A print business that learns is one that has a foundation for tracking its business processes and improving on them. From a cultural standpoint, a learning organization has to be able to talk openly about mistakes made from all levels of the organization.
How many things in your print business get done repeatedly?
A business is really a group of people who come together to execute upon business processes over and over. For printers, these repeated processes include things like taking an order, doing an estimate, printing a job, closing a sale, closing the accounting month, or fulfilling an inventory order, etc.
We do the same thing over and over again. How do we make sure we’re getting better at it?
Is your print business a learning organization? Does it have the things in place to make sure it’s getting better at those repeatable processes? Why should we focus on the repeatable processes?
When something gets done 10 times per day and you shave seven minutes off the process through process improvement you save…
- 70 minutes per day
- 5.8 hours per week
- 37 working days per year! (yikes)
The Required Foundations of a Learning Organization
1. Document Your Most Important, Most Repeated Processes
You cannot learn if your process is optimized unless you have it written down. I’m not talking about a long-term study or a complicated diagram. Start really simple; write down each process step. You would be shocked by how much argument there will be inside your organization to come to agreement on what the current process is. If there is a lot of argument, I can 100% assure you that your process has tons of room for improvement.
Don’t overcomplicate this step. My favorite tool is Post-it® Notes. (Let me give you a hint: make sure you buy the brand Post-it® Notes because the cheaper ones sold on Amazon are horrible. They curl up, they don’t stick, they are really useless.) You can use a list, you can write it on napkins. You just have to write it down and then get your team to do the important work of all getting on the same page on this process. This is a conversation and it might feel like a waste of time (arguing about where people store files or who sends the emails), but it’s really important. As soon as you start asking your team to define a process, they “auto-magically” start thinking about how to improve it.
One warning about this process: don’t talk about how you think you should be doing a process; document how you are actually doing this process. No judgement. If your people happen to be printing out every job ticket they process and keeping their own version of a file system under their desks in many case boxes (this is a real story), get that out on the table without judgement. You have to understand and accept the process as it is in order to create the process as it should be.
2. Solicit Feedback from Everyone Involved in the Process for Process Improvements
The goal is to do processes faster, more efficiently, with fewer errors, so focus the group on coming up with ideas for improvement. The best process improvements I’ve seen are incremental; you decide on some good ideas, you move forward on them, and then you reassess because you essentially have a new process to assess. Rarely is it necessary to blow a whole process up at once. Remember, you have a business to run as you do this process improvement.
One word of warning for this phase. For most printers, I would suggest you limit the use of the word “automation.” It is a popular buzzword that is overused. Automation is a high goal; we take a business process that humans are currently interacting with and we remove them and “automate” the process without human intervention. That is the most extreme definition of automation, but I think its the definition most humans think of. Business leaders dream of totally automation where labor costs are removed, accuracy is perfect, profits soar, and they are on the beach. Sales people selling automation software like to plant this dream in the heads of all their prospects.
Automation is a goal, but process improvement is the reality that most printers should focus on (it is a lot less sexy and it doesn’t end with you on the beach). I love it when printers are considering very expensive automation software and their human powered-business processes are really inefficient. The fact that no automation software tells you during the sales process is that for true automation to happen you have to have really efficient workflows first. So even if you invest in the automation software, you’ll be forced to document your processes and improve them before you can fully utilize the automation software.
3. Schedule Regular Process Reviews
Process improvement never ends and it never should be all-consuming. You need to regularly step back from the process and allow more improvements to be made. The organization gets smarter as they use processes. If you have regularly scheduled process improvement events, the people in your organization will be on the lookout for what to bring to those meetings.
The start of process improvement was to write the process down; that started the organization to think about how efficient the process is. The regularly scheduled event to review processes plants another seed into your organization that we are going to continue to improve on this process. The auto-magic part of this is that people want to be a part of the solution so they will start looking out for continuous improvement opportunities.
4. Once Processes Are Defined, Use Tools to Manage Them
My current favorite software tool for managing recurring business processes is Process Street. This a tool you use once you have your process defined and you want to run it over and over again. We use this tool to deploy software, bring new hires on board, close the monthly books, etc. We built out processes for each of these things and we run a checklist to track the process every time. It is especially helpful when the process requires a certain task order and involves many people. Process Street’s application is super flexible and can get really complicated with built-in workflows to other technologies through Zapier. Get your process down before you start playing with tools.
I know, this word refers to death, but I’m not using it in that way. I’m talking about an event you schedule in order to learn from past incidents. You lose a sales deal, so schedule a brief post-mortem to analyze why you lost it and most importantly how you would change your processes moving forward so you don’t lose again for the same reason. A post-mortem is easy to schedule but most cultures don’t accept the kind of transparency and openness required for a post-mortem to be effective. Everyone, starting at that top of the organization, has to be open to admitting mistakes. Everyone, starting at the bottom of the organization, needs to feel safe admitting mistakes. If you employ humans, you employ a species that is good at making mistakes. If you are a human and you run the organization, you are also good at making mistakes. Mistakes are where most organizational learning happens. When organizations hide from mistakes by simply moving on without a post-mortem, the mistake will keep happening.
When an organization has the foundation of learning intact in the form of documented processes, a call out for improvement suggestions from all involved, regularly scheduled process reviews, and the culture to run post-mortems, they will learn, they will evolve, they will thrive while others fall behind.