• 2021-08-12

Lean manufacturing shows enduring resilience during the World Pandemic.

Before and during the pandemic, cost reduction became central to process management objectives in the graphic arts industry. 

During the post-pandemic recovery phase, current challenges are an opportunity to review manufacturing practices and study industry leaders' success. Our learning experiences are building blocks, and each mentor provides a valuable and unique perspective that helps develop our thinking process.

In the 90s, printing companies experienced a rapid technological transformation by introducing a high level of automation. This workflow transformation urged organizations for effective Process Management, reduction of traditional manufacturing process cycles, and standardization of processes to control waste. 

The slow and late adoption of manufacturing Lean practices in the graphic arts industry delayed the notion that the Lean E-Commerce Business Model will be the transformational phase organizations will endure sooner than later.

Lean thinking identifies waste in manufacturing and business processes and introduces solutions to remove the waste. And Lean methodology has become an essential part of E-commerce businesses, as waste elimination is the driving force managing the entire workflow and constantly improving processes to increase profitability.

The Lean Evolution.

The Lean principles relate to manufacturing efficiency, and they are not new concepts. 

To most accounts, Lean started in the Middle Ages in Italy at Arsenale di Venezia which built mainly naval ships. The Venetians at the time developed a formidable labour force divided accordingly to the stages of manufacturing, with standardized and organized interchangeable parts assembly lines and the minimal material handling reached excellent efficiency.

It's well documented the innovations in production and logistics support to Arsenale by Galileo Galilei applying science to the study of the material strength of shipbuilding and ballistics.   

In the industry, Lean is intricately related to every success story. Heinz became the best-known food processing plant in the world. Heinz adopted a continuous flow system and assembly line long before Henry Ford introduced the revolutionary moving assembly line blending of human labour and machine automation.   

But it wasn't until Frederick Taylor's scientific management approach and theories formally transformed the manufacturing process by introducing standardization, efficiency, and productivity in manufacturing in the USA.   

Taylor devoted his life to improving the efficiency of men and machinery in manufacturing. His finding results from his work on the shop floor as a foreman. He proposed that the responsibility of manufacturing lies on plant managers to provide the best conditions for workers to do their jobs.    

His interest focused on efficiency, sought better ways to do things, and believed that a redesigned workplace and incentives could increase productivity. His scientific approach and careful processes studies at a micro-level using time-motion methodology helped divide them into repetitive and straightforward steps to improve efficiency.   

Henry L. Gantt further contributed to his theory by introducing a bonus system to increase performance. He also introduced the Gantt Chart tool to visualize what happens throughout a project.

Henry Ford revolutionized industrial manufacturing in the USA.

Henry Ford adopted Taylor's scientific management theory ideas and pioneered manufacturing strategies in his car assembly line. All the resources used at the manufacturing site: people, machines, equipment, tools, were organized so that a continuous flow of production facilitated manufacturing. Inspired by Taylor's efficiency ideas, he divided processes into multiple repetitive tasks to employ low-skilled labour and maintain product quality to improve efficiency.  

The primary purpose was to reduce waste and to increase profitability. That was the beginning, yet Ford's early success declined over time as the manufacturing system he designed failed to adapt to ever-changing market demands.    

Toward the end of the second world war, Taiichi Ohno introduced and developed the Toyota Production System, a management philosophy which in the 1990s came to be known as Lean Manufacturing. The lean or just-in-time system aims to eliminate waste and achieve the best possible efficiency.   

I know and experienced only one organization that jumped into an e-commerce opportunity with great success in the printing industry. An organization that aligns manufacturing to customer needs and provides printing services on demand.   

VistaPrint printing services are the most comprehensive online e-commerce with a friendly website with multi-languages, supported by a robust lean manufacturing platform, where customization is at the core of their business model. Now Vistaprint is part of a group of companies under Cimpress. Their unique Lean manufacturing process involves multiple software components of an end-to-end production workflow capable of processing from click to ship in minutes.

The secrets to achieving the highest productivity levels

In my previous article, I shared my lean journey and the influence of Prof. Southworth TQM concepts in my professional life in his writings and a trip to China to learn about the Chinese printing industry.    

I also talked about a hands-on experience at a packaging company where the production team accomplished unprecedented productivity and reduced waste.   Before getting into the third and final part of this three-part article, I will quickly answer a few questions formulated privately by lean six sigma professionals and managers.    

My experience at a packaging company sparked a high level of interest in Continuous Improvement (CI) from managers at different printing companies. Some organizations have already introduced lean manufacturing initiatives, while others have tried without success.    

I will briefly outline the steps I experienced in implementing Lean changes from the first day in a traditional and old-fashioned and structured manufacturing process. The most significant obstacles we encountered, the accomplishments we experienced, and strategies used for sustainability. I also outlined the lessons from that unique experience. 

My role at Vera and Giannini 1995-98

During the initial phase, my expected role was only to train press operators. The perception of management and the owner was that the bottleneck was in the pressroom.   

An ideal Lean deployment must establish or define the improvement objectives based on measurements beforehand to lay out a roadmap and strategy. That would be the case in a perfect world, but my experience was very different.    

At Vera and Giannini, a sizeable family-owned packaging company trapped at the heart of a fast-growing city of Santiago, Chile, also owned a paper mill that produced paperboard located outside the city. In the early 90s in a multicolour Lithrone 44" Komori. They used older large sizes multicolours until then, KBA-Planeta presses slow and outdated.

They realized they needed to move ahead and incorporate new technologies to match the increased customer demand. A couple of years later, they obtained a second identical press. The investments in the latest state-of-the-art technology with the newly established redesigned Komori Lithrone presses from Japan was a serious undertaking to answer the high demand for high-quality packaging.    

As a senior Komori press instructor, I joined the Komori technical team toward the final phase of installing the second Komori press. I completed the mechanical installation and technical inspection and initiated the press start-up and operator's training. Within two weeks, we had the press ready for production.    

New equipment is not the solution to boost productivity. Standardization and Process Management can only drive higher productivity and product quality.

While we prepared the newly installed press, we couldn't avoid noticing the crew's work style on the first Komori press as they worked in an old machine. From the beginning, it was evident that new equipment is not the solution to boost productivity or even throughput. Standardization and Process Management can only drive higher productivity and product quality. 


It was clear that the main objective was to reduce all forms of waste and show significant improvement from the beginning. The owner defined the need for change, and my job was to improve skills on the shop floor (Bottom Up).    

From the onset, we engaged in focused training on the operational aspect of the presses, and at the same time, we established standard procedures for the jobs make-ready. I picked the most motivated crew and worked closely to slash the lengthy make readies from 3-4 hours to 30 minutes.    

At first, they thought it was not attainable, but they realized it was possible with adequate logistical support. We relieved press operators from doing external tasks and only focused on improving internal duties at the press.    

We started by fine-tuning the press's mechanical functions and introducing standardized make-ready procedures. That meant technical adjustments at the feeder, roller checks and adjustments, adequately packed and tensioned blankets, and techniques to mount plates accurately and reach an accurate register of all colours simultaneously within the first pull. The target was to be ready for production within three press pulls.   

We provided a Komori Certificate of pressman craftmanship to everyone that completed the training program in a formal ceremony. 

Lean Transformation.

During that initial transformational phase, we slowly educated everyone involved in production on the concepts of Lean Methodology without using the Lean jargon. We introduce with great success 5S without saying 5S. Everyone enjoyed and loved working in an organized workplace. The press teams welcome the open concept of shadow boards with essential tools that we managed against management fear as they considered a waste of money. Each crew checked upon arrival the tool inventory, and amazingly, nothing was lost.

You can find answers only in the workplace. Taiichi Ohno.

It is fair to say that the Lean spirit grew from the shop floor. The machine operators learned the eight sources of waste, they took charge and felt empowered. It was a point of no return as they assumed the quintessential responsibility for their role in the manufacturing process. They identified waste and pushed for improvements. To watch this turn of events was very satisfying as Lean was out of the bottle, and operators promoted change without external intervention.   

Soon after, we introduced the crews of the first Komori press to the same procedures and levelled up their throughput in a few weeks. Members of the first group supported these efforts and created such positive, energizing developments results. At the same time, improved safety measures that included safety boots and reduced the VOC levels by eliminating the gasoline used for cleaning and alcohol use in the pressroom. These changes created a very positive and engaging response from everyone in production.   

These positive changes supported other crew changes as we promoted talented junior operators to more prominent roles. Salaries adjustments followed as payroll structure showed a senseless disparity that privileged only some employees. These measures and further improvements unfolded as we reduce the traditional twelve-hour shifts gradually to eight hours.   

The efficiency created equipment overcapacity, and we intended to keep a highly skilled labour force and avoid layoffs. The eight-hour shifts schedule brought in positive energy, and we further reduced lateness and absenteeism, and early shifts relief made smooth shift transitions. Within twelve months, we practically eliminated the overtime, a considerable cost reduction accomplishment. Bear in mind; customers will not pay for overtime.

Keeping the Equipment in Motion with Preventive Maintenance. 

The moment we resolved the presses' internal operational problems, the presses had no more technical issues. We noticed a significant improvement at the execution level in the pressroom.    

Within a few weeks, we minimized the breakdowns during production by implementing a preventive maintenance program with the maintenance team. We started showing improvements, and within two months, we had things under total control with minimum production breakdown disruptions in the pressroom. Soon after, we introduce die cutters and folding gluer equipment to the same maintenance program with great success.    

This single step changed the maintenance department's dynamic support efforts with a more effective and reliable service. The maintenance team members no longer kept busy running around putting out fires. Instead, they focused on servicing the equipment on weekends with the support of operators. This joint effort was a new experience for them and created a synergy never experienced before.   

This focus of the new preventive maintenance programs had an immediate positive and measurable impact. We elaborated detailed checklists for daily, weekly, and monthly maintenance tasks with the time assigned to each activity. Besides, proactive maintenance programs kept machines in motion and at the same time allowed the operators to get familiar with their equipment. They became more receptive and reported potential issues before breakdowns happened.

External Support Failed Our Improvements Efforts.

The welcome reception was positive, and everyone was pleased with the results. Unfortunately, evidence of external support inefficiencies to the pressroom influenced our dedicated and focused efforts for faster and more efficient make-readies.    

The root cause analysis demonstrated that to resolve these issues, we had to fix problems upstream. For instance, one of the issues was to colour match PMS or corporate colours. Three out of five Special PMS colours produced internally didn't match our colour standard. 

Colour matching done without spectrophotometric or densitometric instruments created downtime. 

This situation would cause the extra roller wash-ups and, subsequently, wait for the new ink batch. Sometimes, we would colour match at the press, so the ink technician makes the final precise ink batch for the production run.   

We outsourced the ink services, and Sun Chemical became our strategic partner. Ursula L. Stevens, Corporate Vice President, was a great support in establishing an in-plant ink facility to stock manage and support our offset and flexo production lines, the first in the country. Ulrich Eisele helped design the workflow, staff the 24 hours support team, and pick the instruments and equipment needed to blend and match our inks.    

Once the in-plant ink facility was fully operational, we eliminated the waiting for ink issues. In addition, we complemented colour matching at the production stage with a Quality Folder for each job with ink drawdown and printed samples.   

It is important to note that I was minimalistic and careful not to overburden the information workflow with paperwork for each new standardization measure introduced to the process.

Need for Information Flow Management System

At the end of the third month of working hard on these improvements, we decided to create an MIS focused on identifying and measuring the downtime. During the brainstorming sessions of a small task force, many ideas about capturing information related to production and management surged.    

As days passed, we realized that an MIS's simple concepts to support my downtime findings were too modest. The need to introduce a comprehensive information flow management system was strong, mainly to eliminate slow production reporting documents and calculate production bonuses done by hand. Payroll was on my side to push ahead with this project. Eventually, we ease the pressure on gathering and calculating production information daily; otherwise, would take days or weeks to consolidate.    

We celebrated when the first reports started showing up, and we could see where the time went. The information workflow management system, precarious at first, demonstrated organizational and planning issues. It became evident that waiting for inks, stock, plates, customers approvals, production schedule changes, and supervisor press approvals were the most recurrent press idle and downtimes.

Four Significant Lessons. 

1-    Process Management. Without exception, people involved in manufacturing support Process Management if they are involved in the decision-making process.    

2-    Standardization. The positive impact of standardization is measurable as it boosts productivity, guarantees quality, and increases employee confidence.   

3-    Management Information System. Most people involved in production welcomes MIS as a trusted information source. Workers appreciate and value the ability to inform about causes of downtime.    

4-    Downtime. Accurate downtime record-keeping was crucial to support Process Management. Properly defining and measuring the causes of waste is what supports CI effectively.

Metrics and Information Shared.

Production and downtime metrics displayed weekly with current information were very influential among workers as they quickly could relate situations they experienced to productivity. The posted metrics sparked interest in the intricate aspects of the process and created constant and effective communication. However, sharing process metrics made the administration uneasy as they wanted to keep process information data secret.

Explain difficult things in an easy-to-understand manner. Taiichi Ohno.

Standardization is critically slow to implement without the active participation of everyone involved in the manufacturing process. Production management engagement on the floor shop is welcome and empowers everyone, and leads to job satisfaction.    

Essentially accountability is highly respected across all levels of the company structure. MIS becomes an invisible watchful eye over the process and promotes organizational self-management, which ultimately was my objective.    

Process Management, standardization and organizational self-management go hand in hand and point to time management. Process Management and planning should always be focused on cost and balancing the production workflow. A practical production plan keeps production in motion.

The Biggest Obstacles

The biggest hurdle during this transformation was members of the management team, as they didn't trust the production staff. That created a void and a toxic environment that hindered productivity. Besides, the production management team's self-isolation from the day-to-day activities created a disconnect.    

After two months of data gathering and reports, I organized a high-level meeting. I invited production management, planning, middle management, logistics, and Payroll.    

My objective was to demonstrate the potential of having an information workflow system to support every aspect of the manufacturing process. The answer from the senior management was negative, and their main arguments against my project:

1- Team members wouldn't know how to do it.

2- Would take time away from their tasks.

3- They would not be accurate reporting, and the reports will be flawed.       

They stated that I shouldn't trust the people from the shop floor. Sadly, the reality check was hard to admit. The metrics presented was an X-Ray of the current events and revealed the source of the problems.

I have prepared for these reactions; little they knew that I had independently gathered data to compare the operator's reports. After listening to their arguments, I presented my report of the same time frame, which turned out to be identical.    

That put an end to the discussion, and they had no choice other than accept the notion that an MIS would be monitoring every aspect of the process. That meeting followed up a management restructuring shake-up.

Gemba Walks.

The idea of Gemba is simple: go to the place, look at the process, and talk with people. It is part of Lean thinking, the place where value is created. Walking through the shop floor is very insightful for management.   

We often walked through the Plant together with Mr. Luis Vera Giannini. I would pick him up from his office and walk through the Plant. He loved talking with operators and supporting staff and paid particular attention during make-ready at the presses. He was mesmerized by how quickly things evolved in the company. 

A 9 to 5 Job.

For those interested in CI, bear in mind that this is not a 9 to 5 job. I recall working long hours every day, and that included weekends. I worked side by side with the shopfloor operators and staff. Often supervisors asked me to stay on to support teams if needed or requested. 

I strongly supported self-management.   

I also did Gemba walks after 5 PM, sometime after midnight. People celebrated these opportunities as they gracefully shared details about their jobs. Workers appreciated my support and commitment, and I felt rewarded by seeing the process in motion and learning about every detail.   

I trust this overview has covered most questions about my experience at Vera and Giannini. I am happy to share details. I have continued working in the same industry, building knowledge with other experiences in process optimization.

Lean Manufacturing is Profitable and Sustainable.

Before starting the third of three parts articles, note that early adopters have had a steep learning curve since the introduction of E-Commerce. Dynamic designed and responsive Website development targeted, and clever marketing strategies and personalized services supported by solid online customer services.   

In the last ten to fifteen years, a dozen companies have introduced print services online—Sinalite, Onlineprinters, The Bernard Group, Saxoprint, Flyeralarm, Printivo, and Imprimun.   


Jan at Heidelberger Druckmaschinen Wiesloch training center is examining a VLF printed sheet from SaxoPrint, UK.

Perhaps Vistaprint's advantage over the fast-growing competition was to scale the operation early by building the volume with early back-end partners. Also, the consistent investment in marketing, made the brand relevant and attractive.  

The website is friendly and interactive and constantly offers promotions, and the pricing is reasonable.    

Vistaprint's novel marketing campaign of free cards, which Vistaprint has distributed billions, carried the company's marketing message on the back. The software ganging up 143 cards in one sheet was the product flagship that propelled the company to a leadership position before anyone else could understand the new business model.   

Vistaprint, now Cimpress, has adopted a Lean manufacturing model that took years to be noticed by industry leaders since the get-go.   

Robert Keane, the Vistaprint CEO, an early adopter of E-Commerce, pioneered e-commerce for printing services.    

He founded the company Vistaprint in 1994, establishing in 2003 the first printing plant in Venlo, The Netherlands. Shortly afterwards, set in operation in 2005, the second printing plant in the world in Windsor, Ontario. Recently, announced the opening of the second plant in the USA.    

Vistaprint became the first Lean Six Sigma manufacturing plant in Canada and the world's most modern manufacturing printing facility. 

Under Robert Keane's leadership, the management team demonstrated that lean manufacturing is possible and highly profitable in a traditional and fragmented industry, such as the Graphic Arts Industry. It remains profitable even during the global pandemic as it kept its vision and core values of Lean manufacturing organic and evolving. 

Vistaprint Business Model.

Vistaprint's business model enables small micro-businesses to create their printing projects in a desktop publishing environment from their website and empowers them with an efficient and robust manufacturing infrastructure.

Jan with Josh kick-starting the first job at the Windsor Plant, April 2005. From L to R, Ciaran, Mike, James, and Dean.

Many other printing organizations have emulated this business model but not with the scope of success as Vistaprint.   

Mass Lean customization's key for success is to think of it as a process to align manufacturing to customers' needs. 

Any manufacturing company can benefit from Lean mass customization. The key is to think of it as a process for aligning manufacturing to customers' needs. Perhaps implementing Lean Manufacturing methodology calls for an investment of human capital and the structure of various strategies to streamline production with minimal waste that traditional organizations are not prepared to do.

The First Printing Facility Granted the Bronze Shingo Award.

In Melbourne, Vistaprint's Deer Park printing plant has attained the 2014 Bronze Shingo Award for operational excellence, becoming the first printing facility to win this world-recognized international honours. The Shingo Prize is the world's highest standard for organizational excellence.   


Vistaprint will always have a special place in my heart as it has the most modern manufacturing printing facilities globally.  

I experienced the excitement of reaching nearly eight production cycles per hour in a Manroland press, production valued over 130 thousand US dollars on sales daily in eight hours shifts. That was before Manroland introduced Direct Drive and Simultaneous Plate Loading system SPL.

That is a fantastic return and only possible from the mix of resources and workforce empowered by a process based on a Lean manufacturing platform.

Before the start-up, Alex Klauss Schowtka, Vistaprint's first COO, shared privately, we visited all press manufacturing companies searching for the right technology available, and we loved the presentation at Heidelberg. Still, Manroland understood our concept of Lean and could deliver the technology for the short production cycles we wanted. 

A Canadian senior Heidelberg Sales manager later acknowledged Klauss Schowtka accounts while visiting the Windsor Plant. When I asked, what do you think, while we looked on the press during a typical production cycle? 'Sadly, now we don't have this kind of technology for automatic plate changers.' He commented. That makes a huge difference, he added.  

When Manroland introduced the SPL system a couple of years later, it optimized the make-ready even more by slashing the multi-plate mounting procedure to one minute.

Vistaprint Top Management

In the beginning, the Vistaprint organization was very flat. We often met senior management at the plant.   

During the first Manroland press installation at the Windsor plant, Robert Keane, and his friend Klauss Schowtka visited. They approached me as they wanted to meet and greeted me as the first press operator/instructor they hired.    

It was the first time I meet them personally. Alex asked directly in that informal meeting: do you know what we do and understand our business model? I was surprised to be asked, and I replied. Yes, Vistaprint is a web-based e-commerce printing service platform, I replied. He looked at Robert smiling and said, excellent. This guy knows what we are doing here. Then he pressed on by asking with a curious tone, and what do you think our limits are? I looked at him while Robert looked on, paused for a moment, then I pointed with my index finger upwards and said the sky is the limit. They laughed and walked away, stunningly thrilled by our brief exchange.   

Then I realized a shroud of secrecy associated with the business model of Vistaprint. Vistaprint started to be known as a printing service in the marketplace, and no one imagined the giant infrastructure behind the brand.    

Michael Parsley, Windsor Vistaprint's first plant Manager, disclosed that PIA executives cancelled a facility tour in 2005 when the yearly meeting was held in Detroit.    

They stated that their affiliated members should be prepared to view such an advanced seamless futuristic manufacturing concept. They will work on preparing public opinion by writing articles to introduce Vistaprint to the industry slowly. Otherwise, it will upset the status quo of the industry.

Jay Moody Envisions a Paperless World.

Vistaprint gathered incredibly talented people for the start-up and created a small yet brilliant and skilled production team for the plant in Windsor and other locations. I often missed being part of the efficient and seamless manufacturing lean workflow at Vistaprint.    

I often recall the productive discussions in informal settings with Jay Moody, the senior software engineer behind the miracle workflow platform software that monitored and controlled the entire manufacturing process from the ordering front end to production to delivery. He conceived, designed, and led Vistaprint's software developers' teams to develop the website and establish the entire workflow's foundations.   

Jay is a brilliant genius innovator and mentor of a generation of software designers at Vistaprint. He envisioned an industrialized paperless world where all manufacturing processes, from the customer's click at a website to the finished manufactured products and delivery, be measurable and monetized. Together, a system would enable customers to upload any document into the manufacturer-ready website format and ensure projects production and delivery timely and cost-efficiently. The workflow model applied to all Vistaprint's product services, from business cards to t-shirts or pens and writing pads.

'Stay Small as We Get Big.'

Now Vistaprint is part of Cimpress. If they didn't coin the concept of Mass Customization, they demonstrated and materialized a profitable manufacturing workflow and have become a two-billion-dollar organization. The company maintains its customer-focused promise. As Robert put it, great companies are those that can evolve and sustain industry leadership over many decades. Cimpress intends to remain at the forefront of mass customization, empowering people to make an impression.    

Today's Cimpress spans more than a dozen businesses and operations across more than twenty countries, and their success is well known. The stock value is five times the initial IPO and remains strong as it continues expanding worldwide.

Jan with Matt Powell, Plant Manager at SinaLite in Toronto.

Jan's first-hand field experiences expand several years in process optimization, waste reduction, and operator's training. He is bilingual in English and Spanish and a G7® Expert. This article, first published in English, is intended to reach the graphic arts industry company's owners, directors, managers, technicians, mechanics, maintenance professionals, press operators, QC technicians, process control of raw materials and supplies managers, or anyone directly involved in the printing process interested in process optimization, quality, and waste reduction.