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Riding Into the Sunset --Dickeson

November 2005
I just pulled the plug on the PREM Web Press Database after 14 years. Kinda sad. But it was time for sundown.

Every month since October of 1991, web printing companies had sent me data collected by AutoCount devices on their presses: gross, net, makeready and running waste impressions; number of forms and running stops; hours spent in running, making ready and recovery from unscheduled stops.

In total, as the sun went down, the Database had more than 11,000 press-data months contributed by 68 companies from 205 web presses comprised of 53 press models. The companies were primarily from the continental U.S., but also included plants in Hawaii, Canada, Sweden, Australia and Austria.

Some Hard Numbers

The idea was to provide web press industry external benchmarking. Seeing what others were doing, operationally—paper waste, speeds and delays. Each month I would publish a report ranking the presses by average run length, makeready impressions, running waste and net running speed. Hopefully, it would be a notch above the "surveys" published by trade associations. It was, because it was hard, actual, comparative numbers not "estimating" standards usually supplied by printing companies as "survey" responses.

It failed as an external benchmark because of the diversity of variable factors endemic to our print industry. By ranking, I was comparing apples with oranges and with walnuts. There are no "industry" standards, either of survey estimates or hard data, nor can there be; we're simply too dissimilar. External benchmarking is a waste of time for printers!

Start with press models. Can you compare them one with another? No way! Even identical models in the same plant weren't comparable in age and physical condition, average run lengths, weight and grade of paper used, number of printing cylinders, folders, finishing lines, dryers, registry systems, ink key pre-sets. Configuration and condition of press physical variables is widely divergent. Then come customer demands. Similarity? Come on, Josephine!

Took me a while to learn these basic truths, but learn them I did from pulling together 168 monthly reports. Stupid me. This is all too obvious if you just think about it a moment.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I began to de-emphasize the cross-company ranking (external benchmarking), but continued to do it, nonetheless, until the sun dipped down into the sea of cold truth. I developed a series of internal benchmarking reports by monthly individual press performance. These used a 12-month rolling format where each month you lop off the oldest month and add the newest. These rolling 12-month reports were private to the company reporting data for those presses. Rolling 12 months were used to minimize seasonal fluctuation in the data.

But, alas, this internal benchmarking was something a plant could, and should, do for itself, by itself. No need for a multi-company database. An Excel spreadsheet, flat file is all that's needed. Still, something was lacking, is lacking, in a stand-alone press data file. Where's the incentive? Where's the kick-in-the-butt to improve? When do we get excited and start digging for causes of exceptional variation? Looking for special causes? When shall we be pragmatic and say "this is what this press does"—not to worry.

A couple of years ago, Peter Brehm of Vertis and John Compton of Fort Dearborn clued me to XmR charting espoused by Donald Wheeler in Building Continual Improvement and his Understanding Variation. This was my epiphany! Jay Arthur makes it duck soup by providing an easy Excel add-in. It's

the ultimate of pragmatic analysis. XmR provides insight for nearly any time-sequential data series in printing or any other business. It provides the needed kick for improvement by internal benchmarking.

But it requires innovative change in the way we perceive the operative printing enterprise. After demonstrating XmR to Web Press Database participants, it had all the impact of lint falling from my navel. Only one response. It's apparently too radically different from looking for a Magic Bullet, Holy Grail, Fountain of Youth or Industry Standard. We believe in industry standards. But one thing the Web Press Database proved is that there can be no industry standards of machine waste and speeds.

They're myths. King Chaos rules. Long live King Chaos. Follow his laws or grind away your business life in frustration.

There's far more to paper waste than press makereadies, re-starts and running discards, which is all we were measuring in our Web Database. There's binder makereadies and running discards, sampling discards, trim-off waste, non-salable overrun, roll slab-off, roll core remainders, dead stub-roll inventories, and other finishing and shipping waste. Single-digit paper waste is another myth of our industry, both sheet and web.

So, it was high time to declare sundown for our 14-year effort. External benchmarking, we learned, is largely a trivial pursuit in our diverse industry. Internal benchmarking can be productive if coupled with XmR analysis. But Brehm, Compton, Wheeler, Arthur and I, perhaps, with a few others, seem to be lonely voices crying in the print wilderness. However, along the way, I learned what was not, gained a vision of what can and should be, and demolished some false gods. That's the path of progress, isn't it?

Valued Relationship

Despite saying all that, I loved and respected the people in the Database companies. A couple of the companies had been with me in the effort since Day One. I just couldn't pull the plug on them. I'd still be entering the press data today, compiling monthly reports, trying to convince them to use XmR if one of the major contributors of the five remaining faithful hadn't given up under mounting economic pressures of the business. That shocked me into making the final decision that was right and had to be.

Allons, my great companions! It was a noble and worthwhile effort whose time had past.

—Roger V. Dickeson

About the Author

Roger Dickeson is a printing consultant located in Pasadena, CA. He can be reached at A PDF copy of his recent book, Monday Morning Manager, is available without charge by e-mail request.

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