According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the word “workflow” has no meaning – which could explain a lot of the confusion in the industry. Google, on the other hand, defines workflow as “The sequence of industrial, administrative, or other processes through which a piece of work passes from initiation to completion” which actually works quite well for my purposes. It is useful to classify workflows for the printing industry into three groups: print production, administrative, and specialized (campaign management, etc.). The categorization is useful because each impacts different business processes even though they all need to communicate with each other and often have overlapping functionality.
While at AppForum, I had a chance to talk with Stephen McWilliam, Executive Vice President of Avanti, about how and when to automate administrative workflows. Having been around since 1984 with 40 people in the company, Avanti has had a lot of time and experience on this topic.
As Stephen explains it, administrative workflows involve the non-billable tasks associated with getting jobs into and through a shop; such as getting requests for quotes properly estimated and turned into quote letters, then into jobs (and job tickets), then into invoices and eventually into shipping information. Avanti supports a wide variety of administrative workflow tasks like estimating, inventory management, fulfillment, accounting, reporting and all the tasks needed to do jobs.
When asked how companies should determine which aspects of their administrative workflows should be automated, Stephen replied with some questions of his own:
- How are you managing your administrative workflow today and how much time does it take?
- How many times do you touch jobs as they go through the shop and what are those touches?
- Do you track and know your costs and profits on each and every job?
- How has your administrative workflow changed to manage the influx of more, smaller jobs and how does this will impact your process and profitability?
These are certainly good questions to ask before even looking at the technology – especially if you have difficulty answering them. They bring to mind three rules of thumb that I’ve come to follow over the years:
- You can’t manage what you don’t measure.
- Ensure that more resources are delivering than administering.
- Avoid redundancy where possible (e.g. redoing tasks or reentering information).
So, what do you do with these answers? Use them to identify the workflow processes that are taking the most time. Use them to identify areas where you aren’t collecting the data you need to run your business. Then create a strategy that will define the technology you’ll need to build a “minimal viable solution.” You want to avoid leaping from nothing to a full-blown, end-to-end solution with lots of functionality you won’t use, but you also don’t want to end up with a piecemeal implementation. A good approach is an expandable platform that can be tailored to your unique needs.
Stephen agrees, advising to make sure whatever approach you take is modular. Automation can dramatically reduce overhead on core administrative tasks but can actually increase overhead for one-off or rarely done tasks. So, start with a core system, add just the modules needed, and ensure that everything links together and with other production workflow processes to avoid data reentry.
For example, many of Avanti’s customers start with an administrative workflow system that provides estimating, job ticketing, shop floor data collection, shipping and accounting and then layer in any additional modules they need. These can include job tracking, scheduling, purchasing, inventory management, fulfillment, CRM, dashboards and business alerts to name a few. The administrative workflow system needs to link into digital presses, web-to-print systems, and production workflow systems to share and capture information without rekeying it. As the industry evolves, Avanti continues to expand their capabilities. Most recently, they added advanced fulfillment and direct mail management modules to the mix to meet these heightened needs.
Once companies start automating their administrative tasks, they often find they have the data needed to manage and grow their business that was often too time-consuming to manually collect. They use this information to tweak costing and pricing models. It can feed into CRM systems to identify the most profitable customers and services. It can even be used to generate automated alerts and communications when jobs are completed, inventories are low, or costs are exceeding estimates which can alter how business is managed.
Who needs to automate their administrative workflows? Well, as someone once told me, “you can’t have a solution without a problem.” Answering Stephen’s questions will help frame specific administrative workflow problems to help evaluate potential solutions. As a starting point though, the types of administrative problems that the Avanti solution addresses (invoicing, inventory management, job-based profitability analysis, etc.) are often found in mid-sized print service providers with 20 or more employees. Avanti’s solutions-oriented approach and modular approach allows them address the challenges they face today and to expand as their expertise and needs evolve.