In-plants Aren’t Commercial Printers
Have you noticed? We’ve been discovered!
Everyone has suddenly become aware of “in-plants.” There was a time when in-plants were looked down on by our colleagues in the commercial world. We weren’t “real printers.” We were somehow not quite as good as our commercial counterparts.
Now that’s changed. Printing consultants, industry marketing “experts,” and even vendors are presenting at in-plant conferences, blogging and writing articles and white papers telling us what we’re doing wrong and how to fix it. Some are telling us how to improve performance; others, what new services to add. The assumption seems to be that since we’re “printers,” the same rules they use to explain commercial printing should apply to us as well.
And they do...sort of.
Whenever I see an industry expert—especially one who has never managed an in-plant, let alone a printing company—pontificate on what in-plant managers are doing wrong and the three or four things we need to be doing to survive, I take notice. While there are similarities between commercial shops and in-plants, there are differences as well, and those differences are profound.
Yes, we are printers; and yes, we do use similar equipment and software; and yes, we do need to be sensitive to and driven by our customers’ expectations; and yes, we do need to measure what we manage—those are all no brainers. But there’s another side to the story, and it’s one our industry experts should consider before they attempt to solve all of our problems for us.
The In-plant Difference
There are fundamental differences between in-plants and commercial shops. That’s the part that has to do with...being an in-plant—being part of a larger organization that has nothing to do with printing.
All organizations are different. Some are private, others public. They all have different missions, goals, values and cultures. They come in different sizes, shapes and locations. Some are profit driven, while others have a service mission. And on and on.
If I’ve learned anything in my doctoral program, it’s that making sweeping generalizations about something based on a few observations of something totally different is a slippery slope. We need to be really, really careful when we make assumptions about one type of organization based on our observations of different organizations with different purposes, cultures, sizes or whatever.
The same is true for in-plants. The in-plants serving insurance companies or state government or higher education or non-profit organizations or manufacturing companies are all different. Each has evolved to meet the unique needs of its parent organization, and that evolution is framed and informed by the industry it serves and the technology it uses.
So while in-plants may produce similar products, use similar technology, and have similar issues, they are different types of organizations and go about their business in different ways. I faced a completely different set of problems, issues and customer needs when I managed the in-plant at a large state government agency than I did managing the in-plant for a large university. They were both in-plants, right? So the same rules should apply.
I wish it were that simple.
When an organization sets up an in-plant, it usually has a purpose in mind. Generally that purpose is control. In-plant managers are expected to provide services and perform tasks that may be inefficient or expensive by commercial shop standards, but they are necessary to the operations of the parent organizations and fit the control element of the mission. That means stopping production on everything in the shop except for the commencement program for a college graduation, or dedicating all of your resources to producing the budget document to meet a totally impossible deadline that you had no voice in setting in government, or staying all weekend and missing your kid’s soccer game because your boss promised someone the job would be ready Monday morning. How do you benchmark that?
What the Vendors Don’t Understand
Here’s a true story. Several years ago, I set up a copy center in one of the colleges in the university where I worked. It was a small center with one full-time employee and produced 250,000 to 300,000 copies per month, as I recall.
Later on, a large box vendor did a “study” and reported to my boss that I was throwing away thousands of dollars on this particular center because it was not operating at capacity. The vendor’s recommendation? I should shut down the center and route the work to my main copy center because it had the capacity to absorb the work. Like I didn’t know that. But that solution only looked at one side of the issue, and this one had more below the surface than above.
We put a copy center in that particular college because the dean wanted it. Her reasons for wanting it weren’t important. They were her reasons and she had the budget to pay for it. I could have refused her request based on the efficiency argument, but in doing so I would have made an enemy and spent a needless amount of political capital. She wanted a copy center, so if I hadn’t provided it she would have found another way to get one, and probably at a greater cost to the university. So I set it up.
By accommodating her request, I made an ally, and I protected the university by minimizing the costs of the center. And while I didn’t make the most effective decision from a printing industry perspective, I did from the university’s. That’s called being strategic. How do you quantify that?
What’s more, I’ve learned that having a dean or two on your side isn’t such a bad place to be when the outsourcing bell starts to ring.
You see, in-plant managers march to two masters. On the one hand, we’re printers. We need to be efficient, customer focused and do high-quality work. We live better-cheaper-faster every day.
On the other hand, we’re insurance underwriters or scholars or researchers or manufacturers—representatives of our particular industry—and we have to recognize the demands of those industries as well. One of the reasons the Association of College and University Printers (ACUP) was so successful in its rebirth is the desire—no, the demand—by in-plant managers in higher education to have a place to get together and network with other managers facing similar challenges.
Many of the printing industry pundits have recognized, and rightly so, that we—in-plant managers—are not perceived by our parent organizations as being strategic. We’re not a core function of the organization, and that somehow makes us irrelevant. I get that.
It’s up to us to keep our shops relevant and let people know about it. I call that “telling your story,” and anyone that has attended one of my presentations in the past 10 years or so has heard that rant. It’s one thing to do good work and add value; it’s another to make sure the right people know what you do and why it’s important.
A good management strategy, including a focus on customer expectations and metrics-based management, is essential. My fear, though, is that some print managers will take some of these expert recommendations to heart and think that these are sure-fire silver bullets to avoid being shut down—and that’s just not the case.
It’s also important for the pundits to realize that their solutions may, and often do, stop short of addressing the real problem. White papers on improving in-plant performance are nice, but the reality is that in-plants frequently are closed for totally unrelated reasons.
Outsourcing is a Fad
Outsourcing, especially in support services, is a management fad, just like Total Quality Management (TQM), Management by Objective (MBO) and Zero Based Budgeting (ZBB) and others. They come, and they go.
While many executives claim to outsource support services—like printing—to save money, there is little research (at least in the public sector, including higher education) to support that premise. In my academic career, I have yet to find a study meeting academic standards for research design showing that outsourcing support services reduces the cost of obtaining those services.
So why do managers outsource? A common reason is expediency. If the print shop occupies space that could be used for other, more strategic, purposes, the print shop loses. Or when an administrator attends a conference where outsourcing “success stories” are part of the agenda, the in-plant manager can expect to be required to defend her shop in the near future. Or if top management mandates a reduction in force, and the choice is between laying off the in-plant staff or people that work in core (there’s that word again) areas, the in-plant gets the ax every time. It’s really hard to explain to directors or shareholders or legislative committees why you laid off production workers or caseworkers or teachers, but kept the printers. All of the critical success factors and how-to-survive manuals won’t do anything to help in those situations.
And yet these are the situations I see in my consulting practice. At Chambers Management Group, we’ve worked on close to 100 management assessments involving in-plants in colleges and universities, and the problem that keeps emerging is this: They (top management) don’t know what in-plants do or why it could possibly be important. “We’re not in the printing business!” I hear that a lot. That’s why it is so important that we tell our stories!
So far, we’ve been successful. We’ve been able to show management the value of their in-plants and helped in-plants adapt to the changing environment by identifying their contribution to the core organizational purpose, framed by the non-monetary but equally strategic role. I am proud to say that none of our clients have closed their in-plants.
We’re but one voice, and a small one at that. The larger problem, in my view, is the absence of people willing to tell their stories to larger audiences.
Mike Loyd, Program Marketing Manager, Ricoh Americas Corp., summed it up nicely in a recent blog. Mike said “…perception by your parent institution can be your major problem. Whether this perception is justifiably earned, inherited from previous management or erroneously placed upon your operation, it is important to turn those negative perceptions into positive ones.”
Loyd continues, “I believe the first step is the education process of pointing out your in-plant’s value proposition to your administration’s peer groups.”
Anyone that wants to tell an in-plant manager what to do should first walk a mile in his or her shoes. In the meantime, we’ll keep beating the drum for more in-plant managers to speak up.