On time, on spec and on side with clients

Look Print seems appropriately named – it’s a company that’s hard to miss. The company’s factory sits on Parramatta Road in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt, one of the busiest roads in the biggest city in the country. The exterior is decorated with a striking two storey-high comic book-style advertisement for the business. Add to that the fact that the printer sits under the flight path for the busiest airport runway in Australia, and walking inside Look’s doors feels like entering an oasis of relatively calm.

Once inside, the foyer is festooned with promotional calendars that focus not on the company’s product offering, but rather a list of ‘Visions and Principles’. Hand-picked by founder and managing director David Leach, the list features quotations from thinkers such as Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and Mao Zedong.

But don’t be fooled into thinking this is a company more disposed to quoting proverbs than print jobs. It is founded on solid business principles. One precept at the core of the company ethos is customer service. Indeed, it is the doctrine of ‘right first time, on time’ that keeps clients walking through the door, according to Leach.

“I wish we could say that we never fail, but we do make mistakes. But there are two differences. First: when there is a mistake, we fix it. Second: we talk about it later. We measure every output and we take mistakes very, very seriously. And we work closely with our own team and our customers to reduce mistakes in the future,” he says.

Being able to live up to the promise of ‘right first time, on time’ has been a long time in the making, Leach says.

“We came out with a guarantee that when people need something in a hurry, if it’s not ‘right first time, on time’, it’s free. I don’t know another printer on the planet that would ever say that.

“But it took us two years to get to the point where we were confident we could deliver on that promise. Equipment fails and there’s nothing you can do, you just have to wear it, but we like to think we did everything humanly possible,” he adds.

“[Printing] is like carrying a baby, it’s not like throwing a can of beer to a mate at a barbecue. Every job touches another process and changes hands, so the chances of something going wrong multiply,” says Leach.

He claims the company has now reached the point where it hits the ‘right first time, on time’ promise 99% of the time. Some Look clients have a success rate of 99.6%, with the lowest success rate for a client standing at 98.7%, according to Leach.

He says a key turning point in the path to reaching this target was embracing the ‘theory of constraints’ (TOC) in the company’s scheduling process. Whereas a common principle of business holds that “you’re only as strong as you’re weakest link”, Leach described the basis of TOC as recognising that “you’re weaker than your weakest link”, because all processes in the chain suffer when one link isn’t strong.

“The idea of TOC is to always recognise where your weakest links are – whether it’s workflow, process, culture – and to actually work on strengthening that weakest link. Once you’ve done that, the constraint moves on to another link, so TOC is never-ending,” he says.

One of the practical applications of TOC in the way Look approaches job scheduling was when it developed its own proprietary workflow software. Leach estimates that he has spent over a million dollars on development of the bespoke tool, which is continually being tweaked by the in-house team that wrote it. He said that the company was currently considering how to further update the technology.

However, in a move that might seem at odds with the modern industry’s automation preoccupation, Leach says the company made planning easier for staff by scaling back the IT component of job scheduling. The company has opted for a more low-tech approach. The primary job scheduling table appears on a whiteboard in the middle of the office, in a process is backed up by the company’s proprietary IT system.

Leach says: “Going back a few years when we were half this size, we found that a lot of jobs that we should have been getting out weren’t getting out on time. We moved from electronic scheduling to manual scheduling with computerised monitoring. People just love to have a piece of paper in their hands.

“The constraint was our staff couldn’t see all the information on the screen and people spent too much time changing the priorities. Now, having something up on the board that everyone can see, even from 15 feet away, brought a visibility to the scheduling that the computerised system concealed.”

A load of rubbish
Another example of the program of continual improvement is evident on the shopfloor: piles of printed waste. Look Print is currently working towards the ISO 9001 standard and has concentrated on eliminating as much wastage as possible. To this end, the company is avoiding regular disposal of waste material. Leach wants his workers to see “the visual cost of errors”.

Even printed work which is surplus to the job at hand is piled up in the corner of the shopfloor to highlight the issue of overprinting. “Overprinting is an error, because it wastes materials. That’s how pedantic we are really, but it’s a matter of making it visible,” says Leach.

Waste efforts
Further evidence of the company’s work towards ISO 9001 is on bulletin boards filled with data about the company’s performance in eliminating wastage. Regular meetings take place to discuss how it can further reduce these figures, and what areas of the business need to improve.

“It’s not a witch-hunt; it’s about identifying and eliminating problems,” says Leach. He adds that the company is currently working towards a rate of just 1% of all print jobs being overprinted. Leach estimates the mark to currently stand at 3%.

Overprinting is a big focus. But the theory of constraints means there are no plans to stop there. It’s just that Leach prefers to tackle areas for improvement one at a time.

“If you try to juggle 10 eggs at once, chances are you’re going to drop all of them,” he says.

Organic growth has been a feature of Look Print since Leach founded the company in 1991. Leach, who had been working in real estate investment, looked to capitalise on what he saw as an “opportunity in computerised colour printing”. He adds: “I think that the market potential is still absolutely enormous.” Leach now presides over what he describes as a “volume house” printing company with up to 60 staff on its books. Oriented primarily in the signage and display markets, the printer operates to a 24/5 schedule, though has been known to operate outside this schedule “as necessary”.

Leach estimates that 97% of Look’s work stays in-house, for a client base that includes print resellers and end users such as David Jones, Myer and Telstra.

Going hand in hand with Look’s lean push is a green push. It is working toward ISO 14001 after taking part in GASAA’s Truly Green course. As well as taking an environmentally friendly approach to limiting waste, the company also houses a variety of green kit, most notably its laminator, which uses a water-based liquid adhesive rather than a solvent-based adhesive.

Leach says the system took six months to formulate, but the end result is a machine that is “very fast and very ecologically friendly”.

Other pieces of equipment include a bevy of HP printers ranging from the wide to the super-wide. Look’s plant list includes a recently purchased HP Scitex TJ8550, which sits alongside an HP L65550, FB6100 and L25500. While Leach said the company is a “key HP account” for the Asia-Pacific region, the company is not an exclusively HP shop.

“We’ll buy the equipment that most suits us at the time,” he says. For instance, the company also houses a variety of Océ equipment, including an SRA3-plus machine that is primarily used for printing technical documents.

Keeping Kool
Customer service isn’t just intrinsic to the company culture – it’s expressed more explicitly too. One point-of-difference is Look’s customer loyalty program, Kool Rewards, which has been running for nearly 10 years and is also managed in-house. “Our registered clients receive benefits from that program as a thank you for the opportunity they’ve given us to work with them.

“But we often find a lot of the Kool rewards are actually used to reward or thank their own team,” Leach says.

“Most companies don’t have a budget for staff rewards, so Kool is often used for that purpose, whether it’s a dinner, or a day on a yacht, or even a bottle of champagne at Christmas time.”

Rewarding its customers has helped Look forge strong partnerships with its client base, according to Leach. “Once, when one of our major clients had won a major client of their own, we rang up and said ‘how would you like us to send a bottle of champers out to your office?’ They said ‘we’ll get the glasses out and wait’. It was nice, because we were viewed as a partner in their success.”

Leach says he isn’t aware of another printer in Australia that offers a loyalty program, and recalls encountering more than a few doubters when he first rolled out the program.

Ten years on and the doubts have been quelled. Leach reports a “very good response to the program”. But he doesn’t expect a bunch of imitation programs to spring up around the industry anytime soon. “Some of these things are not so easy to copy,” he said.

The main focus now for Leach is to try to keep the company on the track that has worked so well thus far. “As a small business, it’s always difficult.

“You’re always trying to grow, you’re always putting everything you’ve got back into customer service and growing staff and new technology to provide better solutions,” he says.

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