Workflow: What Does it Really Mean?

Now, more than ever before, it is absolutely critical to optimize your operation.

January 28, 2009

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, 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

Keep in mind that automating a broken process just makes that broken process work faster. Most workflow solutions automate processes in some way shape or form. So the first step in implementing an efficient workflow should always be an analysis of the current state. This can be a simple internal audit, or you can do some additional homework to educate yourself before you begin.

Since the purpose of your business is to receive work from a customer (input), produce and deliver that work (output), with the purpose of being able to bill for it and receive payment, I like to think about this initial audit from the perspective of a job ticket. Follow the process from the time a customer inquires about a job, through specification, estimating, customer acceptance, production, delivery of the job and invoicing. Pay special attention to:

  • How the customer contacts you, how many people are involved in that contact, and how long it takes on the part of your staff to acquire enough information to create an estimate.
  • What is the average time between customer contact and delivery of an estimate? The longer the delay, the more likely the customer will seek services elsewhere!
  • How is the estimate created? How many people are involved, including the handoffs, and how much of their time is consumed?
  • While you are in estimating, check to see how accurate the costing models are. Have they been updated lately?
  • What is your close ratio? How many estimates actually turn into jobs? A low close ratio can be costly.
  • Once the job comes in, what happens to it as it makes its way through the shop? I always like to say, "Pin that job ticket to your shirt and follow it through the shop." Document all of the steps, handoffs, hallway conversations and other activities required to get the work done. Include normal wait times between steps. For example, how are you scheduling work through your shop, and how long does a job typically wait in the queue for the press or bindery?
  • What about the process for shipping? How many people are involved, what paperwork is required, and how do the information and manufactured product move around the organization to get it out the door?
  • What goes in the box with the job? Do you promote specials, offer customer surveys? Are you leveraging this customer touch point to get the next job?
  • What does it take to get the job invoiced, and how accurate are your invoices? Do you capture and invoice all of the add-ons, AAs, and other items that can and should be chargeable?
  • How long does it typically take invoices to get paid, and what is the process for following up on aged invoices?
  • Comparing the original estimate to the actual costs, are your expectations being met? Are you making the anticipated profit on the job? If not, why?
  • Finally, do you know, job by job or by customer, how profitable each is for your business?

While you are at it, you can also examine your sales process to understand the effectiveness of each sales rep, the profitability each is delivering, their close ratios and general performance.

At each step of the process, be sure to clearly document all activities, handoffs, wait times, re-works, on-time performance, late performance, unexpected occurrences, etc. If you have not done a walk-through of this nature in some time, you are likely to find some surprises.

This analysis is the basis for fixing problems, a necessary step prior to automating anything. But beyond that, I am reminded of one of my favorite business books, 'If It Ain't Broke, Fix It'. By keeping an open mind during this walk-through, and drawing on the front-line experiences of your people, not only can you fix areas of the organization that could be more efficient, but you can also completely reinvent parts of the process by taking a fresh look and tossing out the "business as usual" or "we have always done it this way" mentality. As a former manager of mine often said, "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten."

Educating Yourself

This assessment process is a great foundation for next steps, and will also help you sort your way through the plethora of workflow solutions available in the marketplace when you are ready to make an investment. You will know exactly what problems you are trying to solve, and will be able to focus your investment efforts with laser-like precision.

But you should also take the opportunity to avail yourself and your staff of the wonderful educational opportunities available through our industry associations. All of them have terrific programs, affordable consulting services and other resources that can bring you up to speed quickly, from both a technology and a process perspective. In addition, if a key supplier to your business operates a Users Group, you will benefit from attending that event, even in tough economic times. The education, ability to speak directly to product engineers for the supplier and its partners, and the networking opportunity with your peers are all invaluable, and deliver a genuine ROI.

Make 2009 Your Workflow Year

In the remaining articles in this series, we will delve deeper into some of the issues addressed here. Meanwhile, pin that job ticket to your shirt, roll your sleeves up and get started. Now, more than ever before, it is absolutely critical to optimize your operation, from head to toe, front door to back. It can be done affordably, although maybe not quickly. But it must be done.

Cary Sherburne is a journalist, author, and marketing consultant working. Her tenure in the printing and publishing industry has included positions at Xerox Corp., Indigo America, and Bitstream. She is a frequent speaker at industry events, a senior editor at, and has written three books. She can be reached at [email protected].