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University of Washington: Keen on Lean

Faced with a deficit just two years ago, the University of Washington’s in-plant has turned its financial situation around and repositioned itself for success by implementing Lean production practices.

April 2012 By Dawn Greenlaw-Scully
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Workplace meetings get little respect in pop culture. Depicted as breeding grounds for interminable incompetence and time-wasting worthlessness, meetings are the punch line of jokes and regular victims of stereotypes, satire and snide remarks.

As the old one-liner goes, "We are going to continue having these meetings every day, until we find out why no work is getting done."

Funny? Sure. But universally true?

Not by a long shot, attests Frank Davis, director of UW Creative Communications, the University of Washington's in-plant. Team meetings have been an integral part of the in-plant's recent implementation of Lean production practices, and critical to its rapid financial turnaround from a $200,000 deficit to a $300,000 profit—a half-a-million-dollar swing from one fiscal year to the next.

The University of Washington has more than 42,000 students and over 21,000 employees in three locations, including its main campus in Seattle. Staffed with 91 full-time employees, Creative Communications has a $10.6 million annual self-sustaining operating budget (for print, copy, design and Web), as well as a $1.7 million funded mailing budget and a $2 million postage budget.

A decade ago, though, the in-plant (then called Publication Services) was even larger, with about 160 employees. It topped IPG's Top 50 list of the largest university in-plants in 2004. In 2008, the unit changed its name to Creative Communications to reflect more accurately the growth of its offerings beyond print to include consulting, design, Web and mail services.

Financial Stress

Yet, even as the in-plant expanded its digital, Web-based and ancillary services and capabilities, overall business was contracting.

"Our previous core business—traditional printing—was really suffering," Davis acknowledges, noting that offset printing revenues had dropped 40 percent over five years. The operation was also forced to cut facilities (such as campus copy centers from 12 to five), equipment and employees. Figures calculated for the 2009-2010 fiscal year had revealed that Creative Communications was $200,000 in the red.

"There was less work for all of our operations," Davis reports. "We had to continue to transform ourselves and look for new revenue streams. It was about survival for us."

Rethinking Equipment Investments

In the past, the in-plant had looked to new technology to boost revenue.

"We've spent millions of dollars around here on equipment over the years, but we got to the point where that wasn't an option anymore," Davis admits. "This time around, we couldn't invest in new presses. We couldn't responsibly request funding for them as there wasn't enough work to do to justify a major press purchase. Equipment investments are still made as needed, but on a much smaller scale."

 

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