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China opens the doors of printing companies for the first time to foreigners

By Jan Sierpe 

Jan with Dr. Mitsuo Kaji at Buddhist Shrine in Hangzhou, China.

The Great Lockdown and Secret Sustainable Lean Strategies.

In a previous article, we explored the unprecedented business transformation in the world caused by the pandemic and the global manufacturing disruption to industries and their supply networks.

We also examined the revitalized efforts in Manufacturing, particularly in the Graphic Arts Industry, to review and update current process management objectives. With a particular emphasis on planning and execution, accurate measurement and controls aligned logistics of raw materials to manufacturing processes.

The current situation has forced management teams to analyze the value stream and identify sources of waste and savings opportunities. Cost reduction is central to process management for product manufacturing and services during the economic recovery.

I suggested the pandemic's challenges are ideal for reviewing traditional manufacturing practices and studying industry leaders' success.

I shared my lean journey and experience reaching process excellence at a packaging company in Santiago, Chile. And the substantial influence of Prof. Miles Southworth at the very beginning of my lean journey.

Prof. Miles Southworth stands at the center of a group of International Ambassadors of People to People Program in Beijing.

Prof. Miles Southworth is best known for his books Color Separation Techniques and Pocket Guide to Color Reproduction. He also co-authored with Donna Southworth How to Implement Total Quality Management. In 1985 he was named Director of the School of Printing at RIT. He has been a member of TAGA since 1964.

Vera & Giannini Impresores pioneered a circular economy and a transformation from the traditional manufacturing model.

My experience in the mid-90s was the impact and rapid transformation from a traditional packaging company to a highly productive Manufacturing Model by implementing Lean.

At Vera & Giannini Impresores, a company owned by two brothers founded in 1939, it grew to control the entire manufacturing process of packaging from the board manufacturing, printing, and finishing to supply over forty percent of the domestic market in Chile.

Mr. Vera introduced since the beginning a circular economy as he believes it was environmentally sound and that marketing and gains of finished products were highly affected by the market price of raw materials.

After being directly involved in installing the second Komori press, start-up and provided operators training, he hired me to elevate the technical knowledge of their staff in the pressroom, thinking there was the source of inefficiencies of the production line.

In a matter of weeks, we realized that the entire organization need it an organizational overhaul. I stayed on and led the changes by introducing lean manufacturing methodology and a custom-designed MIS system named TGM (Tiempo General de Máquina), which offered a remarkable picture of where the time went and showed the sources of inefficiencies accurately. From there on, things changed forever at the company.

Aligned with Mr. Vera's vision, we reduced VOC in the pressroom by switching gasoline to VARN environmentally friendly cleaning products.

The introduction of Alcohol-free fountain solutions developed and manufactured locally by Chemical Engr. Gloria Gutierrez Nuñez of Quimica Chile was a great success.

The immediate results were a compounded process and raw materials waste reduction from over twenty percent to a single figure within six months.

The organization reached unprecedented productivity levels comparable or superior to European organizations of the same industry sector. We double the production throughput within six months with the same manufacturing equipment.

This efficiency milestone resulted from combining effective operators' training with a preventive planned maintenance program. We transformed traditional disruptive corrective technical support into preventative maintenance during the initial phase.

It is important to note that these improvements and productivity records achieved didn't involve speeding up printing, die-cutting or finishing equipment or layoffs.

The strategies used focused on enhancing workflow and training focused on the process, discipline, empowerment on self-reliance, and constant motivational support by solid leadership.

The procedures used concentrated on improving make-ready methods, empowerment to problem-solving, organized just in time raw materials delivery to the production lines, along planned preventive equipment maintenance and an accurate colour matching system to avoid colour adjustments on press.

Lessons in China.

Later on, while travelling in China with Prof. Southworth with a group of experts in the graphic arts industry, I further strengthened my knowledge and understanding of manufacturing processes. It challenges and impacts well-designed workflows, process control and management, KPIs and technologies, productivity and waste reduction possibilities, and scalability potential.

The trip to China was a unique opportunity for me and a small group of representatives of a few companies of the Graphic Arts Industry from Europe, the Middle East, Japan, and the USA, interested in establishing future business development ventures in China.

Anton Rodi, Heidelberg R&D, showing Chinese Directors a German printed magazine. China.

A well-organized and sponsored by the International Ambassador's Program, People-to-People. The first time China open the doors to foreigners to visit manufacturing printing facilities without restrictions and meet with management teams in large cities.

Sharon L. Gray, Intl. Buz Developer of Shorewood Packaging, shares knowledge with SME management team members. China.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower created in 1956 the People-to-People International Foundation to enhance international understanding and friendship through educational, cultural, and humanitarian activities involving exchanging ideas and experiences between people of diverse cultures.

The Chinese Graphic Arts Industry in the '90s

We learned on the trip firsthand about the manufacturing processes in the graphic arts industry in China. We understood the eagerness of Chinese leadership and awareness of the potential of building business relationships with western companies to have access to technologies, know-how, and resources to move ahead faster on their development strategy by using their industrial capacity.

We visited several large manufacturing Printing State Enterprises of different industry segments, such as food, luxury packaging, and Pharma for domestic and export products. Also commercial, bookmakers, and publication in many cities, known as SME (small-to-medium enterprises). Witnessed process management quickly evolving within the Chinese industrial traditional settings.

Lean Manufacturing is welcome in China.

Lean Manufacturing practices have been adopted in China based on research in the heavy and automotive Industry long before the European and American companies.

Yet, organizational structures and workflow in the Graphic Arts Industry followed the European and American guidelines. Later on, I realize industrial cooperation between China and Japan substantially impacted their organizations by Japanese industrial work style.

In China in the 90s, the printing industries' production processes were relatively simple and low-tech. Most of the equipment didn't calculate its capability or automatically detected abnormalities. It was evident that the management pushed the human aspect of manufacturing processes to the maximum of their capabilities due to the lack of technology and automation and reduced labour costs. They understood that cooperation and coordination positively lead to process efficiency and better quality of products and services.

We noticed management team members at different levels kept Manufacturing and production's KPIs and logged entries by hand. Although rustic, process data collected used metrics based on Dr. Ishikawa's problem-solving tools.

SME directors and workers in China.

We met and directly talked with management teams in formal and informal meetings at these large printing factories. We engaged in discussions where our questions and their openness and informative nature quickly shaped our understanding of a nation moving fast and preparing to build the industry foundations for the twenty-first century.

Jan is posing with the SME director. Shanghai, China.

Prof. Southworth shared his observations and often pointed out during those daily field trips aspects of the Chinese manufacturing processes, the organization structures, workflow, technologies, and efficiencies with little resources and challenges.

We learned about the production of People's Daily in Beijing and its massive and timely daily distribution. The circulation of People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, is comparable to Yomiuri Shimbun's daily newspaper in Japan.

We visited an educational city complex and met with teachers of various specializations and practices dedicated to educating the Graphic Arts industry's future generations. The central government's extraordinary efforts to invest in education to support the Graphic Arts industry as an essential manufacturing sector were evident.

Prof. Southworth argued that the Chinese teamwork style seemed practical. Also, organizational self-management or self-directed work processes in the organization's workforce appeared effective and productive. To our surprise, most organizations' top officials and management team members have grown through the ranks from junior positions, and they understood the entire process in detail.

Deng Xiaoping's pragmatism lives on.

We could also appreciate the consolidation of Deng Xiaoping's pragmatic approach. The central committee of CCP realized that only experimenting with alternative forms of production and entrepreneurial activity would China find the best economic development path.

A Sichuan proverb inspired Deng's assumption 'it does not matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches the mouse;' he promoted economic policies focused on results and economic growth.

The printing facilities' sizes in China left a lasting impression, any of those printing factories tenfold larger than any company in the USA and Europe.

The SME companies would employ 2 to 3 thousand workers. Economists suggest that post-pandemic Chinese economic fast recovery is due to the decentralization of the Industry throughout China. Maybe, they reached the right sizes manageable enterprise.

Jan exchange views with the senior Plant Manager at an SME Publishing House. China.

We witnessed mixed new and old technologies and long and intensive processes. And the labour force was composed equally of men and women, as you would appreciate in the video. 

Women played vital roles as team leaders and equipment operators, and management team members at all the companies we visited.


The Chinese Labor Market and skilled employment in those days were not the issues; the management teams at these State organizations understood their weaknesses and inefficiencies and sought to invest in the right technologies.

Time Magazine portraited Deng Jan. 1, 1979, Man of the Year, one year after Deng launching the leap forward.

This trip was a learning experience at different levels and an eye-opener about the rapid developments China will be experiencing in years to come. As I look back and think of Shanghai, Pudong had the Oriental Pearl Tower and only a handful of buildings in construction. Now is part of the largest and most populated city in China.

Graphic Industry in the world since the '90s.

Meanwhile, the printing industry in developed countries experienced successive technological transformations that only some organizations managed to grow within the constant technological changes.

The fragmented Industry and slow adoption of new technologies, weak organizational structures, and overcapacity created a permanent struggle for survival.

This situation drove restructuring, consolidation, or even closing of companies altogether. However, Lean Manufacturing practices have taken many years for the Graphic manufacturing industry to adopt.

VistaPrint introduced the business model in early 2000, based on online printing services, which proved highly profitable with multiple language websites and state-of-the-art lean manufacturing facilities. First in Venlo, The Netherlands, later in Windsor, Ontario.

Stay tuned for part III of three parts article. 'Lean Manufacturing shows enduring resilience during the World Coronavirus Pandemic.

A pressroom woman team leader looks on as Jan meets the press operator at a commercial plant in China.

Jan Sierpe firsthand field experiences expand several years in printing equipment installations, process optimization, waste reduction, and press operator's training. This article intended to reach the graphic arts industry company's owners, directors, managers, technicians, mechanics, maintenance professionals, press operators, QC technicians, process control of materials, or anyone directly involved in the printing process interested in process optimization quality and waste reduction.

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