Mid-Year Check-In

Time to sit back, take stock, and apply three simple principles to make the second half of the year more productive.

I don’t know about you, but for me, the first half of 2018 blew by at Mach 4 speed. A snap of the fingers, click, and it was over.

But that leaves the rest of the year in front of us. It’s an uncharted horizon, and it’s a good time to take a step back from your business and look at how to improve things over the remainder of the year.

Got any plans? If you don’t, I want to run three ideas past you that could make a difference to your shop. They are fairly simple concepts, but sometimes difficult to execute. I’ll break each idea down to help you determine whether it could have a significant impact in how you run your business.

1. Discipline = Freedom
I’m borrowing this concept from my favorite book that I read last year, Jocko Willink’s Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALS Lead and Win. He wrote extensively about this principle in the book, and the concept is so simple that once I explain it, I bet you’ll be nodding your head in agreement – even though the two words may seem as though they are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Freedom is probably why you started your business in the first place. You wanted to be your own boss and run your company the way you want to: the choices you make, the customers you serve, the employees you hire. You’re an entrepreneur; you want autonomy.

However, the only way you get that freedom is by taking a professional, disciplined approach to things. If you want more financial freedom, then you need strong financial discipline. If you want loyal customers, then you must have the discipline to consistently serve them well. If you want fantastic employees, you need the discipline to train them well and treat them right. The word is almost a zen-like mantra that extends through everything you do.

But there is one area of your business that probably deserves to have this idea pushed to the front and center – time management and scheduling.

For printers, it’s the eternal struggle. Shops set all sorts of rules to make the schedule easy to understand or predictable. Often, something happens that disrupts the schedule, and jobs start going off track like so many dominoes falling. I’m sure you see the punchline coming: The key to keeping the train on the rails and functioning with precision is discipline. This means being proactive. Look into potential problems early and do what you have to do to minimize them.

What throws your schedule off track? Having analyzed this question in many shops, I know it typically isn’t the production work. It’s usually the support things needed to make production happen. The shirts aren’t in. Screens aren’t burned yet. Maybe an ink color needs to be mixed.

Take a look into why these things happen. For example, the order was entered in the system, but the blanks weren’t ordered for a day or two. Some of the sizes weren’t available from the closest distribution center and had to be shipped from two time zones away. Maybe on that one order, the screens weren’t burned and washed out yet. Sure, they’ll be ready in a bit, but that one delay starts the chain of events that leads to the entire schedule getting derailed.

Or maybe you don’t have the tools you need to keep production on schedule. Let’s say you have been talking about getting an ink mixing system for over a year now. Instead of spending five minutes mixing that quirky Pantone blue the client wants, you have spent over an hour struggling to make the batch. It still doesn’t look right, and you’ve wasted a gallon and a half of ink in your unsuccessful attempts. Meanwhile, shirts are still not getting printed.

Here’s how a disciplined approach can give you more freedom in your workflow. The day the order is entered into the system, the shirt blanks are ordered. If it is past the order cut-off time with your supplier, then the task is handled first thing in the morning. This gets the inventory moving to you faster.

Screens need to be ready and waiting on the screen rack one business day before the job is scheduled to print. This rule then dictates when the art should be approved, and subsequently when it should go out to the customer for the initial approval. Everything works backwards from the ship date. Your screen room has its daily work plan outlined with a prioritized list of jobs that meet this criteria.

But what about that ink mixing duty? It’s the same deal. Create a workflow that ensures ink will be mixed the day before the order is to start production. It certainly will go faster if you have the right tools, such as an ink mixing system. 

Establishing more discipline in how you operate your shop will allow things to happen when they should. However, the benefits go beyond that. Discipline gives everyone their marching orders on what to do next and an understanding of the importance of working ahead. It instills that proactive culture that you need. You’ll be able to handle more things each day while freeing yourself from the time-suck activities that aren’t producing value. How much time might you save over the remaining six months of 2018 by giving the concept a try? 

2. Can We vs. Should We?
This idea is going to revolutionize how your shop agrees to take orders. I’m sure you’ve recently done a job that turned out to either be a gigantic loser, or made such a negative impact on the production schedule that you were scrambling to catch up for weeks.

The solution is to ask hard questions about what business you should accept. Sure, you can take on a 10-color job for six shirts. You can accept an order that requires you to print with a technique you’ve never tried before on an expensive shirt. You can insert a rush order into an already backed-up schedule.

But take a step back and ask yourself: Should you be taking on these jobs? What would happen if you said no?

If you really want to dig into this concept, take a look at your orders from the last year or two. Download them into a spreadsheet and then sort them by sales total. If you follow the 80/20 rule, what you will find is that 20 percent of your total order count makes up about 80 percent of your revenue. The rest of the jobs, which amount to 80 percent of the work on your schedule, only bring in 20 percent of your money.

Check it out for yourself. Just data mine your history and I’ll bet you find that the 80/20 rule is true in your shop, too.

When you think about those time-intensive, low-revenue orders, they involve a lot of work for little gain. Should you be clogging up your schedule for those jobs, then? What if you avoided those turkeys and spent more effort trying to clone the orders that bring more value to your company?

For the remainder of the year, ask yourself that question before you agree to do something that you know in your gut you should avoid. 

3. The Voice of the Customer
You have heard this phrase before, right? If not, it’s easy to understand. It’s simply thinking about your company through the lens of how your best customers see things. Extending from how you answer your phone to how easy it is to do business with you, the voice of the customer can give you clarity about what you need to do better.

Take a snapshot of your company right now:

• How easy is it to order from your website?

• Are you constantly solving your customer’s number one pain points?

• Do you educate your customers about what you do?

• Is your staff instinctively responsive and helpful?

• Have you automated the interactions you know your customers want, such as sending tracking numbers after something ships so nobody has to ask?

• Do you ask your customers for their opinion on how you’re doing? Have you done it recently?

• Do your customers feel that you have their best interests and happiness at the forefront of everything you do? How do you know? 

More than likely, an unhappy customer won’t tell you that something is wrong unless you ask them. They will just use someone else next time. Sure, certain clients will complain, often loudly, when something doesn’t go as planned. But that’s not how things work for the majority of challenges.

Think about how you interact with other companies when you’re the customer for a minute. When customer service is off, do you ask to speak with a manager? If you’re like most people, you usually won’t. You find another store, restaurant, or business to use and never go back.

If a website is hard to use, do you send them a note? Again, probably not. You key in another search term and find a competitor.

Do you typically shop for the absolute lowest price and look for a bottom-drawer company for everything you need? That’s another “no.” We normally buy on emotion, the belief that a company understands us or makes us feel good.

So for the rest of the year (and beyond), think about how you use the voice of the customer to make decisions, to communicate, and maybe even to decide what products you offer. Start by getting in front of your customers and asking what they think. Listen carefully to what they have to say. If you do a good job having these conversations, then you absolutely won’t like some of what you hear. And that’s the real gold.  

When a customer is so forthright that they point out something you have never considered, express a major inconvenience in working with you, or suggest a change in direction, then what you’re hearing is opportunity disguised as criticism. Do something with those nuggets of information over the remaining 26 weeks of the year.

Read more from the June/July 2018 issue or check out more advice from The Marshall Plan.

View more from this Screen Printing issue