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Accounting Crisis Mode --Dickeson

February 2003
It's beginning to look a lot like crisis—for a major portion of our commercial printing industry. The printing trade associations are struggling, merging to survive. Printcafe had an IPO (Initial Public Offering) in mid-2002 at $10 per share that, at this writing, now hovers at slightly more than $1 a share.

That group, formed during the dotcom frenzy, is a kind of conglomerate or trade association of four or five printing MIS (Management Information System) suppliers. Those suppliers provide the computer data model for several thousand printing companies. A few weeks back I visited with a major Rocky Mountain area printer.

"Rog, in all my years in printing, it's the worst I've seen. Our health costs now exceed $1 million," groaned Henry from a mid-size, single-plant printer in the Midwest.

Lacking Necessary Data

It appears that several of our largest, multi-plant, publicly traded commercial printing companies in the industry have no integrated central data management systems. Not more than six months ago, a representative of a major publisher called me. He said that they were negotiating a contract with one of our large, publicly traded printers. The printer was insisting on a 26 percent waste allowance for the paper that the publisher was to supply. Unbelievable? Not at all. That major printer was simply conceding that it had no statistical control of its processes.

Yes, Virginia, it's beginning to look a lot like crisis—and there's no Santa with a sleigh full of goodies in sight. It's a double whammy we're now experiencing. Demand for printing is down and our models for operating decisions are straw houses built on shifting sands.

Our GLA (General Ledger Accounting) system, with its balance sheets and income statements, has never pretended to be an operating tool. It's a complex set of creative snapshot values of ownership equities. And it's not a good snapshot at that; wouldn't make a decent halftone.

Our JCA (Job Cost Accounting) system is a view of BHRs (Budgeted Hourly Rates) that defies the understanding of rabbinical scholars. Job costs and ledger costs do not cross-validate. Neither provides the continuous and current monitoring of the Five Liquidity Sisters we must now have to survive.

Here's a very recent e-mail comment from one of my long-time industry gurus: ". . . The printing processes, size of firms and the accounting approaches with computers, have all changed dramatically. I wonder if there is anyone who still keeps books and worries about cost accounting any more. With electronic imaging, all that's left is the pressroom, and maybe some finishing. Distribution is more of the game and it's just direct cost, isn't it? The rest is shelf pricing, it seems to me. I could be wrong, but truly, how many printers are left to read your stuff?"

That guru is right in some respects. But his perception of commercial printing as a "shelf-pricing" commodity business is wrong, in my opinion. Perhaps some portion of the commercial printing industry is "over-the-counter" commodity transactions, but the major portion isn't.

My perception is that commercial printing is a conversion "relationship" enterprise. Each job is a customer-specified materials conversion. Each job has varying materials, run lengths, makeup, finishing and delivery requirements. Each job is a standalone project involving human creative and esthetic components. The relationship of customer-printer is one-to-one, no different than those with a barber, hairdresser, dentist, doctor, accountant, priest or lawyer.

Why, otherwise, has Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software become such a major sub-industry (except in printing)? (Just Google "CRM" on the Internet and then browse the 10-12 pages of listings that pop up in response.) That, alone, sufficiently explains the demise of the e-bay-like Internet print buying ventures.

Are any of the printing MIS (Management Information System) suppliers) offering an adjunctive CRM module? Not to my knowledge. Why not? We haven't demanded it and indicated a willingness to pay for it, so they won't invest in program development. Why should they? That's the wonderful, but sometimes fatal, loop we've created in our market-driven economy. We demand BHRs and JCAs. We'll pay for them even though we don't use them. Suppliers find their market in our misguided and outmoded needs.

Shot in the Foot

In large measure our bleeding wounds are self-inflicted. We shoot ourselves in the GLA (our left foot) and then in the JCA (right foot) for good measure. Then we hop around screaming that we knew better all along and it would feel much better if we didn't do that.

Come on.

Why don't we demand a statistical model that supports decisions for managing the Five Sisters? Who are these Five Sisters, you ask. The Pleiades? No. They're not a constellation of heavenly bodies. These are the five working capital inventories: A) Cash, B) Raw materials, C) Work in process, D) Finished goods and E) Accounts receivable. We must know the magnitude and the days and hours of dwell-time of each Statistical Sister every week. Do we know them now? Unlikely. But we must know them in order to survive and thrive.

If we can't manage those Five Sisters, then we'd better sell, merge or quit the printing business. Now. Today. "But, Rog, nobody told us about those Five Sisters before." Hey, we're not playing the popular political game of "what did Martha know and when did she know it." We know it now and we're accountable from at least this moment on.

No more whining about how over-capacity has driven prices down. If we have over-capacity, then downsize. Now. Today. Do we know what our capacity is and how much of it we're using? Unlikely.

Do we know the stability and capability of each of our production processes? Unlikely. For years Deming, Shewhart, Goldratt, Ohno and Wheeler have been telling us to listen to the voice of the process. They've shown us the way to provide that data easily, accurately and currently. Prediction is management control. We've just never really been serious about predicting process variance. Let's do it. Now. Today.

I could go on and, if the editor was willing, I would. I'd tell you all about M3 (Monday Morning Manager). I mustn't because we have to leave space for the good advertisers who sustain this journal.

It pleases me immensely to know that one of those major advertisers has heard my pleas and is now in the process of upgrading its software applications to provide relevant, current (weekly), decision support information to its subscribing printer clientele. Viva la data!! Viva la change!

—Roger V. Dickeson

About the Author

Roger Dickeson is a printing productivity consultant based in Tucson, AZ. He can be reached via e-mail:


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