading indicators seem to be saying that the end of this recession may be near. That's the good news.

Most of you are ill prepared for the upcoming recovery, though, and that's the bad news.

Now, I say that without malice. I'm not trying to malign you or your business, just the business model that you're probably following. It's the same business model that businesses in the print industry – labels included – have followed for decade after decade. It's the business model that put many of your competitors, and probably some of your friends, out of business.

This flawed business model is the one that tells you to cut headcount, training and maintenance and to not prepare for the future by filling open positions. It's the business model that tells you that more is better, and tells you to fill your warehouse with raw materials at a lower unit price, and then to sit on these materials for month after month, tying up precious cash flow. This business model is wrong. If this is the business model that you're budgeting and planning for the year in 2010, you're falling back into old, bad habits.

One hour

Imagine for a moment that at the time of this year's equinox you actually do gain an extra hour – a "free" hour. What would you do with it? Most of us would answer, "sleep!" What if you could use this extra hour to gain a competitive advantage – what could you accomplish? A whole lot, that's what.

Use this hour to "go to gemba" and see for yourself what's really going on in your company. Stop relying on data that tells you only what has already happened – things that you can do nothing about now – and start looking for things that you can improve. To do this you will need to get up and out of your office chair and walk your company's entire footprint, from the front door to the back and take a look at what's happening. Are your employees performing value added tasks or are they plodding their way through another day rife with waste? Are they frustrated by outdated software? Are they handcuffed by policies that restrict their ability to deliver value to their accounts?

Go out and take a look your equipment. What condition is it in? You've spent good money on your equipment – are you taking care of it? Would you be proud to show your equipment to a potential new client? Ask your employees for their honest answer to that question.

Walk out into your warehouse area and take a good long look at your inventories. How much do you have? What condition is it in? Do you see signs of damage and neglect? What are the dates of manufacture? How long has it been there?

You could use this "free" hour to provide badly needed training. Training on material handling procedures, training on proper daily maintenance, or training on order entry procedures.

Take this hour and review what your goals are. Are you setting the bar so high that no one could possibly reach it? Are you providing the training, tooling, tips and techniques to your employees so that they are able to reach these goals? Do you even have a plan for what you want your company to look like in 3, 5 or even 10 years? You should: How else are you to know what course to steer toward True North?

Perhaps this hour would be better spent just talking to your employees. Find out what they think, see, feel and need. These are the very people who will make or break your company's goals and they need to know what these goals are.

Take this hour to find out what your customers really need. Are you able to provide it to them? If not, are you willing to do what is necessary to meet these needs, or do you make the conscious decision to steer in a new direction? You'll need to do one or the other. Ignoring the issue will not solve it.

Choose wisely

As this difficult year of 2009 draws nearer to a close it is imperative that you make the right choices to position your business to be ready for the end of this latest recession. To do this you must not fall back into old, wasteful habits. You need to take a good, hard look at the way your business model controls your everyday decisions and change anything that is keeping you from steering your company toward True North. Take a little bit of extra time to plan out your course, to educate your workforce, to get your equipment in proper order, and to find out what your customers really need and start delivering it to them.
Tom Southworth is a Lean consultant with ConnStep, Connecticut's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). He is a Senior Member of ASQ, an ASQ Certified Manager of Quality & Organizational Excellence, an SME Lean Bronze Certified sensei, and a certified TWI Job Instruction Trainer. He can be reached by email at

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