In-plant Graphics

You will be automatically redirected to inplantgraphics in 20 seconds.
Skip this advertisement.


Managing for Survival

Let's face it, senior management probably does not understand your in-plant's strategic contribution. To stay in business, you need a defense strategy.

December 2013 By Ray Chambers
Get the Flash Player to see this rotator.

This article is about management. It's not about management theory, it's not about supervision, and it's not about consensus building. It's about hands-on, down-and-dirty decision making—recognizing you have a management problem and addressing it. It's about analyzing the situation, identifying alternative solutions, evaluating expected results, choosing a solution and going forward. It's about survival.

Management Guru Tom Peters says that management is really pretty simple. According to Peters, management is about "making things and selling things." It's about understanding your environment and adapting to whatever challenges may be standing in the way of accomplishing your mission.

A few years ago I did a presentation at a conference, which I called "Prepare to Defend Yourself." In it I explained that in my experience senior management probably does not understand the strategic contribution of an in-plant, so it's up to us to make the connection for them. The content was informed by more than 30 years of dealing with management and hundreds of projects involving in-plant performance.

A subsequent speaker criticized me for daring to suggest that we need to "defend" our operations. He accused me of being defensive, and he was correct. He argued for the better-mousetrap theory: do a good job and your customers will beat a path to your door, and that should be all you need. My point, while decidedly more cynical, was based on my experiences working with dozens of in-plants: do a good job and the commercial sector will still do everything it can to close you down. If you want to survive, you have to have a defense strategy.

Sadly, the other speaker's shop was closed the next year.

Wolves in the Shadows

The first step in managing for survival is recognizing the wolves that may be lurking in the shadows—the things you might have noticed had you been paying attention to your environment. What sort of things? Have suits with measuring tapes and clipboards started dropping in to "tour" your space? Are your phone calls not being returned? Are you being left out of meetings you used to attend? Does your boss avoid you? Was your last capital request turned down? Are you having trouble filling open positions? Did your VP ask someone else for printing and/or copier advice?

One of the things I've noticed in working with in-plants is that few are closed because they weren't doing a good enough job of providing printing. The most common reasons were more esoteric. In higher education, where space is always coveted, a frequent reason for closing the in-plant is that another, more strategic unit wants the space. We often hear in-plant managers bemoaning a management decision that will move them from their prime location near the center of campus to somewhere less conveniently located—but in reality these managers should be thanking their lucky stars that they are no longer the bull's-eye.

Another common reason for closing an in-plant in all types of organizations, both public and private, is the need to reduce staff. Budget cuts usually mean staff reductions. When management starts looking for bodies to lay off, they often start with the units that do not directly contribute to the core purpose of the organization. Printing is often painted with that brush.

If a higher education administrator has to chose between closing an academic unit or the print shop, the printer loses every time. Never mind that the academic unit may be performing poorly and/or losing students, or that closing the print shop usually doesn't reduce costs. People still need print to do their jobs.

When the in-plant is closed, print users migrate to external, often more expensive alternatives; or they send their work to the multi-function copier down the hall. (During the legislative hearings to close the State of Washington's printing office, a $25 million operation, a member of the legislature was quoted as saying that he didn't know why the state needed a print shop when everyone had desktop printers.)

A History of Outsourcing

Sometimes in-plants are closed because upper management, especially recently hired and/or promoted managers, have a history of outsourcing. New managers often feel the need to make dramatic changes early on, and closing the print shop, or outsourcing in general, is often used to effect those changes. I'm currently working with a large state university in which a new vice president has directed his staff to outsource printing because "that's the way we did it at my last school."

Other managers, looking for a silver bullet, hear outsourcing "success stories" from other organizations through professional conferences, personal interaction or the business press and decide to look into it.

And finally, some in-plant managers don't understand, or worse, ignore the importance of recovering all of their costs, and they run up sizeable deficits in the process. Even when administration looks the other way and forgives under performance, their in-plants are at risk. Why? Because their next boss may not have the same attitude.

I recently worked with a large university in which the in-plant manager had accumulated a sizeable deficit over a period of several years. Her supervisor understood the reasons and allowed the deficit to accrue, but when the supervisor retired, her replacement demanded not only an end to the practice, but set an unrealistic goal (three years) to recover all of the accumulated losses.

The common thread running through these stories is that none of them have anything to do with print shop performance, but they have everything to do with survival. As managers we must be sensitive to these influences and develop ways to deal with them before they rise to the level of becoming a threat. We have to keep our ears to the ground and react when we hear something threatening.


Here are some strategies that I've seen successfully implemented by in-plant managers.

First, look for the low-hanging fruit. If you've read my blog posts and/or attended one of my conference sessions, you may recall that I place a lot of weight on self-advocacy—telling your story. Why? If you won't, who will? And if you want to be seen as contributing to the strategic success of your organization, as opposed to just more overhead, you have to tell people how your work is important. You have to be proactive.

  • Do you have a strategic and/or operational plan? You know, the one where you project revenues and expenses, and develop goals to meet strategic objectives. If not, get to it.
  • Do you have financial issues? Have you been operating at a loss? Then do something about it. You can adjust your rates, re-negotiate paper contracts, review staffing levels, develop new sources of revenue—scanning and shredding come to mind—review your delivery fleet and trim it down. You have to address financial issues.
  • Examine your equipment inventory, and sell what isn't being used.
  • Make sure your digital equipment fits your real needs.
  • If space is the issue, look for a different, non-central location.
  • Develop and promote your own brand.
  • Make sales calls to key and potential customers.
  • Market your services.

Above all—you must be proactive.

Don't throw gas on the fire by ignoring the warning signs. When you detect a problem, address it, don't ignore it. Chances are it won't go away. You have to be proactive and develop solutions to address the issues at hand. And you have to tell people that you did it.

Don't assume that your boss, or her/his boss, understands your problems. At the end of the day they have to be concerned about the well-being of the entire organization, and if you are not perceived as being part of the solution, then you may be considered part of the problem.

And finally, don't whine or make excuses. Acknowledge the problem, outline what you plan to do about it, and then get to work.

Survival is often about tending to the little things before they grow into larger problems. Look for problems, pay attention to the wolves lurking in the shadows and above all be proactive.

Ray Chambers has invested more than 30 years managing and directing print plants, copy centers, mail centers and document management facilities in higher education and government. Most recently, Chambers served as vice president and chief information officer at Juniata College. He is currently a doctoral candidate studying Higher Education Administration at Penn State. His research interests include outsourcing in higher education and its impact on support services in higher education and managing support services. He also consults with leaders in both the public and private sectors to help them understand and improve in-plant printing and document services operations ( Contact him at






Click here to leave a comment...
Comment *
Most Recent Comments: