3M Reveals Process Behind Adopting Color Management

Color measurement equipment allows for better accuracy and control.
All photos courtesy of 3M

For years, the print industry has been managing color visually with the help of press operators, various analog proofing systems and color chip books. Unfortunately, there is a lot of variability in this process.

However, over the last decade we have been witness to many advancements in color measurement equipment, processes and standards. These advancements have been able to control and manage color better than ever, accompanied by a good process. I once heard a quote that has stuck with me: “Color not measured cannot be controlled.” That could not be more true in the print world and it certainly will resonate with anyone managing color on a daily basis. Measuring color takes variability and subjectivity out of process, and that’s exactly what we strive for in the printing for any industry or organization.

Correcting Inconsistency

3M found itself in this position almost a decade ago. Store walkthroughs revealed color variability and inconsistency with our brands. We started asking ourselves why this was happening and wondering what we could do about it. We were correctly identifying the brand and spot colors, we had proofs made and brought them to press checks, so now what?

How could we communicate to a substantial print supply base that was not meeting our expectations? The goal we always strive for is that no matter where in the world an item is printed, similar product items—when coming together at the point of sale—need to visually align. This not only protects brand efficacy, but translates into better sales and a fully branded experience. We all know consumers make quick assessments at shelf, and you want consistent product quality, inside and out, to meet consumer expectations.

We needed a way to communicate to our supply base a set of expectations, a basic minimum document that outlined a set of standards. We knew there were ways to track and communicate, but we were not quite sure where to begin. We started asking some of our closest print partners what they were doing and seeing with other clients. We also started talking to our premedia partner, and understood it, too, was working together with CPCs to outline specifications. This was a good place to start.

“This program has resulted in a single point of contact for teams to engage with along the print quality management process for 3M—one person to help with all concerns and questions along the way, with line of sight to stakeholders and to keep communication open for the best result.”

Soon we were learning about ISO documents, Delta E variances, and how to measure and track information. We began to generate a document with the help of these partners, and shared it with our industry experts for review and input. As a team, we improved the guidelines and were confident in the process. The document included all that is critical to standardization: defining brand colors, targets for both brand and spot, ink draw process, minimum process controls, and a final press sheet submission process.

Standards & Testing

Notice my mention of targets for both brand colors and spot colors. Yes, we do have two different variances for these colors. We knew from the very beginning that our print supply base was very large, with both direct and outsourced spend; therefore, we don’t always know who the printer will be. With this in mind, we created standards to accommodate the flexibility needed for multiple suppliers while still aligning with ISO standards. We wanted standards that could be achieved by the majority of printers and also meet the needs of our brands. We have tighter tolerances for our brands with flexible options for our base.

Once we finalized the document, we put it into beta testing with a few key partners. After a period of test time and modifications, we decided to release and send this off to our supply base as well as attach it to our print specification document utilized for every print order. We may have been a bit ambitious to think that all of our partners would fully understand and onboard the newly implemented standards, and quickly realized some translation and education were needed.

Achieving consistent product quality on the shelf is important.

With our document in place, education in progress and our supply base notified, we started receiving many ink draws and printed sheets for evaluation. This also became an issue that we had not anticipated. It became difficult to find time in our busy days to monitor what was being sent in, who was managing all of the sheets and tracking the information, and in the end, what we were doing with all of the information.

Centralizing the Workflow

All of this work was being done individually by our project managers at the time. With varying degrees of print experience and expertise, it was apparent we needed a dedicated full-time print quality manager to oversee the work and strategize the future of print quality at 3M. A new role was created and the workflow was centralized under one umbrella and one key contact. We now had one point of contact for our suppliers and business partners, one consistent message and one person to make the sometimes difficult decisions needing to be made without affecting time or consistency. It did not take long to develop competency around this new position, and we were off and running.

You might think this was the end, but not so fast. That’s a lot of ink draws, press sheets, consulting, teaching and mentoring for one person, not to mention other challenges, including misalignment of capabilities, process controls, outsource supply (no line of sight to the printer), accountability, price and resistance to change.

“I once heard a quote that has stuck with me: ‘Color not measured cannot be controlled.’ That could not be more true in the print world and it certainly will resonate with anyone managing color on a daily basis.”

We knew we needed to build more into the process and started looking at third-party vendors that were already in the field helping other CPCs manage their print quality. We also started looking at software solutions to implement with our printers. For a short time, the combination of both seemed like a good solution. We could introduce a software/cloud-based program into our domestic print strategy, and outside of the U.S., identify a third-party company to help manage. The domestic solution has been going well as we identified our core printers, engaged with them and introduced a very successful model. Managing print quality outside of the U.S. has been more challenging and we continue to explore alternative solutions.

In total, establishing and implementing an integrated print quality management process has spanned a few years and continues to improve and develop. We have since been able to include this as a corporate-wide specification to which all businesses hold their suppliers accountable. We have also translated the document into multiple languages for ease of use and adoption. Our print partners and procurement teams are now more involved, not only for support, but as partners to help strategize and collaborate moving forward toward the best outcome for everyone. Metrics are shared between teams, helping to shape and improve our print base. Teams are no longer working in silos and have a better understanding of the magnitude of their roles and expectations.


Finally, this program has resulted in a single point of contact for teams to engage with along the print quality management process for 3M—one person to help with all concerns and questions along the way, with line of sight to stakeholders and to keep communication open for the best result. The hard work and persistence is paying off, and we are now seeing consistency in shelf sets across our brands, and tracking and sharing metrics that are able to identify trends or potential issues early on. Ultimately, we are establishing true partners in printing, happier business teams and improved branded experiences for our consumers.

About the Author: With more than 30 years of experience managing prepress and printing projects, Michael John has extensive knowledge and expertise in the printing industry. As print quality manager for 3M Consumer Brands, including Scotch and Post-it brands, Michael is responsible for ensuring 3M’s print suppliers maintain a high level of quality, consistency and are in line with ISO standards and industry best practices. He manages overall uniformity and alignment between brands and print suppliers to drive efficiency, optimization and impact.

Michael sits on the Brand Owners Council of the Association for Print Technologies, along with other print professionals, to help establish industry-wide standards for all print production suppliers. He is passionate about print quality standards and strongly believes effective communication outlining expectations, in addition to color measurement, helps to ensure the success of brands at the point of sale.