Build Your Business:

How to Increase Efficiency and Maximize Workflow

March 10, 2014

Regardless of your shop’s size, equipment or the number of employees, the primary daily goal is getting more orders produced, shipped and out the door.  
Sometimes in the quest to just handle those challenges, getting down to examining how you can increase your throughput doesn’t quite make it to the light of day. Consider the following tips and think about how your own workflow could change and be improved.

Most orders you produce are completely custom. Even though the specifics of the job are different, the processes and techniques remain the same. Having everyone in your shop use a standard language and expectations in the documentation is the first step in getting jobs through the building faster. If anyone in production has ever had to stop what they are doing and “go and ask” art, sales or customer service what something means on the work order, you aren’t doing something correctly.

1. Standardized Language. This is what you name and specify things for your shop. A standard, full-front location, for example, could always be 12 inches wide and print 3 inches down from the collar. Make a list of everything that you do and pretend you are training a completely new person. How would you explain something? This is important, as having everyone agree on the specifics of all the different things that you do in the shop can save a lot of time in getting the work order processed. These standards become the language that your shop uses to communicate among employees. If a client doesn’t specify the location or size, the order can just be entered as a “standard full front” for example, and everyone in the shop will know what that means. The art department can create the file, and production can print and adjust on press so that it prints 3 inches down from the collar. Creating these standards, agreeing on them — and, more importantly, training and holding everyone to those standards — comprise your first step in getting more accomplished in a day.

2. Work Orders. This is the key to your success. Whatever software you use to create these, extreme care has to be taken to ensure the information on the work order is complete, accurate and timely. This is probably the No. 1 challenge in any shop, and you should devote a lot of effort into ensuring that this step is perfect. Sales staff members are often notorious for only putting in the minimal amount of information. This usually leaves your art and production staff scratching their heads and asking a lot of follow-up questions. Customer service representatives sometimes can be bombarded with too many tasks to handle, and minor order entry errors can happen if there isn’t a quality-control check before the completed work order is handed off. The absolute key to your success is to get all the notes and information, and tie up all the loose ends before passing the work order to the next department in your company. Double-check your quantities, as a common mistake is to mistype numbers in the wrong fields for quantities. Review your art and production instructions. Can someone execute your plan based on what’s written? Remember to get everything into your system…this means no handwritten notes.  

3. Art Approval Forms. Every order must be signed off by the client before production begins. This form clearly shows an enlargement of the art for each location and where it prints on the shirt. Art dimensions in inches, colors, key instructions and location information are all clearly labeled. If the job is printing on multiple shirt colors, you need to show it on multiple backgrounds. Your art department is your production crew’s greatest asset, as any potential landmine can be averted by asking some good questions. For example, “Are you sure you want to print black on the navy shirt?” or “Are you going to want a different set of screens for the youth shirts?” These questions can’t be asked by your production crews, as that’s costing you too much money. Get your art department, sales and customer service staff members involved early in the designing process to ferret out these challenges and resolve them before they hit your production floor. Once everything is approved, the art approval forms are printed in color and placed with the work order for the job. Printing these forms in color allows the production staff to clearly understand what garment colors they are printing, ink colors they should have and exact locations they should be using. Your goal is to give them a blueprint for success that they can read, comprehend and then execute.

4. System for Prioritizing Work. Let’s face it, some of the biggest challenges any busy shop faces involve getting everything handled on time. Regardless of the internal software your shop employs, there has to be a way of scheduling and understanding when a job is due. Everything must work backwards from when the order has to ship. To keep current, each department has to be trained on understanding their roles in getting that order through their department quickly and on time.

The first rule has to be that dates cannot be padded and must be real. Production decisions need to be based on facts and the easiest way to undermine your production schedule is to have due dates that aren’t real.  

Critical jobs have to be identified. Something about them has to scream “work on me first”. This could be a special colored job jacket, neon sticker in the corner of the work order, or special identifier in the system (my shop uses a “$” before the P.O. number so it’s searchable). These always go to the head of the line.

Your production team has to keep track of how long things take to produce using their equipment. What’s the average for each machine and crew? This can be used to estimate how much time it will take to produce each job for scheduling. Using this knowledge, your production teams can then schedule out each day in advance and assign multiple jobs to equipment in advance. Another great benefit is knowing how long large orders will take to produce. This is crucial to understanding when a job has to start, how long it will run and if you may need to use overtime or more equipment to get it completed on time. If you are scheduling your jobs and posting the production calendar, everyone (especially sales and customer service) has to be trained to review the schedule and understand it.

Apparel decorator shops come in all sizes. Some are in a garage; others are gigantic spaces filled with equipment and hundreds of people. The one thing every shop has in common is that how their floors are arranged can make a critical difference to the throughput for production every day. Here are some things to consider for shop floor efficiency:

1. Prime Real Estate. Consider your production floor area the most expensive and desired prime real estate in your building. This is where your shop makes all the money. You want to keep it as organized, clutter free and effective as possible. Keep unneeded supplies, older inventory, boxes or miscellaneous junk away from this area. Floor space around the machinery has to be dedicated to production purposes, like staging, room for job supplies and materials, employee movement, etc.  

2. Think Directional. Regardless of your production floor’s shape — square, rectangular, bent like an elbow, etc. — the more you have your production flowing like a one-way street, the better. The more everything is moving in one direction, step by step, through your building, the better.

3. Touch Things Once. The main goal in reducing steps and maximizing efficiency is to try to reduce the number of times someone touches the job. This could be how your inventory is staged after it’s received. Can it be placed where it’s going to be printed? Do you have a system in place to determine that beforehand? When you print shirts with two locations, after you print one location are you stacking them on carts at the end of the dryer blank side down to simply wheel them back up to the press to print the other side? For larger shops, do you keep standard ink colors in areas accessible to your presses on multiple areas on the shop floor, or by the presses to increase accessibility to your press crews? Do you have screen racks near the presses to store screens when samples are printed for larger orders, or for commonly used work orders, so they don’t get accidently reclaimed?

4. Avoid Another Department. The theory here is to try to maximize your space and effectiveness by combining departments into one space. For example, hang-tagging and placing stickers on shirts as they come down the dryer belt, rather than doing it in a separate part of your facility. Maybe you also could have computer workstations at the end of the dryer so that boxes can be weighed, labeled and shipped right from the press, rather than at a gathering point in your shipping department.

5. Everyone Has Their Own Tools. Want more production every day? Make it easy for people to do their jobs by giving them the tools to use and keep in their area. If you see someone walking across the shop floor to borrow a tape gun, pair of scissors, carts for shirts, gallon bucket of black ink, squeegees, flood bars, etc., it’s time to buy some extra supplies. This extra time and effort can really add up to more than the cost of whatever your staff members are hunting for daily. Your staff will appreciate it, as they all want to do a good job for you and removing their pain and frustration can go a long way for morale.

This is the tricky part, as you have to use your brain to help your shop succeed. As orders come in every day, your production staff has to be looking ahead constantly and examining the jobs in detail. They need to understand the challenges, similarities between jobs, size and quantities of jobs, and most importantly timing factors involved with them.

1. Kit Packing. This term describes bringing everything that’s needed to produce the order to the machine that’s going to run it. Whether it’s for screen printing or embroidery, your operators should never be walking around looking for anything. Their next jobs should be lined up and waiting for them to run, with absolutely everything needed all in one “kit”. Their job is to simply break down the previous job and set up the next one as quickly as possible. The only way this can work effectively is to have really good communication between the departments that feed into your production staff. There has to be a schedule that everyone understands, so the items needed for the job (screens, ink, thread, and shirts) are ready to go before the job needs to be pulled and staged. This takes some orchestration and cooperation between your staff.

2. Scheduling. A great trick for production managers to use when scheduling is to simply look up every job that was entered on the previous day in the system and try to schedule it to the equipment and date that it will most likely run. The goal is to get a preliminary view of how the day will look in advance. Your other departments also can see when the job needs to run, and can do their planning based on this target date, time and equipment scheduling. It may not work out perfectly, but it’s a good place to start.

Schedule similar jobs back to back on equipment. Have a few jobs that are printing on sleeves? Using white or black ink only? Printing on red shirts? Schedule them all in a row so you can decrease your downtime between jobs and get more produced for the equipment in a day.

Set expectations with your crews. Every day, let them know what’s expected of them, and what they need to accomplish before they leave. Check on them frequently and determine if they are on schedule or not.

Work on priority jobs first. Don’t wait until the end of the day to get these handled. They always go to the head of the line. Better yet, try to get them handled as the last jobs you do the day before.

3. Staffing. Your shop is only as good as the people you employ. Want more output daily? Hire and train a better class of workers. Have your management staff set clear expectations on their work, develop a robust, ongoing training program and hold people accountable for their performance.

Hire for attitude, train for skill. Most people feel valued when you invest time and effort in helping them succeed. Your staff will be more valuable to you if they possess multiple skills and can help in different departments. This takes careful planning and good communication. Employees will mostly want to “work their way up the ladder.” Give them the opportunity. This is crucial, as one day you are going to need a new press operator or have to send four people to receiving to count in a huge order coming in. It’s great when you can plug and play, and things are handled correctly. A good rule of thumb to follow is to have at least three people in the building know how to perform every task at a professional level (meaning not just the basics).

Be clear and professional. Your staff needs to understand the contributions they make in getting orders produced and shipped. It’s not all on the production staff’s shoulders. Each order is touched by a team of people, and the quality of each person’s contributions can affect how that order is handled as it travels its way through your shop and out the door. Get everyone involved and have them complete their tasks as quickly and completely as possible.

4. Processing. A good goal to set is to try to have every order produced and ready to go one business day before it needs to ship. If everything works backwards from department to department, you can build a culture of execution within your company that should increase your capabilities. What will it take to accomplish that goal? Do you need to build or revamp procedures to achieve that goal? What standards would you need to set to increase your throughput? How are you training or setting the expectations with your staff? Here are some thoughts that might help:

Work out some rules to follow for each department. Purchase orders have to be entered the day they come in. Receiving has to count and check in all goods the day they arrive. Screens or digitized files have to be ready two business days before the job is to run. Your department leaders need to set these in cooperation with the other departments to help achieve some basic standards. Sure, there will be instances where these goals can’t be met, but these instances should be outliers — and not the norm.

Does your shop have departments that point a lot of fingers? “I can’t do my job because they didn’t…” Every order is your company’s order. You are a team, and as a team everyone needs to come together and work toward getting the job produced as efficiently as possible. Talk about teamwork constantly and make it part of your employee performance reviews. Your goal is to establish a culture where each department helps out the next constantly by making their job easier somehow. Reward that behavior. Catch people doing things the right way and celebrate them. If you build this culture, your workflow and shop efficiency will increase. It’s not all about equipment.

As every shop is different, there isn’t one “right” way to maximize your workflow. One great way to start is to just simply talk to your staff about how they do their job, what they need to do it better and where their pain may be. Look for bottlenecks and friction points in your process. Where does something slow down or back up? What can you do about it? Simply making an adjustment in how you do something could be a solution. Test your hypothesis and tweak it until you are satisfied. Remember, dedication to continuous improvement is a never-ending goal.

Marshall Atkinson is the chief operating officer of Visual Impressions Inc., and Ink to the People, Milwaukee. Atkinson has lectured on sustainability at ISS trade shows, and webinar industry panel discussions regarding the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall