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It's Time to Track Errors--Dickeson

February 2001
The health services industry has an error record worse than printing. But they bury their mistakes, while much of the time we must redo and remake our boo-boos.

In commercial printing, in common with medicine, we have millions of customers with an amazing array of demands. And we also have thousands of practitioners. Communication of customer/patient needs and demands, the raw materials, equipment, training, technologies, interpretations and complexities are almost beyond the grasp of mortal printers and physicians. It's an environment that breeds mistakes and dissatisfactions.

Both industries seek to throw a dust cover over this elephant in the living room and hope that it will go unnoticed. But, alas, last year's official report on the thousands of mistakes in the health industry has exposed the error rate in the health business. It explains why the medical malpractice attorneys drive Porsches. There is a demand for government action. Not so for printing—yet. Our living room elephant is still concealed.

Errors and rework in commercial printing may cost the printer, on average, an amount equal to 20 percent to 30 percent of Value Added Sales each year. There is no known data to validate this statistic. However, every knowledgeable expert and experienced commercial print manager confirms this range. It is consistent with the expressions of both W. Edwards Deming and Philip Crosby—respected scholars in the field of quality. Some years ago a special committee of the Graphic Communications Association made a detailed analysis of several commercial printers and reached a corroborative conclusion.

Not long ago I reviewed the errors and rework log for a year of a fairly substantial commercial printer doing between 200 and 300 jobs a month. Errors were made on 11 to 12 percent of the jobs. Many of the jobs, if not most, required rework. My guess is that the lost value added for the year was between $2.5 million and $5 million.

"The list of errors looks familiar," noted Peter Doyle, of Action Printing in Fond du Lac, WI, upon reviewing my listing of mistakes for the other printing firm. "I am sure most printers could generate similar lists."

Look Below the Waterline
We can measure the cost of time and materials in rework—the tip of the iceberg that shows above the waterline. But we have no means to measure the seven-eighths of the iceberg beneath the water—the monetary impact on loss of customer loyalty and new work, disruption of tight schedules, degraded worker morale, and forborne marketing opportunities resulting from mistakes and rework. The means of accountability have been mostly non-existent. Post mortem analysis are inevitably finger-pointing circles.

It's no different than it's been for the last 50 years. Maybe for as long as commercial printing has existed—perhaps even in the shops of Gutenberg and Caxton in the 1500s. It's high time to do something. Is there anything that can be done, given the diverse environment of commercial printers, our customers, suppliers and equipment?

Shall we start War on Waste III? We're looking at a waste universe of hundreds of millions of dollars annually for our industry. Multiply last year's value added sales of your company by at least 20 percent. That's a dollar number you should be thinking about. How much of your error-universe can you capture?

For a quarter of a century I've preached: "Until you measure, you can't control." We know that when we do measure, action follows. The health industry measured and reported. Actions are taking shape. We're talking about "quality" in print production. By "quality" we mean conformance to customer requirements. Even though we can't assess the full monetary impact, at least we can begin to classify and quantify accountability, the "Who, What, Where, When and How" of print production mistakes.

Communication—defective, non-accountable, information interchange between customer and printer, between printer and supplier, and within the printing company itself, is a major, if not THE major, cause of non-fulfilled customer requirements. People make mistakes. It's not that they want to make mistakes. People want to do the right thing, be appreciated, respected and please customers.

Yes, we all have attention lapses, get a bit careless from time to time. There's no known system that's going to correct all of that. But if we can get a measure of accountability in place, we can identify mistake-prone people and either retrain or move them to another position.

There's an old parlor game called "Gossip." Recall it? It's where one person whispers a secret in the ear of A, A in turn whispers it to C, C to D, D to...and when N restates it to the originator it's substantially distorted. Customer specifications enter a requirements "gossip" circle at the printing plant and the product doesn't fulfill the customer's requirements. And which person or persons in that gossip circle changed the meaning by omission, commission or interpretation? Who's accountable?

Your Starting Point
Start with your internal or intranet plant system. Does it provide electronic job sheets or job jackets that are constantly updated? Is every entry stamped with time, date and employee identifier? Are all change orders and customer revisions constantly entered? Those systems are available from printing software suppliers. With such a system in place, the gossip circle in the plant is terminated. The buck stops right where the digital archive places it. Internal accountability is established. The Who, What, When, Where error source is fixed.

For customers and suppliers, we have a communication system taking form called print e-commerce. This enables direct digital links for the production process. Customer specifications are downloaded to the server computer of the printer and become a digital RFQ—Request For Quotation. A responsive quotation flows back over the Internet to the buyer for acceptance or modification.

Proofs, separations, layouts, text, graphics, mailing lists, delivery instructions, corrections, changes, modifications, all move from buyer computer to printer and to supplier servers, as well. Indeed, it's all done at speeds not available before. The significance is the inherent accountability of digital communication.

Every transaction is time stamped, dated, personally attributed and archived in storage files. It's not only fast, clear, concise, correct and current, every interchange of the supply chain is now "of record." Accountability is within our reach. No more finger pointing. The buck stops in a documented chair, be it customer, printer, supplier or transporter of the print product.

—Roger V. Dickeson

About the Author
Roger Dickeson is a printing productivity consultant based in Tucson, AZ. He can be reached by e-mail at, by fax (520)903-2295, or on the Web at

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