Print's Inexplicable Reluctance to Embrace Quality - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

Sometimes we get simple queries at the PrintWeek India office.

21 May 2015 | By Noel D'Cunha

Which is better? The X-Rite eXact or the Techkon Spectrodens?
During a colour conference two years ago, when PrintWeek India spoke to Rashid Mistry of Comart he had mentioned that “to measure the metameric index (how good is the colour match to the original Pantone colour of the ink supplied by an ink manufacturer under different lighting conditions), then you will require the most advanced forms of these instruments.”
In real terms, what does this mean? It means it is very important for the press to be consistently printing in a condition similar to when it was profiled.
Bengaluru’s Poorna Graphics, specialises in photo printed heat transfers and customised packaging. The company caters to clients like Disney, artwork of which are colourful, sometimes consisting of up to 24 different colours.
So when Poorna Graphics opted for an X-Rite eXact, Ravi Sivaraman of Poorna reasoned that while printing on offset presses, these artworks, which are invariably created using computer software in RGB format with higher colour gamut, are converted to a lower gamut CMYK format. “Therefore, it is pertinent to keep a close eye on the colours that are printed in order to match the original artwork,” he says.
While printing, there occurs dot gain on the press and dot loss on the plate. The two needs to be compensated. Plus there are variations in LAB values of ink pigments. “Taking care of all these factors using trial and error methods is the solution of stone age. It requires accurate decision making as to what needs to be altered and this is possible only when you have right kind of data in your hands,” says Sivaraman.
What a kit like X-Rite does is, it allows the operator to maintain quality more easily. The numbers are important for objectively knowing what changes need to be made during setup as well as running of the job.
A decade ago, we compiled a Special Report based on the results of a survey of 25 printers in Mumbai.
The focus was: productivity and quality improvement. Everyone said these are the two pillars to financial success.
But when we looked at the survey responses, the facts were revealing and startling.
First the good news. 90% of the respondents viewed productivity as being very important. The sad part is, only 40% have specific systems in place that are aimed at improving productivity.
General awareness about the importance of improving productivity is apparently high in the printing industry. All but 2% indicated they considered it either “extremely” important or “very” important to the success of their businesses.
BAD NEWS: This awareness was not translated into action.
36% of those surveyed, report having specific productivity improvement systems in their own plants.
BAD NEWS: We encounter a question of terminology. In order to elicit the widest possible range of responses, the survey purposely did not contain any definition of “productivity”. We believe that productivity improvement and its corollary, quality management, are based on an overall management approach to manufacturing – not merely on improved technology.
And so, some of the productivity improvement systems cited by respondents were actually one-time technological improvements: faster presses, automated platemaking lines, programmable cutters, etc.
The heart of productivity improvement and quality management is measurement. If you don’t know what you are doing you cannot improve upon it. Respondents, therefore, were asked if they had specific measures in place to track productivity.
BAD NEWS: Discouragingly, only 20% stated they have such measures.
SOME MORE BAD NEWS: And 76% indicated that they did not have – but plan to institute a system in the future.
Interestingly, enough, no one claimed that they neither have the means to measure productivity nor plan to institute them. It would be a good exercise to track the fortunes of the 76% (who plan to) and see if they have initiated any program.
BAD NEWS: A lot many times the systems were empty talk.
Printers were then asked to name the areas in their plants in which productivity programs were in place. The most commonly named area, singled-out by 77% of those who have programs, was the pressroom.
Close second was platemaking (62%).  A few mentioned bindery and page assembly / stripping.
This is interesting, since these areas of activity represent, respectively, the average commercial printing plant’s single largest cost / revenue centre and its two most notorious bottlenecks. It is not at all surprising to find them heading the list of targeted areas for productivity improvement.
BAD NEWS: No plan to counter the bottle necks.
Surveyed printers were then asked to list the specific productivity tracking measures they used or planned to use. The response to this open-ended questionnaire was a curious one. Overwhelmingly, respondents rely or plan to rely on computerised production management systems (92%). This preference is followed by improved process control (20%); and then by communication and training (8%) and new or better equipment (5%).
BAD NEWS: Again general awareness appears to be very high. 94% of respondents rated continuous quality management either “extremely” (63%) or “very” (31%) important.
One of the questions had to do with ways to measure productivity. Turning from process measurement to improvement, we came across an interesting dichotomy. Printers were given a list of specific productivity improvement measures and asked to rate them in terms of how important they were. Here again a clear pattern emerged. People-oriented improvements – training and communications – were the leader, considered important by 87% of respondents.
BAD NEWS: Scoring well below those items were computerised tracking (66%), equipment improvements (62%) and print process control (58%).
Printers' reliance on their own people emerged even more sharply in response to a question on where they would turn for help if they needed assistance in making productivity improvements. The largest group (77%) cited their own staff as a key source of help.
BAD NEWS: The number of those translating this awareness into action, however, is lower. Only 21% of respondents have quality improvement programme in place.
When given the opportunity to make a “wish list” of where they would most like to see major productivity improvements, respondents reversed this pattern. Here equipment-based answers, headed the list with 48%, followed by print process control improvements at 38%, training and communications at 32%, and computerised tracking systems at 24%.
BAD NEWS: This raises a question: if the greatest area of potential improvement lies in personnel, why don’t printers primarily want better training programmes? There are a number of possible answers to this, the most useful of which probably is that the entire discipline of thinking systematically about productivity is new to the industry. Printers distrust “others” and “the other hypothesis”.
Hopefully, with time, training programmes will become a norm – even in our industry – and printers’ approaches to it will become more focused.
As any print manager understands quality is an essential aspect of productivity.
Therefore, printers have to rate the importance of continuous quality improvement to their businesses in the same way they’d earlier been asked to rate productivity improvement in their firms.
Respondents who reported having a programme were then asked what sort of programme it was. All of them – 100% - say, in essence, that they design their own, based on input from their customers and employees. A very few respondents cited formal programmes. It seems safe to conclude that, for commercial printers, quality improvement is an ad-hoc business.
This question is bolstered by the results of a question about familiarity with leading quality improvement programmes and concepts, specifically total quality management (TQM).
Commercial printers are moderately, but not intimately familiar with TQM and know very little about ISO 9000.
Please nb: These are ten years old findings generated by my colleague Ramu Ramanathan. But very little has changed on the shopfloor.