Developing solid workflow systems for your shop can result in tangible benefits.

Improving Your Shop's Workflow

Sit back for a moment and think of every process that makes your business operational: answering phones, taking orders, ordering supplies, paying bills, client communications, employee relations, design, proofing, printing, finishing, fabrication, production, installation, shipping, billing, filing... the list goes on. 

Everyone is buzzing around frantically doing whatever it takes to complete their work. All that matters is that the job gets done and the client pays, right? While this certainly is important, what if you could fine tune all of these processes into a streamlined workflow where jobs would be done more efficiently, more consistently and more profitably? 

One of my favorite business books, The E-Myth Revisited, by Michael E. Gerber, suggests creating clearly defined systems within your business with the intent of allowing you to work on your business rather than in it. The idea behind these workflow systems is to find the most effective approach to any given process, document it, and replicate it so each task is being completed in a manner that is proven to be successful. The result is a streamlined workflow that provides built-in success standards and maximum efficiency.

The ability to maximize efficiency plays a significant role in the success and profitability of your company. Efficiency is defined as “the ability to accomplish a job with a minimum expenditure of time and effort.” Minimize time and effort? Sign me up! When it comes to your business, think of the word efficiency as being synonymous with profitability. If you foster an environment that consistently strives for efficiency, day-to-day operations will naturally continue to improve as your bottom line increases.

Establishing new workflow systems requires a complete understanding of current business operations through in-depth analysis, followed by creating new systems, putting them into action and consistently monitoring them for improvement.

Analyze Shop Operations

When establishing systematic workflow procedures, it’s important to step back and take an objective, big-picture view of your company. Gather and strategically analyze important facts (production volume, equipment capabilities, software, employee performance, etc.) and numbers (sales, expenses, profit margins, etc.) relative to business operations. This company snapshot will help you uncover potential weak points, allowing you to narrow your focus and establish profitable, clearly defined, results-driven workflow systems. 

While this information alone is valuable, you will need to venture beyond simply analyzing relative facts and numbers. It’s important to have a crystal clear understanding of your current workflow in order to improve operations and maximize profits. Follow several jobs as they work their way through your shop and identify any holes where profits may be leaking. 

At each stop along the way, it’s important to connect the dots between where you are and other steps in the workflow. The workload at each step is essentially at the mercy of the work performed (or neglected) at the previous step. If this goes unnoticed, work will continue to snowball and negatively impact efficiency and profitability. For example, you notice your production personnel manually measuring to make accurate cuts, banner hems, grommet marks, etc. This process would be much more efficient if a few moments are taken during the design or prepress stage. A minute spent placing the proper finishing marks in the output file takes care of the measuring with greater accuracy and precision, saving several minutes of production time and allowing your staff to move on to the next project.

Another excellent resource for workflow information is your staff. Encourage them to monitor workflow and continually ask themselves what can be done to complete their tasks more efficiently. Document their suggestions regularly and compile the information for review. Consider scheduling regular (monthly, quarterly) staff meetings to keep tabs on operations and improve upon your procedures. Not only does this practice increase profits, it also boosts morale and encourages efficiency and growth among your employees. 

Creating Workflow Systems

Now that you’ve identified weak points in your workflow, it’s time to tighten up these loose screws by compiling the analyzed information and creating your new systems. This step varies based upon your analysis, although the basic framework applies. 

Single out the best, most efficient methods performed in the workflow and document them as new systems. Documenting these procedures provides your employees with specific guidelines to follow outlining the most efficient methods for any given process. No system is too small, as they can range anywhere from major (creating a new production tracking system) to minor (rolling up and labeling graphics a specific way for your installers).   

While the need for some of your new systems may be obvious, others will need to be derived from your analysis and created from scratch. Isolate your problem areas and work backwards to find appropriate solutions. For example, if your work orders fail to address important design, printing, and finishing specifications, your design and production staff will have to hunt down your salespeople for clarification. This wastes time and delays production. However, if you established a system that required more detailed information on work orders, your staff would have all the information they need to accurately produce the job.

You may also find that non-system related improvements would benefit your workflow, such as acquiring a specific piece of equipment, upgrading to different software, or hiring more employees. The pros and cons of all options should be carefully weighed before moving forward. 

Implementing Workflow Systems

So now that you’ve analyzed your shop’s workflow, established the most efficient practices, and created new workflow systems, it’s time for the most difficult part of the process: putting them into action. 

Some of these new methods may present major changes to your business operations, which some employees may resist. This is both understandable and expected, as they’ve grown accustom to doing things a certain way for so long. Also expect a learning curve, as your staff will have to establish new habits and routines. It’s important to be patient and clearly communicate with your staff that these changes are for the greater good, as their efforts will greatly increase efficiency and the overall success of the company. The systems will directly benefit them too, as the increase in efficiency will help alleviate problems, save time, and allow things run more smoothly.

Looking Forward

Remember that your new systems are a product of your current workflow, so it’s important to keep them flexible and allow them to naturally evolve as your business continues to grow. Revisit them frequently and never stop asking yourself, “How could this be done better?” If you come up with an answer, it’s out with the old system and in with the new.

Some shop owners may think systematic procedures only benefit larger companies in the industry. However, no matter the size of your operation, it’s important to create operational systems that clearly define how work should be accomplished. The idea of establishing these systems may seem a bit daunting at first, but the end results will be well worth the effort. They will provide a solid foundation for your business to build upon as you look forward to years of success, growth, and profits.