June 2003
Getting your act together
Creating custom templates automates repetitive tasks, frees up estimating time
Today we have modular management information systems (MIS) that increase efficiency and profitability. They have tools for collecting data in an organized and structured format, automating calculations, and retrieving and sharing the information in an intelligent fashion.

But as MIS systems were developed, customers asked for more and more features. These, in turn, increased the complexity of the systems and the result is that many of the features and reports are seldom used by estimators and managers. After all, the primary challenge in a print shop is to operate a profitable, customer-focused, service-oriented business, and to give managers and sales reps the information they need to make informed decisions, not to necessarily generate reams of reports.

I recently visited a successful printing company that had developed a library of more than 100 custom reports using Crystal Report Writer software. It may be great to have a library, but it is not practical to use more than a few key reports to run the business and manage staff. Staff members indicated to me that they rarely use more than a dozen of the reports on a regular basis. Other reports were used only periodically to analyze specific activity and provide feedback, take action or make decisions on specific issues.

That being said, what about estimating? There may be separate modules to help with specific periodic tasks, like calculating budgeted hourly rates, or analyzing the win/loss ratios, but what about your other repetitive tasks, like requesting a quote from a subcontractor or checking a supplier’s price list? Some systems I have seen appear clumsy with reports, faxes, and letters. One approach is to get organized with custom templates, calculators and supplier price lists. We all have a look-up binder with those notes on sepia-coloured paper collected over the ages. Why not automate the repetitive tasks?

It’s not practical to use more than a few key reports to run the business and manage staff
All printers purchase raw materials and occasionally outsource some printing tasks. Inventory reports are needed to confirm what is in hand, and if you’re using an inventory module, this information may be available online. If your company does not use an integrated inventory module, build one in an Excel spreadsheet and ensure it is current. In addition to stock, this may include custom cartons, special inks, skids, or anything stored and used.

Microsoft Word is a great tool for preparing templates for forms, faxes, request for quotes, quotation letters, letterhead, purchase orders or many other documents. You could build a library with specific request for quotes partially completed for bindery operations or raw materials, finishing, die-cutting, shipping or whatever. The template can contain the basic information, and you could complete the details and add the vendor’s name and fax directly from your PC. The response is often written on the RFQ and then you have a written confirmation for your files.
Many printers have close relationships with regular suppliers and may have a price list to refer to for standard format orders. This often could be for prepress operations, plates, laminating, die-cutting or other specialty services. These price lists may be electronic or hard copy.

To increase the accuracy of quotes, some paper calculations outside the normal estimating functions may be required. For example, the MIS system will calculate the weight of paper required for a web order. However, do you know how many full webs are required for that order? The estimating system will calculate the total weight of the paper required, but does that mean that you will need to break into a roll and have excess inventory on hand that may not be used? This may require an off-line calculation at the time of order to determine the exact requirements, and for shorter runs, there may be a build-up of partial rolls from previous jobs.

How many full cartons, boxes, or skids will be required? Repetitive calculations could be built into a spreadsheet and you could enter the base information and the computer will calculate the rest, increasing the accuracy of your quotes.

Since some of the information may be from a database, some from a spreadsheet, and some from Word templates and documents, you will likely find it more convenient to link it together in a database program. Microsoft Access, Filemaker Pro and other database programs have unique capabilities that may be useful for automating the reference binder that all estimators have. Now all your information can be right at your fingertips.

Recently I was working with an estimator who built a database template with an index to all the unique forms and calculators he had developed for his operation. He had this screen minimized on his computer. As he was working on a quote and needed information, he maximized the index and selected the specific form or spreadsheet required.

This is a great way to organize those frequently time-consuming tasks that waste a lot of our time during the busy day. This example shows how some information can be created to capture and organize different types of data from a variety of sources, in a number of formats. It will simplify your life and make you much more efficient.
Bob Dale is the president of Pilot Graphic Management Services Inc., a company providing management consulting and custom training for organizations. He is also on the executive of the Toronto Club of Printing House Craftsmen. Bob can be reached at (416) 410-4096, or via e-mail at
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