The printing industry's current status is clearly transitional. The move to digital systems has freed print service providers up to become more efficient in their day-to-day operations and increasingly reactive to client wishes. These changes have come not a moment too soon, as the general move away from huge print product orders for both internal and external communications has cut down on a lot of the volume that used to keep the printing business afloat.

Leaders are finding out what it means to be a print service provider in a world that has many record-keeping and direct marketing methods that have nothing to do with paper. While best practices are evolving over time, there are a few benchmarks that companies should feel confident pursuing: Increased efficiency of operations is one of them. If you're trying to determine what the future looks like for your print business, consider working on internal processes and removing any troublesome bottlenecks.

IT isn't everything
Purchasing new software to run print jobs is an important step in getting your shop ready to face the current high-speed market. However, installing such a system isn't a cure-all, and expecting things to get better with minimal effort will likely lead to disappointment. This is why WhatTheyThink columnist Jennifer Matt insisted that print shop leaders must be proactive in setting up their new software implementations for success. If there are still a number of manual processes clogging up the workflow, production bottlenecks will continue to exist.

Matt warned against print service providers taking a backseat role in their own software implementations. Expecting the IT partner to take the lead won't get companies far. It's up to the leaders, the ones who know their systems best, to take the lead. Matt noted that one way to expose the weak links in a production process is to think about which steps in production would devolve into inefficiency when faced with a huge order volume.

The author explained that with a digital system in place to manage orders, print providers can scale up their processes significantly. If they find parts of the infrastructure that would not increase in scope so efficiently, then they've successfully found the bottlenecks that will have to go if they hope to continue growing. Matt noted that, sometimes, companies with serious flaws in their systems have employees unwittingly keeping their scale down because a vast increase in order volume would cause processes to break down and descend into chaos.

Combing for bottlenecks
When it comes to finding the problems in a given print provider's workflow, a close look at the involved systems and processes may be the best way to work out the problem spots and drive overall improvement. That's what Print Impressions blogger Pat McGrew recommends – she encourages printers to draw up maps of the routes jobs take through their systems. Every step along the way is a touchpoint. Some will always work well, while others will present problems. The latter group are the bottlenecks, and clearing them is necessary.

Instead of basing workflow maps on guesswork or a single example, McGrew called for print leaders to log every print job as it passes from the initial order to completion. Some touchpoints will work perfectly most of the time, only presenting problems every once in a while. Those issues are still worth resolving, of course, because even one production delay is costly for the printer. With a map of potential problem areas drawn up over time, printers can set to work intelligently tuning up their workflows for maximum efficiency.

The magnitude of a bottleneck can vary widely, and McGrew encouraged companies to make note of both the frequency of a particular problem and how disruptive the fix is. With detailed information on what's going wrong in everyday operations, a print service provider doesn't have to spend much time diagnosing the issue later – it's already been logged. Some issues may have become longtime parts of the status quo – but that doesn't mean businesses have to settle for them.

True efficiency
A modern print service provider, using a digital system to route orders from clients at high speed and fill orders effectively and actively, may fall short of its ambitious goals if its everyday workflows have issues. A modern digital management system gives companies great potential efficiency, but whether actual results live up to that projection comes down to the efforts of employees monitoring for and correcting production bottlenecks.

Today's customers aren't interested in the kinds of volume that once powered the print industry. They want partners that can effectively deliver orders and handle their jobs with speed and accuracy. Going digital is the first step in becoming such a partner, but the vestiges of old-fashioned manual processes can stop such a transformation in its tracks. Whenever bottlenecks strike, they undermine efforts at modernization. In an industry on an unstoppable forward trajectory, that kind of slowdown is unacceptable.