How to Improve Your Post-Production Workflow

Advice to ensure your print orders get to your customers on time every time.

Much attention is paid to identifying bottlenecks within the production workflow, but there seems to be less focus on what happens after the order is printed. For some shops, that’s where the wheels completely blow off the bus. They do a great job getting the order entirely produced, but for that long list of “extra” steps that come after printing – folding, polybagging, hang-tagging, drop-shipping, bundling, relabeling, stickering, etc. – it’s often a mess.

You don’t want to be one of those shops. Let’s go over some ways to streamline your post-production workflow – so you’ll be operating like a well-oiled machine in no time.

Start with the Basics

A critical concept to address right away? Time. How long does each step in your post-production process take?

Is there a time difference between hang-tagging shirts into the neck label, and doing the same work in the armpit seam? Oh, yeah. Considerably more, sometimes.

Work with conservative time averages for these steps. Sure, you might have a few rock-star employees who can bang out a hefty amount of work quickly, but what happens if they’re tasked with another project and a rookie steps in? It’s best to build in a moderate estimate for the time it takes to complete a job.

Grab a watch (or your phone) and time the action being performed for a bit. Not just one or two shirts, but observe a whole stack. Understand what happens if you add two or three more people to the project. 

Use this time average at order entry to estimate how long your shop needs to perform these tasks. If the order is large enough, it could take an extra business day or two to handle this step.

If you don’t build in time for every step of the process, the post-production team is often left scrambling to complete their jobs when a deadline is looming and production isn’t finished. 

Consider using real ship dates on your work order forms. In most shops, the ship date usually is made up or padded “to give extra time,” which is what every production manager will say. The truth is that everyone knows there’s more time so the “deadline” is missed.

If you use the real ship date in your system, the pressure is on to complete tasks earlier. Get your employees trained on this and change your system.

Get It Early

To get ahead in the post-production stage, you need to start and finish production earlier than you might think. Small orders don’t seem to clog up the works as much as the big ones.

This is going to be a team effort. You’ll need the art created and approved faster. The goods ordered, received, and staged earlier. The screens prepared. The job on the press and printed a few days early. If the entire process shifts, the shirts will be decorated and ready when the post-production team reaches for that project.

How is communication in your shop? Does your team work together, or is there plenty of finger pointing and blaming if something is amiss? 

Your customer doesn’t care who did what. All they’re concerned about is if their order looks great and ships 
on time.

The Importance of Ergonomics

Watch how people work. Where do they struggle? If you have to do something back-breaking and repetitive all day, by the end of your work shift you are going to be exhausted. 

Elevate the work so it’s comfortably accessible by using a table, not the floor. If the team needs tools, make sure they’re handy and within reach.

I’ve been to shops that have an area for kitting orders, and they use gravity roller conveyors to simply push the packaged orders down to shipping as they work. When not in use, they’re put away. 

Why is this important? Because their team can focus on getting the packages assembled instead of spending time trudging boxes back and forth to the shipping department.

The P Rule

Proper planning produces peak performance. This applies to every department of your shop, but most certainly in the post-production area. I’m a big fan of scheduling work properly at order entry. 

This means that if you have a 500-piece order that needs relabeling, hang-tagging, folding, and polybagging, 100 percent of that work is scheduled in advance in order for the department crews to complete their tasks. 

Let’s revisit the time tracking mentioned previously. If you have these in a spreadsheet or table you can refer to, you’ll know the approximate amount of time it should take to handle that workload.

Back up your decoration production so the order will be ready for post-production on the appropriate day. Everything needs to be scheduled out at order entry – not two hours before the UPS truck is backing up. 

This also means other departments have to adhere to this schedule, too. The art department has to keep up with their end, just like receiving and purchasing. Again, it’s a team effort.

Manual or Automated?

Think about eliminating steps in your process. How would you do it?

Some shops lengthen their dryer belt on the back end so the shirts coming down the belt are hang-tagged and stickered there. With a manual flip fold, they’ve been squared away and polybagged. In a few moments, they’re in a box.

Of course, that doesn’t work with all orders, as anything with polyester content would need to be completely cooled. But, you can see the elegant simplicity of touching the shirts once instead of folding them and moving the process off to another department.

Other shops have automated machines to handle those tasks. Not every order has post-production needs, so if a certain number of your orders do, it’s better to stage them separately in a different area.

My advice is to look for specific bottlenecks. Where are things backing up? Can you do it another way? Every shop is different – there are space, money, and labor considerations to take into account. You need to find what works for your shop.

Drop Shipping

This is a special skill unto itself. Find the most organized person on your team to help manage shipping. It can be a nightmare. If you’re lucky, each address on the list gets full cases of shirts. But that’s like expecting the peanut-buttered side of the bread to land face up when dropped. It typically doesn’t happen that way.

Instead, the client probably wants a dozen shirts to go out to 843 separate addresses, three of each in four sizes. Instead of counting one, two, and then three for each size, have the job caught at the end of the belt in groups of three. When packing the job, simply grab that short stack of three shirts from each of the four size piles. These are then placed into the box and sealed.

Sometimes, every single shipment of that 843 address order has different quantities. Ouch.

If you’re using a spreadsheet, do things one at a time and cross them off as you go. Be organized. Use a ruler or blank sheet of paper to cover up the rows underneath what you’re fulfilling at the time. 

It pays to count and double-check. If you feel there’s even a slight chance there was a mistake, count again. Don’t let your client discover the problem for you.

Shipping

To me, anything that ships correctly and on time is like scoring a touchdown for our team. If the order doesn’t ship correctly or is late, that’s like driving the length of the football field only to fumble the ball on the one-yard line.

If you can, schedule all of your work to be completely finished and ready to ship one business day before the ship date. This gives your shipping team adequate time to do their job. 

Keep things organized. If you are drop shipping 843 packages to different addresses, you can preprint those labels and have them ready when it comes time to box up the items. This helps in keeping things from being mis-shipped.

If you have multiple packages that need to ship together, but coming from different departments, be sure to have a “ship with” purgatory area. Here’s where you can store completed items while you’re waiting for the rest of the shipment to be prepared.

For cost-cutting exercises that still offer a high level of service, look into using services like UPS SurePost or FedEx SmartPost if you’re sending out e-commerce fulfillment orders.

The three most important shipping considerations:

  • Packaging size and weight It’s all about the dimensional weight these days. Examine the difference between the size and weight of your smallest, lightest box/package to your largest, heaviest box/package. Work with your shipper to determine the right choice.
  • Shipping destinations Domestic only? International? What do you need to know to ship to another country? Make sure you have a good understanding of the rules.
  • Options for shipping What are the best services or carriers for your needs?

Leadership

You need a strong leader if you’re handling a lot of post-production work. Someone needs to oversee the action and ensure things are happening correctly. 

Build your processes. Schedule the work. Train your crew.

Set clear expectations on what has to happen. Better results are achieved when everyone knows the rules and understands how to achieve success, together. 


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.

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