You know you need to improve your operations, but to whom can you turn? Well, there are some people who are intimately involved with new technologies and equipment, who have seen new solutions applied in other firms and are knowledgeable about the operations you need to perform. They are your current (and potential) suppliers. They represent a valuable resource for you. But, where do you begin?
What Is Important?
Although you might feel that ALL aspects of your department operation should be improved, it would be more effective to address the IMPORTANT things first. Your suppliers can be an effective aid in this process.
What are these important areas? Review your operations and mission. What do you "do" for the firm? What are the choke points in the flow? Or... the high cost areas? Which operations are "critical" and "secondary?" Ask your clients what is important to them. What improvements or changes in your services would really improve their operations and results? Ask your key staff and supervisors for their opinions about problems and areas to improve. Also, don't be afraid to ask for the candid opinions of your knowledgeable suppliers.
Having these impressions and general directions in hand, make a specific (prioritized) list of areas to study. Start by reviewing your operations processes. Begin with the basics workflow, storage and housekeeping. Walk through the department(s), following the major flow of jobs in each work center. (Note it is often helpful to make a simple workflow diagram for each area during this review.) Using your suppliers as part of your review team would be a big help,.
Look for improvements that could be made in such areas as:
Finally, make sure that you understand the dynamics of your operation and major workflows. What are the key volumes and major operations? Are there critical quality and time requirements? Are there outside requirements (legal, postal, environmental, etc.)?
Now you are finally ready to embark on an active study plan. Again, plan to involve your suppliers. Tackle these areas in the order of priority which you have determined.
Meet with your key suppliers and vendors. Include your equipment suppliers; USPS account representative, envelope and forms providers, etc. Ask them to explain new equipment or procedures which would help in the areas you have identified for review. See demonstrations through their other clients, especially at companies which have similar procedures and requirements. Ask suppliers to give you specific proposals to evaluate and compare. Don't be afraid to ask competing firms for proposals and ideas. If they want your business, they will help you. Evaluate each proposal carefully in light of your operations and requirements. Remember that sometimes the best SALE PRICE is not the best VALUE.
Visit other companies to see how they have tackled these problems. Using contacts at professional organizations (such as MSMA, MFSA or the Postal Users Groups) is a great way to do this. Gather comparative data and do appropriate benchmarking. Read appropriate product literature and technical/professional magazines. Become familiar with the alternative equipment approaches and their relative strengths and weaknesses. Attend appropriate conferences and or training sessions. Really get to know your industry and where it is going. You are your company's liaison to that industry.
When you have identified a course of action for improvements, do active testing.
If you are looking at new equipment, get a test device for use in your department, if at all possible. Failing that, take some of your work to another firm or a vendor site for live testing. (Note: Be careful to use samples which do not contain any privileged company information, especially customer addresses and lists, employee information or costs.)
Test some new procedures on small batches of real work to see what happens. Remember that it is often possible to make great operational improvements without new equipment simply by organizing supplies, improving the workflow and scheduling procedures and ensuring proper employee training.
Gather data, especially performance and quality results, for cost justification. Ask your supplier(s) for help with developing a cost justification, including test results and verified performance evaluations on real work. Pay special attention to identifying the actual throughput rates for work centers and equipment, not just the "pieces or cycles per hour/ minute" claimed by the supplier.
Determine the benefits you expect to see in your operation: improved accuracy, faster speed and throughout, quicker job turnaround, less waste, etc. Identify the changes in operating costs which are expected by installing the equipment. These can include staffing changes, materials costs, postage, utilities and supplies, etc.
Follow or adopt a solid Request for Proposal (RFP) or Request for Quote (RFQ) process as you move to actual equipment selection and purchase. There have been several well-written explanations of how to develop a solid RFP process, some published recently in Mailing Systems Technology, so I won't try to duplicate that here. But, here are a few important points to remember:
1. Be specific about your needs and requirements, having done the prior study and research noted above. Be sure to include employee training as a contract issue.
2. Call the references supplied by the firm.
3. Develop a solid contract, with fair and measurable service levels stated.
Develop a comprehensive plan for conversion, including plans for site preparation, equipment installation, file conversions, employee training, etc. Prepare to keep logs of service issues, suppliers responses as well as resolutions. Plan to have ongoing reviews of the contract, performance and plans with the supplier after the equipment installation.
Next, apply this study and review process to ALL of the department improvement areas which you have identified. Study and install them in the priority order that you have determined. Involve your key clients in both the testing and approval process (this will greatly help in acceptance and support)! Keep them as active members of your team. Of course, ALWAYS keep your superiors and key clients fully apprised of your plans and progress.
Finally, remember that this improvement process will never end. There will always be new things to look at, new requirements placed on your operations. Keep an open mind and always keep looking!
David Borck has over 25 years of management experience, having held various senior administrative and management positions with world-class firms in the Chicago area. For more information, David may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.