The Need for Speed

How to develop a faster approach to production.

As companies work through the process of developing the “next normal” due to the global pandemic, a few things have surfaced. Businesses are getting more work accomplished with less people, sales have dropped, and shops have retooled the way they work. I’m sure this hits home.

But what has simultaneously emerged is the pressure placed on apparel decorators to get orders out the door. Sales are coming back, which is great, but it seems like many customers are more impatient than ever. Either they aren’t planning, funding has suddenly appeared, or a project was just greenlit. Whatever the reason, they need the products now.

To compound the problem for many decorators, getting inventory or supplies shipped has been a headache as there is a disruption with our industry freight carriers. It’s not uncommon for a shipment to be days late, which only exacerbates the need for speed.

Rethinking Work

It may sound obvious, but in order to accelerate production in your shop you may need to change the way work gets handled. Your first step should be to focus on the type of work that you’re accepting. Let’s unpack that. This starts with clarity of purpose. What types of orders are you working hard to take? Not all sales are good sales. Some jobs are more profitable than others. If you want to increase work in your business, start by eliminating the less profitable and “busy” work from the mainstream. 

This could mean raising your quantity minimums, prices, or even simplifying the choices you offer your customers. Do some research into the orders you’ve been taking over the last several years. You’ll find a lot of turkeys in that bunch.

Before we talk about how to push things out faster in production, start by culling the herd of orders with jobs that don’t fit from a profit perspective. When these are eliminated, the time your crew was spending on these less-than-lucrative orders can now be spent on higher-value ones. Naturally, this means a better opportunity to develop speed in the system. 

Get those speedbumps out of the way. They aren’t making you money anyway.

Simplify

You may also want to consider simplifying some common choices that customers make. Maybe it won’t last forever, but there’s a disruption in the supply chain for garments and how they ship. Review your order history. Is there an apparel blank you seem to order most often for customers? Maybe even one with a higher margin? 

Instead of ordering the inventory for each order, what if you stocked some basic colors and sizes? White, black, sport grey, and perhaps a popular local color. Many shops even rebrand the 
apparel with a custom shop neck label as their “house brand.”

When a customer drops in at the last minute and wants something by Friday, shirts are already in-stock and waiting to print. Sure, you won’t have all the colors of the rainbow available, but if they’re more concerned with hitting a fast turn date, using what you have available rather than risking the uncertainty of ordering the inventory could be a great solution to their challenge.

Automate

Another challenge facing shops is the need for employees to be handling tasks. These days, you may be operating with a smaller staff, but everything still has to be accomplished. Applying the concept of automation to your production may help complete tasks, but with a leaner payroll.

Take a look at the steps that are needed to accomplish a certain task. Is there software, equipment, or an outsource partner that could handle one or more of those steps to free up time for your staff?

Here are some examples:

• Funnel order information from your website to your shop system. Synchronize it so there isn’t any 
data entry.

• Purchasing inventory for online bulk orders. Map it to your favorite apparel distributor so when the store closes, the goods are automatically purchased and shipped to you.

• Use barcodes or QR codes for common tasks. When someone needs access to the software, has to look up an order, needs to pull up art to run the job on a DTG press, or other common tasks, the scan will instantly complete the step. This saves time.

• Use software and apps like Timeular to keep track of time for data collection.

• Outsource with virtual assistants, receptionists, art teams, or other available companies to handle front-end chores without having actual employees. They’re paid by the task, not hourly.

• With equipment, such as automatic screen coaters, cleaning systems, or imaging systems, you can walk away and do something else while it’s working. For a screen room, this means you can multi-task and accomplish more with less labor.

Do It Right the First Time

There’s nothing worse than having to do something over because of a quality issue or some other error. In this industry, quality is crucial. Now more than ever. Make sure your leadership team is working constantly to elevate performance. Virtually all challenges can be mapped back to an employee not doing what they needed to do in the process.

It may sound weird, but when you want to build speed into the system sometimes it actually pays to slow down. Make sure something is exactly right before moving it forward. More often than not, many errors start with the information gathered for the order.

These questions may help you get your mindset right for quality: 

• Do you have clear expectations on the work that needs to be completed? What does success look like?

• Is there a fully developed creative brief for the art team, so they can build the design quickly and with few changes? 

• Can your production team handle their end without asking questions? 

• Does everyone understand their role and responsibilities and have the proper training to carry out the work?

When you circle back to the reasons why an expensive error happened, what you will find is that one of those questions leads to the reason. This is why “slow is fast” is often true. Take your time and do things correctly to speed up production.

Talent in Your Business

If you want to accelerate everything in your business you need to be investing in your people. I was talking to a shop owner the other day about his staff and the troubles he’s having with one of his team members. “Change your people, or change your people,” is what I told him.

Constantly do the work to elevate your team with training, support, and empowerment so they can continue to grow and develop. Some folks will take to it like a duck on water. Others will resist and find excuses to keep the old, bad habits going. If a team member isn’t part of a continuous improvement and learning culture, that’s a signal to replace them with someone who can be a better fit to what you’re building.

This is a very interesting industry in that it’s part art, craftsmanship, and science. Nobody has the ability to simply walk through the door and learn everything through osmosis. They have to be nurtured and developed. 

If you want to speed things up in your shop, you need to make this an on-purpose, constant endeavor. In each department, challenge your team on Mondays to make a change that will improve something by Friday. On Fridays, circle back and find out the results. This constant cycle of change can be a fantastic habit to have in your business.

You need your staff to be the source and brainpower behind improvements. As an owner or business leader, if you force things from the "top down" instead of actively having your crew involved, changes usually don't stick. Once you get your staff empowered and excited about making things better at their work, speed and efficiency follow. Remember, a person will support what they help create.

Speed Comes with Organization and Training

Just how organized is your shop? Is everything a staff member needs within easy reach and constantly available? Not just in production, but in other departments, as well.

Being organized is about creating the environment for the best work. Sure, it’s easy to just pile things anywhere initially, or not spend the time mentally thinking how the work should happen. But, in the long run that dedication to laziness creates the inefficiencies that build the friction points that will bring things to a halt. Each staff member’s number one job is to support the next person downstream and make their job easier. 

Internally, the folks downstream are your customers. How are you helping them succeed every day? Tiny habits of assistance cascade through your company and stack up with time savings.

Think about these things from an employee’s perspective:

• If I don’t have to walk over there to get something because you brought it to me that saves me time.

• If I have everything I need for my job, I don’t have to walk around the shop like a zombie looking for items.

• If the information is correct, and I’m trained on what to do, I don’t have to ask questions or permission to do my job.

• If the ergonomics of the work area are properly built, I can do my job better.

• If my supervisor is interested in me and my ability to grow and learn, I’m happier and feel like my contributions matter.

• If the workplace is kept clean, neat, and organized I can complete my tasks faster.

• If the company cross trains me in more departments and tasks I feel more valued.

Remember, you can fire lightning bolts down from Mount Olympus like Zeus and expect your team to blindly get in step, but that’s simply bad management. Speed comes from your team wanting to improve, not from you barking orders to work faster. Get your team involved, prioritize based on their ideas and start accelerating your shop today! 

Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, based in Mesa, Arizona. He coaches apparel decoration companies on operational efficiency, continuous improvement, workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management, and sustainability. He is a frequent tradeshow speaker, author, and host of two podcasts, as well as co-founder of the Shirt Lab educational company. He can be reached at marshall@marshallatkinson.com

Watch Marshall share his six tips for accelerating production. 
 

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