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Efficiency and Quality: Who's Responsible?

(March 2004) posted on Thu Mar 18, 2004

Examine the core functions and responsibilities typically assigned to each department in a screen-printing company.


By Terry Combs

"How do I get my orders through the production process cleanly, efficiently, and without error?" Aside from scheduling concerns, this is a question I hear most often from screen printers. What owners and managers tell me about are the snags, the delays, and the confusion they face in the production flow. Many managers feel that if something can go wrong, their operations are primed and ready to allow it to go wrong. Facilities experiencing these problems often lack focus in two areas: the primary function of each department in the operation and the responsibility each department holds in completing its primary function.

Managers need to establish a clear definition of each department's primary function in the production process. We all multitask, but each of us also holds a position designed to accomplish a specific task. The primary purpose is not always well defined or understood. And without a definition, we find ourselves drifting away from our purpose and focusing on things that should be secondary to our jobs.

Managers also need to hold each department accountable for its responsibilities as they relate to production. After a job is defined, the responsibilities that come with that job are rarely explained or affirmed. In most companies, it's assumed that someone along the production line will catch mistakes and take care of a problems before a job gets too far through the production process. Each department assumes that an order or product is correct when it's received from the previous department in the workflow. This easy-way-out thinking leaves the production flow at risk of becoming an out-of-control train wreck.

Departments

Let's take a look at the various departments in a typical screen-printing shop and define the primary function for each.

Sales The primary function of the sales department is to generate sales to feed the production process. Its responsibility is to understand the schedule and the capabilities of the production department.

Order entry Entering orders accurately is the primary function of this department, and its responsibility is to be timely and to intercept potential questions and problems before allowing an order to move on.

Procurement Here, the primary function is to purchase goods for orders. The responsibility is to make certain that goods are on hand when needed, every time, for every order, no matter what.

Creative art The primary function in this department is to maintain clear communications with customers and create what the customers want. The responsibility is to meet completion deadlines and create graphics that lend themselves to textile screen printing.

Scheduling The scheduling department's primary function is to block out time to accomplish all the production functions for each order. The responsibility is to have an intimate understanding of how to estimate production time, as well as the capabilities of the production operation, and to know at all times where the schedule stands.

Production art The primary function of production artists is to prepare and deliver all film positives to the screen-prep department. Their responsibility is timely delivery and guaranteed correctness of the completed films, from spelling to registration.

Screen prep The primary function here is to prepare and deliver ready-to-use screens to the production floor. The department's responsibility is to verify mesh count and screen tension, as well as block-outs and taping. This department also must be able to replace screens quickly.

Print production Printing products is the primary function. The responsibility is to not only set up and print top-quality goods, but also to maintain the schedule by adhering to the estimated production time of each order.

Inspection The primary function in inspection is to examine each garment without hindering the pace of production. The responsibility is to make sure a quality product reaches the customer. This responsibility also includes willingness to stop production when anything about the order is in doubt.

Packing The primary function in the packing department is to label garments with the correct pricing and package them appropriately. The responsibility is to present the product to the customer in a way that meets the customers' expectations.

Shipping Here, the primary function is to deliver the finished goods to the customer. The responsibility of the department is to make the delivery within the specified time frame at the least cost to the printing company.

Production flow

Each order that reaches your hands has its own special requirements. For each, production time needs to be scheduled, supplies ordered, screens exposed, and so on, just as quickly as possible. This need for speed often contributes to inefficient order processing and rearrangement of the production schedule. As a result, orders tend to move in an erratic fashion through the production process.

Unless you've addressed efficiency issues recently, you probably have employees along the production line this very minute complaining about the movement of orders. "Joe is always sitting on these orders, and then it's my job to make up the time!" This frustrated employee could represent employees in any department of your operation. The complaint is nearly always the same: "No one seems to be concerned about taking care of the orders and the customers until the orders get to me!" This is generally not the truth. I have never witnessed an employee intentionally attempt to make the next person's job more difficult. More likely, the problem lies in the process and not in the people driving the process.

Also problematic is the tendency for orders to come to a halt several times during production while someone not directly involved with the process verifies the paperwork or some other aspect of the job. If the employees responsible for such stops are in a position of authority and want to see all the paperwork, but have no direct involvement in producing the order, photocopy the paperwork so that the originals and the job it refers to can continue to move through production. Owners and senior managers should not be excluded from seeing each order, but they need to avoid creating additional steps that might needlessly slow production.

No matter how efficiently your operation is, invariably you'll have departments waiting for the production steps to catch up to one another. There's very little that the screen-prep staff can do, other than have screens ready, until the art arrives. The price-and-pack employees can build boxes, but they can't package an order until the goods are decorated. If paperwork arrives in a department, but can't be processed until another department completes its own share of the work, the paperwork may very well be a waste of time and effort. You get the idea.

Nurturing responsibility

Your company "culture" should promote an attitude that every employee is responsible for the quality of the final product. The responsibility for the product is as much the procurement department's as it is the screen-prep staff's, the screen reclaimer's, the inspection team's, and so on.

As owners and senior managers, we often like to assume that everyone knows what part they play in creating a quality product. We like to believe that everyone knows they must do their part in the process to make the final product as perfect as can be expected, and we like to think that our employees will make the final product as close to what our customers expect as is humanly possible. But these assumptions will have no basis in reality unless we make "taking full responsibility" a part of our company culture.

Making responsibility a company-wide policy isn't just about inspecting finished goods for registration, pinholes, or correct sizes. These are important and specific functions, but whole-company responsibility encompasses broader goals, like making sure production flows smoothly and efficiently. It deals as much with inspecting for pinholes before production as it does in looking for them at the end of the dryer. Company-wide responsibility means employees take ownership of the entire production process.

Let's assume you've established some standard of acceptability for your finished goods, and that you've communicated this information effectively to your staff. If you haven't done so, then this should be step number one. Next, employees must understand that they are empowered to stop and question an order in process, no matter what stage of production it has reached. Based on my 25 years of experience in this industry, I've come to trust employees' gut feelings about the conditions of orders, even if everything seems to check out on the paperwork. Your employees naturally will have these gut instincts, and will use them, if you give them authority and encouragement to act.

Two things should happen after an order is stopped. First, if there is a mistake or quality issue, take action to correct the problem immediately. Also, make certain that all employees involved in producing that particular order are made aware of the situation. This is not an occasion for you to point out someone's ineptitude, but rather a situation you should use as a tool to make your staff aware of your company's standards. Everyone should have the opportunity to learn from the error so the same mistake is not repeated again and again.

Second, if there is no mistake, but someone felt it necessary to stop the process, make note of it on the order (along with the employee's initials). Noting this on the order makes everyone else aware that a question was raised and dealt with.

For example, imagine that a customer has used royal-blue ink in its logo for the past two years, but at a corporate level, has changed to navy blue. A note in order entry saying, "Customer has changed logo to navy," will keep every employee who remembers those previous orders from waving the error flag.

I spoke with a creative artist once who said, with frustration in his voice, "You're the fourth person to bring this order up here and ask that same question." A simple note on the order from the order-entry staff would have saved a lot of trouble and frustration. I wasn't pleased that the order had been stopped four times, but was incredibly impressed that three of my employees had taken the responsibility before me to ask the question.

What's your function?

Production success requires that employees understand their primary functions and the responsibilities that go with those functions. By clearly defining the roles employees are expected to play and their broader responsibilities, then empowering workers to take action when problems arise, you'll breed a company culture that will keep your operation efficient and your product quality at its best.


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