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Hamilton--Going Digital - No Pain, No Gain

June 1999
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a commercial printer that, in many ways, is representative of our industry. It is a privately held firm that was started right after World War II and has grown from being a local printer into a mid-sized firm with a national clientele.

This firm, which shall remain anonymous, faced the digital prepress issue a bit earlier than most commercial printers. But, what is notable about it isn't that the firm put in Macintosh workstations and started outputting its own films. No, it's the approach that management used that is important.

The principals—the president and general manager—knew they needed a technical expert to advise them on the journey into digital workflows. Again, that's not rocket science. However, having brought on a specialist, they did two things that I consider to be the key success factors: They gave him significant control over the technological direction; and they backed him up when that direction caused conflicts with "the way things had always been done."

That's not to say they gave the prepress maven a blank check, but they put in place a structure for reviewing the technology investments that factored in both "hard" data such as ROI, as well as "soft" issues more based on judgments about technological trends. As the maven proved himself, they gave him more leeway.

Support the Prepress Guru
Most important, however, was that once the plan was in place and things started to change, these executives provided the support necessary to enable their prepress guru to implement new workflows to take advantage of the new system. It's one thing to plug in new boxes and send a few jobs through the new workflow. It's quite another to completely re-engineer the workflow and rewrite all the job descriptions so that this new workflow is the only workflow.

In the case of this printer, going digital meant changing the way the typesetting and stripping/platemaking departments interacted. In fact, it meant merging the two into a single prepress department. You'd have thought this guy was trying to change national boundaries. Members of both departments objected because they needed their own space and couldn't possibly work together in the same room. Well, with the backing from the bosses, it's amazing how well typesetters and strippers can work together as a team.

Prepare the Team
Beyond knocking down organizational barriers, jobs had to change to make the transition to digital workflows. Here, the prepress maven did the smart thing and told the strippers they had best prepare for a future that didn't require a light table and razor blades. He laid out the plan and made it clear that their job security depended on transitioning their skill sets to the new tools.

By giving the strippers plenty of warning, the firm was able to give them time to buy into the program—after the initial knee-jerk reaction—so they could learn how to use the new tools. Again, it's one thing to say, "We're going digital and if you don't cooperate, you're fired." It's quite another to explain the firm's long-term goals and then help employees see how they can help achieve them.

Stripping is a perfect example of leveraging existing expertise to move in an entirely new direction. A good stripper knows exactly why the pages need to be stripped head-to-head or the amount of shingling required to bind six eight-page signatures on the saddlestitcher. This is a far more important skill, initially, than the ability to plug pages into an imposition template. As time goes on, strippers need to develop the computer skills, so they can understand more arcane data handling and, more important, the troubleshooting that is required in any digital workflow.

Change Requires Pain
Which brings me to the second point: Pain is a necessary part of the program. If you want to change your operations, you must be ready to suffer for at least part of the journey. This is especially true of software, which is constantly evolving. To gain a competitive edge, you have to be willing to get involved before your competitors do. But that means you are likely to be a guinea pig for the software developers on which we all rely.

Thus, it is up to management to support the change agents—as organizational behavior experts call them—and be willing to see throughput decline for a while before it comes back to previous levels. It may be some time before you're able to significantly improve productivity, quality or both. But if you've done your homework and invested in a technology that shows promise, it will most likely pay off.

The hidden benefit in working with early releases and new software is that your staff gains invaluable skills and knowledge about the workflow and troubleshooting. Only by suffering through a few early test jobs can your desktop people learn to spot potential problems and develop either solutions or workarounds.

Pioneers may end up with arrows in their backs, but they also get to stake out the new territory, which can pay significant dividends in maintaining a successful printing company.

The bottom line is that you've got to bleed in order to lead. zz

—Alex Hamilton

About the Author
Alex Hamilton, a former technical editor with Printing Impressions, is president of Computers & Communications Consulting, which specializes in digital technologies for printing and publishing. He can be reached at (215) 247-3461 or by e-mail at


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