Screen Printing:

Improving Workflow

Learn how to overcome time and management challenges for small, medium and large shops.

By Marshall Atkinson, Contributing Writer

When more staff is trained in other departments, the easier it is for people to help make decisions that could affect things downstream.

October 20, 2015

Pretend for a moment that all the tasks needed to complete an order are nestled adjacent to a train track that circulates throughout your shop. Each order is its own train. As the order snakes through your shop on the tracks, it stops at each department along the way.

The train starts with sales and order entry, where all the important information is loaded. It moves to purchasing, receiving, the art department, production, post-production, shipping and, finally, invoicing. This is all done in adherence to a tight schedule.

Certain circumstances could delay, or completely derail, an order. These challenges aren’t unique to your shop, but they happen throughout our industry.
Following are some workflow challenges and ideas you can use — whether you’re in a small, medium or large shop — to help alleviate them.

This is a deadline-driven business. Regardless of your shop’s size, the more you can accomplish today, the easier tomorrow may become. One of the biggest challenges we face is that people are used to getting things faster in other industries, which has trickled down into ours.

Because of the Internet, people expect things to ship tomorrow and nobody understands the actual work that is involved in producing orders. Not to mention the live grenade you are occasionally handed when a customer “forgets” about an order he needs and it becomes a crazy rush job.

What to Do: Small Shops — Find more help. You’ll occasionally get too busy and will have to decide whether to create the art, reclaim screens or sleep. Instead of handling all of that personally, hire a temporary worker to help with simple chores, or outsource something like artwork creation so you can keep up with your sales calls or printing.

Getting to this point is a sign of growth. You can find temporary workers at any staffing agency, or even within your own network of friends. For more complicated tasks like hiring a freelance artist, look to your social media and professional networking groups for referrals. Sometimes you could be making more money (or doing things more quickly) by concentrating on more primary tasks, such as printing or selling, while simultaneously having other tasks completed, such as reclaiming screens or creating art.

What to Do: Medium Shops — Many medium-sized shops struggle with writing and following procedures or rules. They’ve grown from a one- or two-person operation and suddenly there are 20 people working in the shop. The need for more direction and management is apparent. More and more jobs are coming through the door daily and this creates a logjam of orders in various departments.

Managing your shop’s time is critical to creating a smoother production schedule and getting everyone on the same page. Look to moving beyond using Microsoft Excel or a whiteboard for planning and finding a shop operating system that will work for you. Start establishing standards that jobs will follow as they work through the shop as tasks are completed.

Get these policies and procedures established so everyone follows the same rules. Standardizing the way the shop organizes and prioritizes work will allow you to get more done in a day.

What to Do: Large Shops — Once a shop gets to a certain point in its growth, the key employees will have things figured out. However, time management still could be a factor as orders are coming in faster than they can be produced.

This is a good problem to have. Rather than invest in more space and equipment, shops sometimes overlook adding more production shifts. You already have the equipment, but it’s unused for half the day.

However, ramping up a second shift can be tough. You’ll need a strong leader to manage the shop while everyone is away. Planning and scheduling the work produced during second shift is slightly different. Most shops give these shifts longer production runs, as there’s usually nobody around to approve the strike-off or ask a question if there’s a challenge.

If you have a full staff on this shift, your shop easily can double its production capacity. You’ll still have to figure out what to do with mixing ink, burning screens, art sign-offs or other challenges that probably will arise. Also, once you’ve established the second shift, sustaining it throughout the year may become a sales challenge during your slower months. It’s not easy, so think it through.

There’s a big difference between how a one- or two-person shop is managed versus a large shop with scores of employees. The larger the shop, the more corporate-like the management structure. In addition to benefitting the company, having rules also defines the culture and sets the expectations everyone should follow.

Since the work in our industry is performed by people, how each person works will define effective workflow. For example, having a press operator that comes in late a few times a week, or staff that constantly checks Facebook or texts their friends while on the clock, can dramatically affect your final production numbers for the week. Establishing clear expectations resolves these conflicts. These only work when everyone is treated fairly.

What to Do: Small Shops — If you own a one-person shop, it’s all about how you manage your day. You can set rules just like in larger companies to help you manage your time. Since you wear many hats during the day, try setting small goals where you stay on task and completely focused for designated time periods — 30 minutes or an hour.

Use an egg timer. This will keep you focused and away from checking email or playing with the cat instead of working on more productive activities. Write a to-do list, work on higher priority tasks first and completely accomplish them before moving on to the next one. You are your own manager, so make it a game and see how you do.

What to Do: Medium Shops — These shops tend to struggle with leadership issues. There may not always be someone in charge, or the shop owner may play favorites with some of the crew. These types of shops also have a “check-with-me” culture, meaning only one person in the company knows how to perform a critical task or make a decision.

These types of behaviors can create workflow bottlenecks, unnecessary drama and friction. Want a better culture? Start with writing an employee handbook that clearly defines all of the expectations for the staff. Hold people accountable by having scheduled employee reviews. Part of the discussion has to be focused on following these rules.

What to Do: Large Shops — For larger shops, rules and procedures are commonplace. Larger shops can improve their cultures by implementing a cross-training program to build a better-trained staff. When more staff is trained in other departments, the easier it is for people to help make decisions that could affect things downstream.

Work gets handled faster when people have the experience and repetition in doing it. So it makes sense that if I know why something has to happen a certain way, I’ll ensure it’s set up correctly.
Empowering the staff allows for quicker workflow, as more people are trusted and trained to make decisions.

(Editor’s Note: A followup to this article, to be published in the January 2016 issue, will address the people, space, skills and communication challenges that can bottleneck workflow and how to solve these issues.)

Marshall Atkinson is the COO of Visual Impressions Inc., and Ink to the People, Milwaukee. He also is a Promo-Kitchen chef. For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at

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