Printing Thought Leadership: Principles in Staying Lean

Written by Jason M. Hoffman, Director of Quality & Continuous Improvement at Fineline Printing Group

As an avid sustainability junkie with 15 years in lean expertise, I am thrilled to be speaking at the upcoming Wabash Valley Lean Network event in Lafayette, Indiana on April 2nd, and the Print Industries of America Continuous Improvement Conference in Minneapolis this April. As a preview to these workshops, I thought I would share a few tips and trends on what to focus on and what to avoid when it comes to sustainability for the long haul.

I’ll start by saying; there are many common misconceptions about today’s best practices for sustainability and staying lean.

It is key to set the expectation upfront that, if you are looking for a five-step solution or a “quick fix” to maintaining a lean–environment in any industry, you will be hard-pressed to find simple answers to work.

Why? Lean is a collection of principles and methods, much like tools in a toolbox, that when applied continuously to achieve a focused goal, allow the results to speak for themselves. In other words, it is not a set of “Band-Aid” practices that can solve all of your problems.

So what does being lean and sustainable mean, and for who?


Lean does NOT mean slashing resources, but adjusting processes to reduce waste.

Sustainability means you need to set goals, identify current state, find solutions – none of which equals eliminating talent in your workforce. In fact it is quite the opposite. Companies need individuals with expertise, even if functions have changed due to technology or lean processes. For example, in manufacturing, operations managers can eliminate down time and scrap, and refocus those hours on producing value add services that are important to the clients.

There is mutual benefit in working with lean companies.

Companies that are aware, and practice lean processes, pass savings on to the client. Whether it is your vendor, supplier or partner, cost associated with operations is inevitably built into purchase price or fees. Therefore, companies that practice sustainability internally keep costs down for clients and can offer cost-savings practices as well.

There are no quick-fixes or magic bullets when it comes to staying lean.

Sustainability is all about dirty knees and bloody knuckles, and while the breakthroughs are massive, the best and most impactful work is done in the trenches.

Staying lean has the same principles across all industries and verticals.

Despite the industry or vertical, being lean means making operations more effective and aligned to what the customer really wants: on-time delivery, excellence in customer satisfaction, competitive pricing, and management of waste – in any form. Because there are shared results and goals, the approach to generating those results starts from the same place. Yes, there are caveats to particular industries, but if you don’t get the principles correct – you won’t have a chance at generating the results you want.


So what does Lean in print look like?

With the difficult economic environment over the past five years, many businesses have been reassessing the way they are doing things. More and more companies are focused on sustainability and making changes like outsourcing expertise to save on overhead.

We have especially seen an evolution over the past decade in print. For years, print was focused on production – faster and better operators and investments in machinery. With the introduction of technology and tools like Digital Asset Management, there is a rapidly shrinking gap between technology and machinery.

Today, it is very difficult to say you are winning based on equipment, and because of this it is especially important to make sure everything is correct upfront, during the order setup process before it goes to the manufacturing floor.

This means collecting data on the front-end and shifting operator expertise to planning stages of print production. If there is a misinterpretation at the beginning of the process, you have to go to the beginning to correct it. So for print, this is a great example of how industry change and lean processes can impact and adjust approaches to production.


Mark Twain once said,

“A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”

Sustainability is similar in that each company needs to learn their own best practices by experience. In all, there are no quick fixes to being lean, but a series of roadblocks, discovery and a continual adaptation to goals – only then will you achieve the results you hope to have.

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