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17 Expert Tips for Running a Leaner Print Shop

Cut the figurative fat of your business by doing more with less.

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ONE OF THE DEFINING features of the American business model is a relentless impulse to add more. More bells, more whistles, more choice, more services, more hours, more convenience, more product extensions, more… everything, all leading to a goal of more sales and more success! In our personal lives, it’s no different. We’ve been taught that if we want more money, energy, and satisfaction, we need to do more, work more, acquire more, and add more to our bulging to-do lists.

One of the best things about this industry is PSPs’ desire to learn more things, acquire the latest and greatest technology, and have the ability to provide a bevy of out-of-the-box applications. Take Barbara Chandler Allen, president of Fresh Artists in Philadelphia, for example. “We love to twist ourselves into Philly pretzels taking on innovative projects that challenge the heck out of our little organization,” she says.

But what if the answer to getting what we want isn’t addition, but subtraction? What if it turned out we didn’t even need “more.” That less is often the better option?

For a lot of business owners, this was one of the surprising lessons of the pandemic: They could get by just fine with less. Often, they had no choice but to cut down on business hours, shed staff, reduce advertising dollars, and streamline operations. And the result was they still made the same or even more money, only in a less stressful, less hurried way.

M3 in Greensboro, North Carolina, exemplifies this shift. “We have always been a small operation, but we were able to streamline production by weeding out weaker employees and giving more responsibility to those that shine,” says Rob Matthews, print and production manager, M3.

If you’re looking for a theme in 2022, perhaps “less is more” could be it. In the pages that follow, we share the ideas and thoughts we’ve gleaned from wide-format printers, industry consultants, our own reading of business best sellers, and the odd scholarly article to identify 17 areas where you could do a little less, but be so much more.

1. Climb the right mountain

We’ve all heard about the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule that 20 percent of an activity produces 80 percent of the desired results. In a business setting, it suggests you should aim to spend 80 percent of your time on the 20 percent of your activities responsible for delivering the bulk of your income. The hardest part of this advice for most is working out what not to do, because even deeply meaningful activities and productive work can be distractions and time sinks if they are not the work that matters. That’s the logic behind a suggestion attributed to Warren Buffett:
First, write down your top 25 goals for business; then identify the most important five, focus on them, and avoid the other 20 like the plague – because they’re the seductive ones most likely to distract you precisely because they do matter. They just don’t matter most. Inarguably, correct and timely billing is an important task, but is it an important task that needs to be done by you?

Pete Brunner at Full Sail Graphics & Marketing in Huntington Beach, California, says his team’s motto is “Reduce time, reduce cost, and improve quality. Those three simple things need to be the core of the culture. The challenge is to not sacrifice quality when you reduce time and cost.”

2. Consolidate Your Equipment

Having the right printers, cutters, and laminators can make a world of difference when wanting to have a more efficient shop floor. Matthews says they recently added an application table at M3 that has allowed one person to do the work of two quicker and more consistently. Bob Kissel of KDM POP Solutions Group in Cincinnati bought a new wide-format digital printer that does three times the output they were doing. For Future Color in Poway, California, “adding a cutter/plotter has helped streamlining the finishing process,” says Jason Roberts.
This may sound like addition, which at first, it can be. But to subtract, once you have new machinery, sell your old machines through Big Picture’s online classifieds section (bigpicturemag.com/classifieds) or donate to a local high school or college.

3. To-Do or Not To-Do


A similar logic applies to your daily to-do list. Either use an organizational system that stores all your to-dos out of sight and out of mind, other than a tiny handful that you’re working on right now (such as the “personal kanban”) or toss it altogether. In Secrets Of Productive People, Mark Forster argues for the latter. Most people’s to-do lists are flights of fancy, nothing more than wish lists of everything they’d like to accomplish. And worse, they use them to avoid doing the important things. It’s still procrastination, he points out, to do a lot of pointless tasks just because it feels nice to cross them off the list, while the big, difficult thing – the one that matters – goes undone. Forster proposes a minimalist alternative: On a piece of paper, write down only the five most important tasks you can think of. Then do them, in order, crossing them off as you go. (If you stop before completing one, add it again at the end.) Once the list is only two items long, add three more, to bring the total back to five. Then repeat. The point of this austere approach is that you’re regularly required to ask what really needs doing, since there are only five slots.

4. Do Even Less

The Underachiever’s Manifesto doesn’t sound like a book you’d find on the shelves of the ambitious business owner looking forward to doing great things in 2022. But it should be. Written by a doctor named Ray Bennett, it advocates a path to a superior kind of achievement based on the idea that you need to leave some slack in your life to take advantage of the serendipity of the world and its enormously complex web of interacting variables. And to give yourself the elbow room you need to excel. On this point, he quotes that Spanish underachiever Pablo Picasso: “You must always work not just within, but below your means. If you can handle three elements, handle only two… In that way, the ones you do handle, you handle with more ease, more mastery, and you create a feeling of strength in reserve.”

5. Morning Hours

A similar philosophy informs the book Two Awesome Hours by Josh Davis. director of research at the NeuroLeadership Institute. The book begins by rejecting the premise that it’s worth trying to squeeze value from every moment of every day. To get more out of machines or computers, it’s almost always best to run them for longer. But they can’t get tired; humans can. Instead, Davis proposes fighting hard to ringfence one two-hour period of distraction-free work each day, at a time of peak energy – during which you’ll probably get more meaningful stuff done than in two whole days at half-power. There is a corollary of this: Schedule admin for when you don’t have energy for focused work.

6. Say No

Just say no. There is no middle ground here. This is one of the most important disciplines you can develop to ensure you stay focused on what’s important in your pursuit of a minimal – and sane – life. It helps to keep in mind that whenever you say “yes,” you’re also saying “no” to something else regarding your objectives and goals. In life, every single thing involves trade-offs. As Greg McKeown points out in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less, questions such as, “How can I fit everything I want to do into my schedule?” are fundamentally dishonest: they’re based on the false premise that trade-offs are avoidable. For the over-busy person, McKeown suggests his “90% Rule” – when considering an option, ask: Does it score at least 9/10 on some relevant criterion? Another trick is to bring forward the obligation from the seemingly boundless future: if you were being asked to do it today, would the answer be yes or no?

7. Ask Questions

How do I know what to subtract? Ask someone, says Matthew May, author of The Laws Of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules For Winning In The Age Of Excess Everything. Something like, “What’s the one or two things you’d love me to remove or eliminate or stop doing?” They’ll usually have a surprising number of suggestions, he says. Another good question: “What would my competitor struggle with if I eliminated it?” The productivity blogger Tim Ferriss has a favorite question of his own when confronted with a problem: What would this look like if it were easy? “If I feel stressed, stretched thin, or overwhelmed, it’s usually because I’m overcomplicating something or failing to take the simple/easy path because I feel I should be trying ‘harder’,” he writes on his blog. Once you have answers, May recommends running quick tests under a system he labels “enlightened trial and error.”

8. More Constraints

Working fewer days and hours is obviously great for families, friendships, hobbies, and the human spirit. But the most interesting implication of recent research is that it appears to be good for productivity and work quality, too. The brain needs to rest to operate well. Meanwhile, fixed, shorter hours provide a useful sense of constraint: Knowing you’ve got to squeeze everything into fewer days seems to improve efficiency overall. In 2016’s Deep Work, Cal Newport advocates this approach via “fixed-schedule productivity” – that is setting certain periods for intense important work during a day, applying a short transition period or ritual to mark the end of the workday, and then completely stopping, say at 5 p.m. In the early aughts, Boston Consulting Group mandated one night off a week for its workaholic consultants; The rule was they weren’t allowed to contact anyone on their team or check their email for work-related matters. While the downtime was initially anxiety-causing for some, BCG internal surveys showed it produced a more  effective and efficient staff who stayed with the company longer.

9. Let Bad Things Happen

Many business owners and managers fall into the category known as overfunctioners. Faced with a challenge – an employee who is not doing a task properly or a request for help – they immediately jump in and do it themselves. It’s an approach that is not only tiring but reinforces the expectant or helpless behavior of customers and staff. Don’t assume that because someone else wants something done, it needs doing, says the law professor Elizabeth Emens in her book The Art Of Life Admin. Learn to use strategic delay (some things sort themselves out), and train employees and family to recognize when a version of “Google it yourself!” is the answer to their question. Such an approach means potentially letting small bad things happen and tolerating the resulting anxiety.

10. Limit Your Capacity

The Jevons Paradox explains how traffic doesn’t improve even when you build a 24-lane highway. Make something more efficient, and more people will use it. Less obviously, the same rule applies to work: Prove you get things done quickly and more will be asked of you.

The rule of thumb is just because your problem is one of strained capacity, don’t assume increasing capacity is the answer. It may make more sense to reduce, or at least put a ceiling on, your capacity instead. Resolve to process email for a certain period each day, rather than trying to answer it all, and you’ll moderate the incoming flow – promptly answered email only ever spurs more email. The same thing applies to customer expectations. Always respond to a customer within two hours and that becomes the minimum a customer or business partner will tolerate. As the old chestnut goes under promise and over deliver. Think a job will take five days? Tell the customer seven and deliver on the sixth. Their surprise and gratitude will be genuine.

11. Fewer Rules

Too often, managers assume the key to improvement must be more procedures and standards, more exactingly enforced. But the experience that results for customers is often infuriating as they are met by, say, service reps who refuse to be flexible. The secret is to create policies for the many, not the few. That allows you to design policies to bring out the best in people, not micromanage their every move or bind them in red tape. Netflix claims to have no vacation policy, leaving it up to staff to track and decide. Materials company WI Gore did away with all job titles. Electronics chain BestBuy implemented a “results-only work environment,” in which staff could work where and when they liked, so long as their jobs got done. In short, the idea is that less bureaucracy + trust = more creativity. You don’t have to go that far, but as a rule of thumb, “the simplest rules create the most effective experience,” says May.

12. Focus on the negative

Says May: At the heart of every challenge or business decision lie three tough choices: What to pursue versus what to ignore; what to leave in versus what to leave out; and what to do versus what not to do. “I have discovered that if you focus on the second half of each choice – what to ignore, what to leave out, what not to do – the decision becomes exponentially simpler. The key is to remove the extraneous stuff — anything obviously excessive, confusing, wasteful, hard to use, or ugly,” he writes in The Laws Of Subtraction. “This is the art of subtraction: when you remove just the right thing in just the right way, something great is bound to happen.”

13. Fewer Customers

It’s not only employees that need regular evaluation and subtraction, but also your customers. Be willing to fire those that are a drain on your resources, says Anthony K. Tjan. Writing in the Harvard Business Review he recommends regularly subtracting the least valuable five percent of your customer base. “It is a fallacy that you need to keep all your customers because many of the small customers will become large ones,” he says, recommending you look at your data to see if that has really occurred. What you are more likely to find, he argues, is a stubbornly consistent five percent of your customers who buy in small volumes and require higher maintenance as a cohort than other groups. “You want to give the most time, energy, and service to those who will provide the greatest long-term reward and loyalty.” Ferriss concurs but goes further, suggesting you try to find a way to put the bulk of your ordinary customers on autopilot with simple terms and standardized order processes and then focusing on “deepening relationships (and increasing order sizes) with your three-to-five highest-profit, lowest-headache customers. “We have a print management system (Printavo) that helps us communicate to our clients where their products are in the process, eliminating the need to email or call them,” says Christine Walsh, president/CEO, Alpha Graphics in Baltimore. “It also supports texting them.”

Speaking of software management systems. Cain Goettelman of FLS Banners in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin says “If you are not using a software-based order management system you have to invest in one now. Order management (MRP/ERP) needs to be the center of all the information in your shop. This allows details to be effectively communicated the same way for every order. It also facilities the implementation of processes.

Most software packages have the ability to automate tasks, streamline and record client communications, and some even offer client self-service portals that further reduce the need for internal staff to manage the client’s needs.”

14. Fewer Meetings

Meetings have a bad rap as a time trap – and often it’s justified. They proceed at the pace of either the slowest participant or the need of the manager to hold centerstage. According to studies, executives find at least half of all meetings unproductive. Jim Buckmaster, CEO of Craigslist, has a simple policy: “No meetings, ever.” But if you’re a business owner or manager, you’re probably already thinking of reasons why you couldn’t do the same. Perhaps then you can strive for fewer and better. The key question for distinguishing a worthwhile meeting from a worthless one is this: is it a “status-report” meeting, designed for employees to tell each other things? If so, it’s probably better handled via email or the bulletin board in the backroom. That leaves a minority of “good” meetings, whose value lies in the coming together of minds, for example, such as a well-run brainstorming session. Consider project tracking apps and software, as well. We are using Monday.com and implementing everyone to use it including [the] finishing [department],” says Carmen Rad, founder/president, CR&A Custom in Los Angeles.

15. Do Nothing


Doing nothing isn’t an option.” Oh, yes, it is. And it’s often the best one, says Jason Fried, the co-founder of software company Basecamp in his anti “cult of work” manifesto It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work. “‘Nothing’ should always be on the table,” he writes. “Rather than jumping on every new idea right away, we make every idea wait a while. Generally, a few weeks, at least. That’s just enough time either to forget about it completely or to realize you can’t stop thinking about it.”

16. Fewer Worker Bees

The Peter Principle states that in hierarchies, people “rise to their level of incompetence.” Do your job well, and you’re rewarded with promotion, until you reach a job you’re less good at, where you remain. The result is that over time a business’s overall talent levels will gradually deteriorate. No one person need be peculiarly crappy for this to occur; organizations just tend to be crappier than the sum of their parts. GE’s Jack Welch’s answer to this was to regularly prune the bottom 10 percent of his employees on the basis that subpar performers drag down an organization. It’s harsh, but you maintain high standards and you main find you ultimately need fewer workers.

17. Hide Your Phone

In the current age, nothing makes life feel as fragmented, rushed, and overwhelming as digital technology, social media in particular. Thus, the emergence in the last few years of the “digital minimalism” movement, which essentially involves demanding that any given device, app, or online activity makes a major positive difference to your life before you allow it any time or attention. It now seems ridiculous that we swallowed Facebook’s line that more connection is always better. True connection, it’s becoming clear, depends on not trying to do it with too many people at once. “We hook up to email addresses and Slack channels and then just rock’n’roll with messages all day long, hoping busy-ness will transmute into value,” observes Cal Newport, whose book Deep Work makes the case that constant connectivity is disastrous for both job satisfaction and the bottom line. Start by getting rid of the social media apps on your phone. You can always check them at set hours on your desktop.

Last Few Words

Simplifying your life, subtracting the extraneous or finding the elegant solution to a problem are difficult and at times dispiriting because they imply that no, you can’t have it all, you can’t do everything you want in life or business. But it shouldn’t be. In fact, it’s liberating. Knowing you can’t possibly get everything done spares you the anxiety. To spend time or effort on anything is to choose not to spend that time on any number of alternatives. Declining to do something personal that seems worthwhile is a reaffirmation that doing the best job for your current customer matters more.

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