Catch the Chicken

catch-the-chicken

Speed.

What is the average production turn-time your shop?

Remember Rocky II, the movie?

Sure, 1979 was a long time ago…but I’ll bet you remember this one.  Rocky fights a rematch with Apollo Creed, and has to go through an uncomfortable change to defeat the champ.  The trick is simply to become a faster fighter.  He starts this training by having to chase and catch a live chicken.  Yes, a chicken.

Did you watch it?  If not, Netflix and chill my friend.

Of course, Rocky resists the idea of change.  At one point the wise-old trainer Mickey gruffly lectures Rocky and says “Chicken chasing is how we used to train in the old days!  If you catch this thing, you can catch greased lightning!”

Then, the fun ensues with Rocky, slow and clunky, runs around the alley to grab the quick moving bird.  Watch the video clip here.

So how does this relate to your company you may ask?

In the current business climate, you need to be able to catch the chicken.  Simply put, does your shop possess greased lightning production turn speed?

Slow = Death

One thing that the online business economy has created is the craving for ever-faster delivery times.

It’s the chicken scrambling around the yard clucking.  Bock. Bock. Bock. Bock.

Nobody is patient any more.  Including me.

These days customers can go online and in a click or two get the order filled and shipped in a few days.   Especially in the decorated apparel industry.  Trust me, as special as you think you are…there are tons of shops out there that do it better than you.  You need to be able to compete.

If you are still clinging to the seven-to-ten business day model, you may be in for a rude awakening soon.

How are you ever going to knock out the champ?

Ten days?  Some shops have it down to a five or seven day turn.  Online powerhouse Merch by Amazon is now shipping in two to three days.

Now, that’s chicken-chasing!

Mickey knew that speed would defeat Apollo Creed.  Rocky’s superior strength didn’t do it the first time around.

Production turn-time speed is the weapon that you can use to gain more business.  Even if you can’t quite handle the less than five business day turns.  (Yet)

Improving this area of your shop can have tremendous benefits.

Just like Rocky, you’ll need some help to finally grab that bird.  Below are some ideas that will challenge you to think about how you can decrease the gap from order taken to order shipped.

Ready?  Let’s go!

Order Entry

It all starts here.

Plenty of speedbumps occur at this phase of the game.  Information is missing.  Customers are indecisive.  Employees have to slog through a confusing system or make mistakes along the way.

Name most any problem that takes your foot off the production gas pedal, and I’ll bet it could be resolved in just how you enter an order.

In your shop, what are the main sticky points that prevent things from happening faster?  Have you ever bothered to list them and investigate?

Let’s face it, we are in the custom production order business.  Even though the orders are all getting the same type of decoration, they are usually completely different from one another.  Even reorders tend to have different quantities and size spreads.

Using the same starting point and order entry methodology gets you to create the answers faster and know what to ask for if something is missing.

Standardize this part of the workflow.  Make it easy for your crew downstream to do their jobs.

This means training your front office staff and equipping them with the knowledge base to make good, chicken-chasing fast, decisions.  They are your first line of defense for the rest of the shop.

What orders are you taking?  When is something due?  How does it fit with the rest of the current production schedule?  Is that a four color or an eight color job?  Can you print a logo on the waist band of some yoga pants?  What thread color is a tonal match for Nike Anthracite?

Blah, blah, blah.  It’s a never ending stream.  But that stream of questions shouldn’t ever be answered by your production teams.

Anything that could hang up production later on must be resolved before the order is entered.

Cramming an incomplete order into the system and hoping it works itself out along the way is a recipe for disaster.  Ready, Fire, Aim doesn’t work.

If you want all of the other departments in your shop to work faster, you have to set them up for success by providing them with the answers to the test.

When anyone has to stop and ask “hey what’s this mean?”, it means the order wasn’t entered correctly.  Solve it long before they ask.  Yes that means you.

Make A Change

Having trouble getting the right information to make the order complete?

Other industries have solved this problem by pushing the challenge back onto the consumer.  How many times have you filled out a form online where the fields were mandatory and you couldn’t proceed to the next step until you entered the information?  

Why can’t our industry adopt this mindset?

This can be as simple as having an order entry form on your website or a work kiosk in your shop lobby for customers to use.  What is it worth to you to have the information in your system without any data entry on your part?  How much time and labor savings would that create?

Just set it up that way.  It’s your shop.  Your rules.

For companies that have customers that use Purchase Orders, you could incentivize them by offering a faster turn time, free screens or even a monetary incentive to use your system.  What you want is the information getting into your production funnel faster with more accuracy.

Think beyond the empty order form box.  What do you need to get the order information complete?  Are you asking the right questions?

Inventory

Another crucial cog in the chicken-chasing machine is how you are handling inventory.

For many shops, they are geographically blessed with being a one day ground ship from major apparel distributors.  Order Monday.  Shirts delivered Tuesday.   Simple.

That essentially solves most inventory-based production time challenges.  Unless of course, they are out of stock on an item or size and it has to ship from across the country.  Then, that can throw everything off.

Some shops aren’t so fortunate.  They may be two days or more from these distribution centers or in a more remote area.

Solving that challenge usually means stocking an assortment of brands, colors and sizes.  Like restaurants with house wines, shops have go-to stock shirts they have on hand.

The most popular t-shirt colors will always be White, Black, Sport Gray, and the local team colors.  Currently the trend is pushing popular style colors into heathered varieties.

Getting all of these choices into one area of the shop could be a footprint challenge.  Not to mention the hassle of actually taking care of the inventory.  Figure it out if this can make your shop faster.

For a better customer service experience, do your research and know how long it takes to get the inventory in for the best selling and popular brands, styles and colors that you are going to offer.  Make this information available.  Your goal is to compress the shirt delivery time for orders as much as you can for a lion’s share of your work.

It doesn’t have to be a crazy assortment either.  What if you just stocked white or black in one brand?  Do some data mining in your system and determine if that makes sense just from the color standpoint alone.

“Sure Mr. Customer we can order these black t-shirts, but if you go with our stock Gildan (or insert your shirt of choice), we can produce that order a few days earlier.”

Would that make a difference?

Plenty of customer driven production programs are built by ordering in a larger stock of items and then pulling from that for daily or weekly orders.  Shirts in the building means immediate production capabilities.

Press two, no waiting…

Manage the Inventory

One of the biggest hangups with keeping a production schedule tight lies with how the inventory is being managed.  You can’t decorate shirts unless they are counted, received and staged.  How good is your crew in this area?  Clean, organized and efficient?  Good at math?  The good at math part is essential by the way.

A good rule of thumb to follow, is that the inventory has to be checked in the day it arrives.  All shirts are counted and inspected against the vendor’s packing list.  The packing list is then reviewed against the system order information.  If everything is complete, the job is marked as such and then staged for production.  Challenges with counts, color, styles or damages have to be reported immediately and acted upon.

Want faster shop speed?  Get your inventory under better control.  Don’t leave it to chance.

Art

As you know in the decorated apparel industry we don’t ship many blank shirts.  There has to be some sort of image applied to the garment.

That something comes from the talent and skill of your art team.  While some artists  can work faster, the friction point for turn-time speed doesn’t usually rest with these folks.

The problem for getting art approved almost always is with the customer.  In your shop is it any different?

Some shops are using a new app called Instaply to get these approvals opened and approved immediately.  I wrote about this in my Shop Tech Solutions article a few weeks ago.

How are you managing this process?  The faster you can get from order entry to art approval, allows you more time for the production crew to work their magic.

Some more points to consider:

First, if you are constantly having to make multiple changes to designs before they can get approved, something isn’t quite right with your process.

  • Sales people are notorious for the “Do something cool” set of instructions.  Or, my other non-favorite, “just do two or three designs and they’ll pick the one they like the best.”  Can you say lazy?  You are better than this.  Why do two or three times the work for one order?  Dumb.
  • The second is just a picky client.  There are people out there that always have to make a change as that denotes “control”.  Nothing much you can do about that, except try to reign in these folks by getting hyper detailed instructions from the onset.  Shoot them layout thumbnails that you’ve scribbled together early.  Bring them along in the process so that control urge is sated, and the final art approval comes faster as they have already made their changes known.  They just want to taste the soup and say add more salt.

Production 

To increase production turn-time speed you need to look at a few areas.

First, where are the bottlenecks?

Maybe you have room on your machines, but you are waiting on the files to be digitized or screens to be burned.  Maybe you have the job set up, but your crews are waiting for someone to get that PMS 3005 blue mixed.  Maybe you’ve produced a sample, but need the client to approve it before running the order.

I’m sure you can not only relate, but can name your top issues as fast as you can name your children.  The point is that you need to resolve those challenges to increase your speed.  Are you doing anything about them really?  Most shops know they have problems, but lack the willpower or knowledge base to squash them.

Get more people trained to digitize embroidery files.  Buy an LED CTS screen system.  Have inks mixed the day before the job is to run.  Have sample orders created as their own jobs separate from the production order.  When the sample is approved the clock starts on the real one.

Next, look at your equipment and staff.  Do you have enough of both?  Are they the right kind?

Typically, newer equipment and seasoned staff members work better and faster.  Is that what you have in the shop now?  Or, are you making do with used fifteen year old machines and a bunch of temporary workers that don’t know anything?

Want greasy chicken-catching speed?  Maybe it’s time to rethink your production equipment and staffing strategy!

Make It Easy

Catching a scared chicken can get easier if you corner it.  Then, it doesn’t have anywhere to go and you can reach down and just grab it.

Increasing speed in your shop is the same way.  Just make it easier for people to do the right thing.

How many more turns a day in your embroidery department do you think you get if you brought pre-hooped shirts to the machine and just lined them up?  Can’t afford a gazillon hoops?  How about just adding one more person to the production table to hoop?  Especially on low stitch count jobs.  Those always go quick.

You can even think about how you stage things.  Line up everything needed by each of the production workstations, in the order that they need to be produced.  Take the “what are we doing next” question off of everyone’s lips.

This means that you need to be proactively looking ahead.  Imagine the joy and delight your production crews will have when everything they need is two feet away.  Someone stages the shirts, ink, thread, samples, work order documents, approvals and anything else needed to run the job.

It’s just magically there ready to go.

Repeat After Me:

Today’s production is set up yesterday.  Tomorrow’s production is set up today.  That’s your new mantra.

The push is to constantly get things out early.  The earlier the better.  Jobs that have to ship today should be produced yesterday.  Two days ago or more is even better.  Go!  Go!  Go!

What do you have to do in your shop to get to that level?  Is this something you are even discussing?  Or are you the shop that had the job that was supposed to ship Thursday, but it didn’t go out until the following Tuesday?  In fact, the client had to call and ask when it didn’t show up on Monday.

That’s not doing you any favors.

What are you willing to do to build speed?  Are you happy with just watching the chicken run around?  Bock.  Bock.  Bock.  Bock.

Other shops are training in the alley to grab the chicken.  Here’s what they are doing:

  • Investing in production technology.
    • Digital printing on garments means zero screens.
    • If you use screens, Computer to Screen technology means screens ready to wash out incredibly quickly.  M&R’s STE handles it in under a minute per screen.
    • Automated coaters means perfect emulsion on screens.  For better flow, buy the one that coats two screens at a time.
    • Instead of one overbooked single head embroidery machine, what about several lines of eight or twelve head machines?
    • Paperless production.  How much time would you save if you never printed another piece of paper again?  Think about the effort you spend right now walking paper around your shop.  What if that went away?
    • Touch screen monitors on the floor.
    • Managers with tablets.
    • Barcodes on boxes.
    • Everything in the cloud.
  • Shop operating software.  This stuff has been out there for a long time.  Are you still using whiteboards and spreadsheets?  Do you use an abacus instead of a calculator?  Did you remember to tie up your horse when you rode into work today?  Seriously, time to modernize don’t you think?
  • Limiting choices.  Build your business plan and focus on developing things so they make sense.  Why worry about struggling with printing that yoga pants waistband order when your main customer is servicing rock band tour merchandise?  Let some other shop have that job and keep your schedule uncluttered.  Or just outsource it and still make the money.  Use your noggin’.
  • Eliminate clutter.  A clean shop is a faster shop.  Being a slob slows you down.
  • Quality is job one.  Doing it right the first time is always faster than a million miles an hour and wrong.  Redoing anything is a waste of time.  Measure twice, cut once.
  • Focus on technique.  In our industry, it’s the science behind the craft that drives the results.
  • There are 24 hours in a day.  How much of that time are you producing? Want to drop your published turn times by several days?  What about more shifts?  What would you need to build that?
  • Look at your downtime too.  During each shift, how much of that is actually decorating a shirt?  Are you measuring?  What’s your up-time percentage?  If you don’t know, why not?
  • Hiring better staff.  You get what you pay for.  When you only hire minimum wage folks, you get minimum wage thinking.  Don’t think you are saving any money by being cheap.  Maybe that’s what is holding you back.
  • Setting standards and building staff training programs.  Decide how you want your business to work and train on it.  When everyone is on the same page you move faster.

Getting faster in anything is a culmination of a lot of work.  Trying and tweaking many things is going to produce the results you want.  Eliminate the wasted steps.  Ask why a lot.  It’s going to be a team effort.  It can’t be just the owner or a manager barking orders.

Teamwork will drive your success.

Then the victory phrase is “Winner, winner…chicken dinner.”

.

“Life is like a ten speed bicycle.  Most of us have gears we never use.” – Charles M. Schultz

“The speed of the leader is the speed of the gang.” – Mary Kay Ash

“When you call upon a thoroughbred he gives you all the speed, strength of heart and sinew in him.  When you call upon a jackass, he kicks.” – Patricia Neal

 

 

 

 

3 Polyester / Performance Production Secrets

polyester-performance-secrets

What is one of the number one growth area in the decorated apparel industry?  Performance and Athleisure wear.  The good news is that your shop can benefit directly from this boom by decorating on these trendier tech apparel blanks.  Maybe you already are, and that’s great.  There is better margin in them too; as they prove to be more difficult for some lesser educated or experienced shops to handle.  I’ve talked to plenty of new customers over the years that left their previous decorator because the white ink turned pink on some red polyesters shirts (see the picture above – does this look like your handiwork?), and the printer didn’t take responsibility for the challenge.  

In their clumsiness is opportunity.

However, it’s really not that difficult to get your shop dialed in to print this stuff if you have the right mindset and attention to detail.  Below are a few things to consider when printing on polyester performance apparel.  

First, let’s take a look at the fabric of these shirts.  Polyester performance fabrics are synthetic.  They feel and print differently than a cotton or even a 50/50 shirt.  A good bit of the time they are just 100% polyester, but sometimes there is another percentage of a stretchable thread woven into the garment to give it some added elasticity.  These garments are made for active people doing things, and are being sold for their moisture-wicking properties.  Garments are usually very lightweight, slinky, and if you have ever tried to fold a stack of these…hard to deal with sometimes.  (Mine always look like my kid did the laundry.)  But at the end of the day, they are just shirts.  You just need to dive deep into the proper technique in how to print them.

What Sticks Out

So what’s the biggest issue with printing on polyester performance apparel?  Dye migration by a mile.  This is when the dye of the fabric leaches up through the lighter printed inks in the design, causing a unwanted color shift.  It sucks.  Mainly because this doesn’t happen in front of you, but quite often in the box while it’s on it’s way to the customer.  It’s a time bomb.  You think your print looks great.  They think it’s a disaster.  Get ready for some yelling, followed by some major butt kissing.  

It doesn’t have to be this way though.  Here’s the secret to your success in three easy steps:

  1. Control the heat.  
  2. Use the right ink.  
  3. Be careful.

That’s it.  Ok, article over…right?  Not so fast.  Let’s dive into these a bit and see what they mean.

Control the Heat

Where shops start traveling down the wrong road is not looking carefully at how they are using heat in the process.  It’s the best thing you can do, and the one that’s most ignored.  I think by now most everyone is adept at least using a low-bleed, high opacity ink for polyester. (Uh, right?)  The big speedbump is not thinking it through and looking at the cumulative effect of the temperature and dwell times of the flash units, and the temperature and belt speed of the dryer.  It all adds up.  A lot of ink gets blamed for not working, but instead it was a heat issue that should be called out instead.

In your shop do you emphasize this on polyester print production orders?  Is there any discussion before the job starts?  Does your shop have a special note or call to action to do anything different? 

“WATCH THE HEAT!” or “POSSIBLE DYE MIGRATION ISSUES!”.  Some gigantic alarm trigger on the work order?  Be careful!

Probably not.

Most low bleed inks cure at 270-290 degrees.  Regular plastisol inks cure at 320 degrees.  Now look at the temperature setting on your dryer right now.  350?  375?  400?  Be honest. 

While we know that the temperature gauge only measures the ambient temperature in the chamber, and not the actual temperature of the ink as it’s going down the belt…the only way to know for sure is by testing with a donut probe.  If your shop doesn’t have one of these gadgets, order one today.  I’m not kidding.  

The probe is shaped like, you guessed it, a donut.  The crossed wires inside the probe are placed on the wet ink on the shirt going down the belt.  Want to control the temperature exactly for your job?  Measure this and adjust your dryer so you hit the right number you need.  Remember, these inks cure at the exact moment they hit their cure temp.  Added heat doesn’t cure them any better or give you any sort of boost.  For polyester, you are just exponentially adding more danger to the job with every degree higher than the cure temperature of the ink on the shirt as designed by the ink manufacturer.  Dial that dryer heat down and save yourself some frustration later.

So what’s the second biggest issue?  

Hot polyester shirts falling off the belt and going into a box/hamper, getting placed in a big stack on the catcher table, or worst of all – going straight into a box for shipping.  

Any one of these three scenarios all produce the same result, which is just continually baking the shirts.  If you have ever gotten a weird pattern in your printed ink and can’t figure out where that crazy Shroud-of-Turin-like image came from, this is what happened.  Your Betty Crocker Cardboard Box Shirt Oven was still on.  Ut oh.

The cure for this is to stack the shirts coming down the belt into three or four piles on the dryer table.  As shirts come down, pull the next one from the belt and place it on the next stack in the row.  Have a fan blowing air on these shirts.  Keep working the rows and stacks and the hot shirts will go on top of the cooled ones.  Never hot on hot.  Your number one goal is to get them to be cool to the touch as quickly as possible.  If you can feel any heat at all, do not place them in a box for shipping until they don’t have any residual heat leftover.  

Also, make sure they are cooled completely down before printing another location.  Polyester shirts should never drop off a dryer belt and into a hamper or box.  Either get a better trained catcher, or give them some help.  These shirts aren’t cheap to replace, and neither is a customer leaving you because your catcher can’t keep up.  If you are a one man shop printing polyester shirts that day, bring in your neighbors’s kid or your wife or someone to help on that job.

Use the Right Ink

So let’s talk about ink.  While I purposely don’t name manufacturing brands much, as I try to stay neutral on this blog, I feel it would be a disservice to not mention my favorite dye-migration Force Field, which is the Wilflex Epic Performance Underbase Gray and Epic Performance White system.  Yes, I purposely used the words “Force Field”.

These two, when used together, hit home runs every single time and absolutely control any dye-migration challenges.  They even block out sublimated camo, stripes or other patterns in sublimated patterned polyester apparel.  

digi-camo-white-demo

The gray is incredibly thick though.  Use a drill or mixer and work the ink in the bucket before using to get the viscosity better.  It prints easier when it’s been a little active.  (Like me in the mornings after three cups of coffee.)  The white is so good you won’t need a highlight white.  The image above is just the UB Gray, Performance White, & Red.  Also, if you have a roller squeegee, be sure to use that in the underbase cool down station after the first flash.  You should be doing that anyway, but for polyester printing it really give the underbase layer a smooth and perfect foundation surface for other colors to drop down on.  These inks are a little more expensive that other inks formulated for the same purpose…but if used correctly you will never have an issue.  

How much is peace of mind worth anyway?

Lots of shops have fantastic results printing with waterbase and silicone ink too.  Waterbase ink has a alien sounding “Bleed Blocker Black” that is used instead of white.  I’ve done some performance testing with red polyester shirts and with a black underbase and white top screen, and printed a great looking result.  Soft hand, with fantastic stretch. 

Silicone works great too, but has a more rubbery feel and you have to absolutely flash after every color.  A lot of the shirts that Nike or the other shoe companies put out are printed with Silicone ink.  This ink is much more expensive than plastisol or waterbase, but has some excellent print properties.  It works with a catalyst, so it’s a two part system with a limited pot life.  For the right production application, this is perfect.

While we are discussing ink, we should talk about design if we can.  For the most part these types of shirts are used for some sort of athletic, sports, yoga, or purpose for people moving and sweating. Or just getting up off the couch to go get another beer because the game is in commercial.  (I’ll have one too!)   It absolutely doesn’t do anyone any favors to utilize this type of performance shirt and then print some gigantic design that covers 100% of the available area.  

Get your creative team to consider the user and work the “purpose” of this type of garment into their design thinking.  Maybe instead of a full front, a center chest might be ok.  What about instead of a huge solid circle of white, the designer just used an outline of the circle, and selected that to be a darker color that won’t even need to be underbased?  Want to control your dye migration?  Start with limiting the chance by minimizing the lightest colors from your crayon box.  Sure, I understand that sometimes you have to use white, yellow or whatever…but if you can rethink how these are being used you are protecting your shop from a possible problem later on.  Your client doesn’t have to know that.  They just want something “that looks cool”.  I’m sure your creative team can handle it.

Be Careful

Bullet List of Tips & Tricks – hey, add your own in the comment section!

  • There are plenty of low cure additives you can use.  These make your existing inks usable so you don’t have to buy new.  Follow the manufacturer’s specific instructions on the percentage to mix in.  It will be by weight.  Don’t guess.  Use a scale.
  • If you use a low cure underbase, the colors printed on top should be low cure too.  Nothing is worse than having a great underbase and the rest of the printed ink sloughing off the shirt after a wash.  Do it right.  See above.
  • Plastisol usually cures at 320.  Low bleed inks usually cure at 270-290.  Use a donut probe and make sure you are hitting your temperature numbers.  You know why now, right?
  • Use screens with good tension (above 30 newtons), with the proper mesh count for usage in the print.  140 – 160 for underbase should be ok.  Not enough ink?  Look at your EOM, or maybe drop your mesh count down to a 110.  230 – 305 for colors. 230 for a highlight white if you need it.  Remember for colors printed over a flashed underbase, the thinner the deposit – the less flash dwell time needed.  This prevents the shirt from getting too hot.  Control that heat.
  • Spackling the shirt with so much ink to “cover” the fabric and hope you build it up enough to prevent the migration, not only makes the print feel like you stapled a cardboard box to the shirt, but will take forever to flash or dry.  Which means that your brain tells you to increase the dwell times to compensate for that.  So you add more heat, and increase the likeliness of the problem you are trying to prevent.   That’s a dog chasing it’s tail.  Stop. It. Please.
  • Optimize your print with perfect pressure and squeegee angle.  You want the print sitting on top of the shirt, not driven into it like a nail.  If you can see your print on the press platen, you have too much pressure.  A thinner deposit cures faster and requires less flash dwell time too.  Yes, it’s a recurring theme.
  • For longer runs, as your production day goes on be sure to reduce your dwell times on your flashes as your boards heat up.
  • Bold strong ink colors won’t have much of a problem with dye migration.  No, you don’t have to underbase the navy or black to print on a lime green polyester shirt.  Yes, I’ve seen artists do that.
  • Be careful with unrecognizable inventory.  If you haven’t printed on that particular brand or color before, treat it like it’s going to be your worst nightmare.  (Because it is)  Print a sample at the end of a shift and let it sit overnight. Better still, schedule it for a Friday afternoon and let it sit all weekend.  If it looks great on Monday, you’ll know you did it right!  If not, retrace your steps and find out what happened.  Next step?  Give it a wash test too!
  • Of course this means that either you’ll have to start that job earlier, or get more time from your customer.  Your choice…but you can do it if you properly plan.  “Proper Planning Permits Peak Performance”
  • A lower cost alternative is to use athletic base polyester inks, such as Wilflex Epic Top Score.  This ink is engineered for athletic apparel.
  • In production watch your team’s transition between printing 100% cotton to polyester and back again.  Also, what happens if you change the dryer temp and belt speed for that job, but you have another press stationed for that dryer?  Be sure those jobs on the neighboring press are being cured properly too.  These failures occur most when shops are extremely busy and nobody has time to think…or when shops are slow and nobody is thinking because they are bored.  Ok then, you got me.  These problems happen when nobody is thinking.  There, I said it.  Pay attention!
  • If you have multiple presses in your shop, try designating one of them to be the “Poly-Crew”, and all of these types of jobs are routed there for production.  It’s easier to schedule.  You’ll have a trained crew that will be the masters of the technique.  Work in other crew members for training occasionally so you can broaden your knowledge base.
  • A lot of buckets of white ink look the same, especially from across the shop.  Try wrapping blue painters tape around the Polyester White bucket handle, so at a glance from twenty feet away you can tell what white to grab.  If your crew has ever used the wrong white for a poly job, you’ll understand the need to this easy visualization to mark the correct bucket.  There is nothing worse that seeing pink in areas that should be white just because the wrong ink was loaded in the screen.
  • Review the garment label for thread properties.  Beware of stretch in the garment.  Especially with how you load the shirt.  Circle designs become egg shaped quickly.  You can’t blame that on the ink either, as much as some people would want to.

So are you a master at printing on this type of garment?  If not, do some research by trial and error and perfect your process.  If you are, shout it from the rooftops!  There is a lot of demand for this type of work, and not everyone does it well.

If you have a Pinterest board, gallery on your website, or other social media platforms be sure to regularly post polyester or performance print jobs so new customers can see that you have the chops to handle their order.  

After all, not everyone is going to do it right like you!

For Want Of A Nail

for-want-of-a-nail

How many times has an order or something gone wrong in your shop and you thought to yourself, “Hey, we are better than this!  How did that happen?”

This type of situation reminds me of that old Ben Franklin parable:

     “For want of a nail the shoe was lost,

       For want of a shoe the horse was lost,

       For want of a horse the rider was lost,

       For want of a rider the battle was lost,

       For want of a battle the kingdom was lost,

       And all for want of a horseshoe-nail.”

When you trace back how your challenges happen it usually comes down to some seemingly small detail that is overlooked or a task that is so common that people just quit doing it correctly for some unexplained reason.  

Apathy?  Lazy?  Untrained?  Too harried?  All four?

Then all hell breaks loose when your client is on the phone and something is amiss.  Not good.

Let’s take a look a few basic things that tend to get overlooked in a production environment:

Instruction Details

The age old problem.  One salient point of the order somehow didn’t make it onto the Work Order and in the process throws the whole thing off.  Now production doesn’t have it ready, and it won’t ship in time.  When the customer service rep is asked about it later they say, “Well, I sent Fred an e-mail”.  

You’ve heard that before from your staff, right?

Deflecting and blaming others doesn’t solve the problem.  If information is missing or something changes like a shipping address or the quantity of mediums for the order, you have to get up out of your chair and go make sure it’s right.  This means talking to someone or even replacing some of the work order documentation.  Do it right then.  The only way to be 100% sure is to check.  Insist on excellence.

Also, the deflection game is a bad habit.  Your customers aren’t going to single out someone in your company and say, “Well, it was Fred.  You know him!”  They are going to blame the entire company as a whole.  If they are mad enough, they will take their business somewhere else.  

Not to mention, they will tell everyone they know about the problem.  Then whatever dumb problem Fred missed is the reputation your entire company is going to be painted with by a lot of people.

I hate to break it to you, but other companies know how to print or embroider a shirt.   Maybe even better than you.  Don’t let the internal finger pointing get out of control.  

Get a sense of urgency and accountability established instead.  Work with a team mindset.  When one order goes awry, it’s the entire company’s problem.  Band together and solve your issues before they make it out the door.

For want of a detail, the order was lost.

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Color Matching

How many shops have a Pantone book available within easy reach for their press crews?  

And by easy reach, I’m not referring to the five year old, dog eared copy in the art department which your artist hangs onto like it was solid gold.  (Or worse you hear, “Hey, has anyone seen the PMS book?”)

Why is this important?  

Trust me, your clients are going to check the colors.  Especially when you print over an underbase.  Doubly so if you are one of the dozen or so shops on the planet that can still get away with charging for a PMS match.  If you are charging, it better be perfect.  It better be perfect anyway, but you understand what I mean.

Any brand manager worth their salt is going to look.  It’s pretty hard to explain why you didn’t hit the color and that “we’re close”.  It always sounds lame.   In reality, nobody ever checked…they just printed what was labeled on the bucket.  Don’t try to pass that off, your customer doesn’t believe you anyway, as they have the printed results in front of them as proof you missed the easy lay-up.

Even if the ink color is perfect, plenty of things can influence the final print.  Mesh count and EOM, squeegee durometer and pressure, printing over an underbase, even the shirt color.  Don’t get lulled into sleep with the lazy “we used the right bucket of ink” argument.  

What’s on the shirt is all that matters.

Do you know what is going out the door of your shop every day?  Do you have procedures in place that someone is checking and signing off on the job?  Does your quality control program consist of just crossing your fingers?

What is the number one reason why more printers DON’T check to see if their color matching is accurate?  

You guessed it, the PMS book isn’t easily available.  Nobody wants to walk “all the way over there” so they just think, “Looks good to me…”  Of course when that job is rejected they aren’t personally eating the cost either, so what do they care?  If you don’t demonstrate that it is important enough to provide them with the correct tool to gauge the printed color hue, I could argue you don’t care enough either.  

Get a brand new one (yes, with all the numbers out of order so you have to use the index in the back) and keep it within about five footsteps away.  Make a special place for it at each work group, and use that same set-up on all presses in the shop.  

Ideally every press should have one, but at $123 or so it can get expensive.  I would recommend having at least one for each dryer, so that makes it available for two autos at least, with a manual thrown in there if you can squeeze it in.  

Make sure you are checking at each set-up, in clear natural light (use the flashlight on your phone for a quick tip to see how your light color can shift when checking), and signing off on the Work Order by someone responsible AND the press operator.

For want of a Pantone book…the client was lost.  

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Pressure Point

When printing on an automatic press can you see the image on the boards?  If so, you may be using too much pressure.  Walk your floor right now.  What’s on your press boards?

The optimum print has the ink sit on top of the fabric, not hammered home like a nail through wood.  Too much pressure affects registration, print quality and how much ink is being transferred to the shirt.  If you are over 50 psi on your squeegee pressure for the print, how many bananas are you feeding the gorillas a day?  Lighten up. 

Lots of rookie printers use a lot of pressure to cover up for the lack of skill in registering the job.  They think: “Can’t get it to line up?  Mash it until it does.  Of course, this causes some bleeding issues where the different colors touch.  But hey, at least it’s registered.”  

Don’t put up with this.

Squeegee angle, durometer, and screen tension all come into play here too.  If your squeegee looks like a capital L when printing, you might want to check that pressure.  Your goal is to adjust the angle and pressure on the squeegee to use just enough pressure for the ink to clear the screen.  Probably in the 20-25 psi range, depending on the equipment and other factors.  Most newer automatic presses have a gauge right on the end of the screen arm, which makes checking easy.  

Believe it or not, there are some shops that (gasp) even record the pressure on their work set up sheets, along with other print information so they can dial it back in later for reprints, or also for quality control.

Why is this important?  For starters, using less pressure will make the print look and feel much better on the shirt.  Also, you can dramatically reduce the amount of ink used to print, as you aren’t losing all that ink when you pound the ink through the fabric.  You aren’t getting paid to decorate your press platens.

For want of checking a gauge…the print was lost.

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Tension Meter

Quick, go to your screen room and ask your crew when was the last time they checked any screens to see if they had proper tension.  

Do they even know what the proper tension should be?  Do they know how to measure?  Do they have a Newton meter that is available?  Or do they just thump the screen with a finger and declare, “Sounds good to me!”.

My guess is that if you are having trouble with registration, especially at the top and bottom of the print, you have some crazy tension issues.  You never check tension either, but instead point a crooked finger at either the equipment, art department or the press operator.

Screens are the keystone to the entire screen-printing operation, but so few shops invest in the right tools to make sure that everything functions the way it is supposed to.  A good Newton meter used correctly, will determine the tension for the warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) of the screen.  They should be equal.  This can help your team in the screen room make some good craftsmanship decisions about the screens for use in your shop.  If you are using retensionable screens, it may be time to jack them up a notch.  If you are using static frames, it may be time to retire that screen and remesh.  

Remember, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

Click Here to check out a short infographic I made that gives some basic information about screen tension.

The problem with under-tensioned screens is that they won’t perform like they need to during the mechanical print process.  A slack screen can cause registration issues, off-contact issues, even ink texture issues on the substrate.  If your press crews are struggling keeping a good looking print, I’d start backtracking the problem from the press to the screen room.

For want of a tensioned screen, the registration was lost.

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Mmm Donuts

Screen tension isn’t the only production detail that is often overlooked.  Another big challenge is the dryer temperature.  Often it isn’t set correctly or is not accurate.  A lot of things can affect how your dryer cures the ink as it travels down the belt.  Just because your temperature gauge is set to a particular temperature number, doesn’t mean that’s what’s happening in the actual chamber.

The best way to find out if your ink is being cured properly is to measure the temperature of the ink as it’s going down the belt.  Don’t believe your dryer control panel number, check for yourself with a great device called a Donut Probe.  

This handy gizmo looks like it sounds, a donut.  Inside the donut are two crossed wires.  You simply place the donut probe with the wires on the wet shirt ink, and as the dryer belt moves the shirt down into the heat chamber you can see the readings increase on the probe’s control panel.

Did the ink reach the right cure temp?  With the donut probe you know exactly what the temperature was for the ink.  Sometimes this is dramatically different than what is on the read out on the dryer control panel.

Zero guessing.

Check your manufacturer’s spec sheet of the ink you are using and find out what the minimum temperature is to cure the ink.  For plastisol, most will cure at 320 for regular or 270 for low bleed polyester.  Don’t have a spec sheet?  Go to the manufacturers website and download one, or ask your supplier rep.   

One of the challenges is that you may have the dryer set much hotter than you need to cure the ink, but something is affecting the way the unit is curing the ink so it never reaches the correct crock temperature.  

I’ve seen drastic problems with shop doors open on a windy day, and gusts coming into the shop right down the belt.  This instantly lowers the chamber temperature.  Another similar issue is with print crews having big industrial fans blowing air down into the dryer chamber.  Believe it or not, both of these can have an adverse affect on the heat in the dryer.  Even seasonal weather changes with air temperature or humidity can cause problems.  

At the end of the day, you are relying on these dryers to cure the ink properly.  Unless you want to spend a lot of nights awake, staring at the ceiling and wondering if everything you print is being cured correctly; you have to have faith that the thousands of shirts you are sending down the dryer are hitting that mark.  

If you use your donut probe as part of a monthly preventative maintenance program, you can have that assurance.  

Imagine the inside of your dryer chamber is divided into nine zones, similar to a tic-tac-toe diagram.  Zones 1 through 9.  Each month, use your donut probe and record the temperature for the zones on the same day (let’s say the fourth Monday of the month).  Make up a simple Dryer Zone Log Form, or download this one by Clicking Here.  Do this for each dryer.  Now, if you have any curing issues with your shirts, you can refer to the log and see that the temperature has been consistent or not.  If you haven’t been measuring, you won’t know when the problem could have surfaced.

For want of correct dryer temperature, the ink print cure was lost.

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PM Plan

There are two types of people regarding planning.  One regularly keeps track of things and schedules maintenance on a regular basis.  The other puts it off, and when things break, calls in the repair guy.

Which one are you?  I can tell you which one is aimed at a lower operating cost and a more efficient shop.  

Putting a Preventative Maintenance Plan together is an essential part of any well run shop.  Every single machine should have a section in a master Log Book.  Printing presses (both automatic and manual), heat presses, embroidery machines, digital printers, forklifts, dryers, automatic folding machines, ink scales, air compressors…really any mechanical device that is critical to your success.  Detail each page with the name of the equipment, model number, date purchased, description and any other pertinent details.  Each time you change a filter, grease the parts, add fluid, change a gear, whatever…record that effort into that Log Book.

This is especially true for leveling your platens or any other task that is crucial for smooth operations.

Why is this pain in the butt documentation so critical?  For starters, it keeps you honest.  If you can’t remember the last time you did something, you have a big problem.  But the main reason is that all machines are mechanical, use parts, and are prone to eventually break.  Keeping a detailed log of what’s going on is akin to a doctor reviewing your medical history when you complain about not feeling well.  Having all that info helps you rule out anything not related as you have proof that certain tasks were performed.

If you don’t have a plan, your shop can still function and operate well.  Until…  One day, usually when a critical job is due, the press won’t work, or the air compressor goes down, or the dryer can’t stay at temperature, or the embroidery machine heads seize, or the digital printer nozzles get clogged, or…  The list goes on and on.  If you are an owner or manager of a shop without a true Preventative Maintenance Plan, the shop isn’t running as well as it should.  All is not lost, however.  Just start one.  Click Here and use this to get going.  Modify it to suit your needs.  Just fill out the info, three-hole punch it, and throw it into a binder.

For want of a plan, the day’s production was lost.

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So that’s six things that could going wrong.  Guess what?  There are hundreds, if not thousands more lurking in your shop right now.  

What critical detail are you missing?  Are you consistently discussing the need to handle things correctly with your staff?  Do they know that details matter?  When you do have a problem are you backtracking it all the way upriver to the source and changing something to kill the problem from occurring again?

“For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost.”  For a lot of shops, that sums up how these challenges start.  It’s up to you to make sure you have a box of nails handy.  Otherwise, see ya’ later kingdom.

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“It’s the little details that are vital.  Little things make big things happen.” – John Wooden

“Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better.” – Pat Riley

“Leadership is an ever evolving position.” – Mike Krzyzewski

The Best Time

the-best-time-marshall-atkinson

There is an ancient Chinese proverb that goes “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.  The second best time is now.”

Think about that for a moment.

Without even meeting you or having a conversation with any employees in your company, I know there is something that you have been thinking about implementing…but you just haven’t gotten around to it for whatever reason.

I get it.  You’ve got a full day today.  Tomorrow too.  How are you going to squeeze in anything new?  Who needs that “tree” anyway?

Let me be clearer.

Maybe you have wanted to experiment with waterbase ink.  Or DTG printing.  Or laser-bridge embroidery.  Or writing that employee handbook.  Or adopting a new automatic timeclock system.  Or finally having the guts to call that account you have been dreaming about.  Or redesigning your company brand.  Or fixing your production schedule so jobs ship on time.  Or learning how to mix PMS colors easily.  Or hiring some help.  Or doing more with social media.  Or updating your tired, boring and nonproductive website.  Or…

Unless you plant that seed, those trees will never sprout.  You will just be looking back a few years from now wondering why you don’t have any shade.  Boy, that sun is blistering hot.

Do you want to know what’s worse?

Your competition.  They have a shovel and are now turning over some dirt.  Looks like a new sapling is going in their orchard.

Are you happy about that?  Your customers might be.

So how do you find the time?  Simple.  Just block it off like it was something for your top client.  You wouldn’t let them down would you?  If something was due for them, you work through lunch, stay late or come in thirty minutes early.  Right?  This is the same aspect, but your company is the client.

You do what it takes.

There’s one more thing that wasn’t included in that sage advice I led this article with, and that is you have to nurture and care for that “tree”.  You can’t just plant it and walk away.  Doing something new?  There is going to be a ton of failure and dumb mistakes along the way.  But you can’t give up.  The learning occurs in the doing.  Every time you work on the new, you are tending to your sprouting tree.

What if you need some help?  There’s that too.  In the decorated apparel industry there are plenty of resources that can help you along the way to make the job easier, including me.  Go to a trade show.  Watch a video or listen in on a webinar.  Read an article in one of the trade magazines.  Participate and interact with industry friends online.  Talk to your supply chain.  Discuss the situation with your staff.

So what are you waiting for?  Get that tree in the dirt today.  Twenty years from now, you’ll thank me.

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“You don’t have to swing hard to hit a home run.  If you have the timing, it’ll go.” – Yogi Berra

“I hated every minute of training, but I said, “Don’t quit.  Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” – Muhammad Ali

“Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better.” – Pat Riley

Procrastinate Much?

PROCRASTINATE-MUCH-MARSHALL-ATKINSON

I’ve been meaning to write an article about procrastination for some time now.  Don’t laugh.

Seriously.

Somehow, I just keep putting it off.  (Ba Da Bump)  Other topics come up that mean more, or maybe I think they are more relevant to the industry.  Things happen.

Now here we are months later and I’m just now getting some words down.  As I’m in the same boat as the rest of the procrastinators out there, maybe that makes me some sort of half-assed expert or tribal salesman at least.  I don’t know.  They don’t give out awards for being late usually.  But in this particular case there wasn’t even a deadline.  Just something I wanted to do.

I’m sure you know the drill.

So let’s examine that a bit more, and take a look at how this can affect anyone working in the decorated apparel industry.  Over the years I’ve spoken with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of shop owners, managers, employees and folks in the supply chain about the challenges in the industry.  Other than the overwhelming problem of communication (or lack thereof) in shops, the next biggest challenge is always “getting stuff done”.  There never seems to be the right amount of time.  Or dedication.  Or willpower.  Or whatever excuse is handy.

Guess what?  It’s procrastination at it’s best usually.

That’s why you didn’t learn how to sewn applique, or try out waterbase ink, or learn simulated process, or tackle CMYK, or learn how to make screens with capillary film.  Maybe you wanted to start a blog, or develop a Pinterest board for your shop, or rewrite your employee handbook, or maybe even just take a vacation.  (Really?  If that’s you…get on a plane now will ya’!)

Believe me you aren’t alone.  If there was a club I’ll bet it would be gigantically huge.  We couldn’t have a meeting though.  Nobody would find time to organize it or even come for that matter.

So what happens to us?  First, we don’t give our thought or desire the priority it should have.  If I truly wanted this article written, I would have added it to my to-do list months ago.  Anything on that list always gets handled.   Instead, it was one of those back of my mind things.  It just never developed.

Here are a few reasons I’ve discovered that people don’t do things and procrastinate, do any of these sound like you?:

  • You don’t start on the task because you are wanting the “perfect” time do it.  On a Saturday.  When the busy season is over.  When Fred gets back from vacation.  When you close that big deal and get more cash.  Next month when all of the planets align.  Guess what?  There is no such thing as a perfect time!  Stop kidding yourself.  Schedule the thing and just do it.  At least get started on it.
  • Don’t give in on acting on urges.  When we act impulsively we tend to blow off things that matter and we don’t know why.  Who wants to rewrite an employee handbook when checking out cat memes on Facebook is more fun?  Clean the shop?  Let’s go home early instead!  It’s Friday and it’s been a long week.  Then you look back sometime the following week and wonder how come nothing got handled…you know better!  Raise your hand if this sound like you.  I knew it.
  • You always leave things to the last minute because you “work better that way”.  But if you ever just looked at your results and logged how much time you spent goofing off before you got around to starting on the project, you would realize that you could actually be more productive, be less stressed, and produce better work if you had just followed a more sane schedule.  Buzzing about being busy and how in the weeds you are seems to be a badge of honor with some people.  However, I’ll take the person that manages their time, logs great work daily and goes home at the same time every day, every time.  They are usually more productive.
  • Another obvious procrastinator sign is to get crankier and moodier the closer the deadline approaches.  I’ve worked with people like this, and it’s no fun.  They have a freak-out and nuclear meltdown with a “the world is going to end” attitude that is hard to swallow.  The funny thing is that they never see it.  When you talk to them about it, somehow they twist it up so you are the bad guy.  Once that deadline passes and the work is completed, they are as sweet as pumpkin pie.  But you know better.

I’m sure there are plenty more examples I can add.  Feel free to throw yours into the comments section.

So what can we do about procrastination?  Are we just doomed to a roller coaster ride of action, inaction, worry and self-doubt?  Here are some thoughts:

Stop worrying about perfection.  Just get started.  Even doing something small for fifteen minutes can help give you the momentum to act.  Let’s say you’ve been putting off cleaning your shop.  Just organize that one section over there by the corner.  Looks good?  Do the area next to it tomorrow.  

Write down what you want to do and assign a date to it.  To make it even better add a time and make it an appointment.  “At 11:00 tomorrow I am going to write a blog post about procrastination.”  Which actually is exactly what happened here.  Yes, I did schedule a procrastination task.  

Remind yourself and your staff that finishing the task now, can help you in the future.  Why do you have to experiment with silicone inks if none of your clients require it for their orders?  Because maybe your next quote or new client could ask about it.  Getting prepared is the sign of professionalism.  Learn that new topic now when there isn’t a deadline and stress associated with perfection.

Reward yourself or your crew for completing projects or even sub-goals for longer programs.  This doesn’t have to be monetary or a physical reward.  Maybe just an extra ten minutes at break, or an ice cream party on a Friday.  Maybe the person who contributes the most gets to blast their playlist on the shop music system all day.

Realize when you are putting things off you could be trading one thing for another that seems like it’s making a difference.  However, it’s not getting you to where you need to be.  Instead of preventative maintenance on our equipment, you organize the customer pick up area instead.  Both have to get done, but you are trading one outcome at the cost of another.  If you were to give each an importance rank, which one would win out?  Try triaging your tasks, and do the ones that matter the most first.  

So there you have it.  I feel better now that I completed this article!  I got to cross that item off my to-do list too.  

Got something you need handled?  What are you waiting for?  Now seems like a good time…

“Action speaks louder than words, but not nearly as often.” – Mark Twain

“Get action.  Seize the moment.  Man was never intended to be an oyster.” – Theodore Roosevelt

“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” – Zig Ziglar

Shop Success Gumbo

SHOP GUMBO - MARSHALL ATKINSON

Have you ever tasted a bowl of freshly served gumbo, hot and steaming and brimming with so much goodness you can’t wait to shove your spoon in and take a bite?  That rich and savory deliciousness starts dripping down your chin, as you can’t even eat the right way it’s so fantastic.

Mmmmm.  I’ll need an extra napkin please.

A great business is just like devouring that bowl of gumbo.  People are excited about doing business with them, and will always tell  their friends about their experience.

Do you have that in your shop?  Are your customers bragging about what an amazing company you have or about the incredible customer service they just received?  Did they just place a reorder because the awesome work you just finished last week already sold out?  Are your customers sending you brand new customers similar to what happens with outstanding restaurants?

“You gotta check out this place….”

If that sounds like your shop, then congratulations!  You’ve cooked up a business bowl of some mighty fine gumbo.

If that doesn’t seem too familiar, let’s discuss what ingredients you’ll need to stir up a pot of awesomeness that your customers will start start sharing with anyone that will listen.

First, you might not be familiar with the concept of a bowl of gumbo, as that’s a Mississippi Delta culinary treat, so let’s get that out of the way.

Gumbo is basically a stew type of food that originates from Louisiana, and like chili is to Texas, there are an infinite number of ways to cook up a bowl of gumbo.   The name gumbo is derived from the West African word for okra, and that suggests that gumbo should contain that item as an ingredient.  Just like chili and whether or not to add beans, you can get into the same arguments with gumbo aficionados with the idea of adding tomatoes, okra or what types of meat need to be featured in the dish.

There are many types of gumbo, but most are built on chicken, sausage, and seafood as the main ingredients.  To me, regardless of what’s in the gumbo it’s always best with some hot crusty bread that’s smeared with some garlic compound butter and an icy cold beer.

Ok, so that’s out of the way, and now your taste buds are primed to explode, let’s build our shop success gumbo and see what we end up with in our bowl.

Market Research – (The Roux)

A great bowl of gumbo always starts off with a roux.  This is a mixture of flour and some sort of fat, usually bacon renderings, that is stirred in the pot over medium heat and mixed until it is a nice, rich brown color.

The roux is the basis of any great gumbo, and in our business gumbo the roux you need is the understanding of who your customers are, where they are located, and why they should do business with you.  This research is the basic foundation that you need to build a great business.

Have you skipped this step?  Many apparel decorators do.  They wait like spiders in their web, hoping something comes along; instead of doing the work to reach out and understand where their customers are thriving.

Your market research should include primary sources that could include direct conversations with real potential & current customers, surveys, questionnaires or even focus groups.  You need to understand everything about your customers and what makes them tick.  Also, you should know why your customers are doing business with your competitors, and what advantages they have over you.

You can also add to your business roux by backing up your information with secondary bits of data from published resources.  These are available from industry publications, leadership groups, governmental agencies, local college campuses, libraries and even online.  This is the data mining part of the research.

The goal of all of this background work is to establish the best route to take to obtain these customers.

If you have been working really hard trying to get new customers, but you can’t seem to make a connection, maybe you’ve been searching in the wrong spot.  That’s the importance of the market research roux.

Build your success gumbo with a good foundation of information.  All the other ingredients you will add later will shine.

Sales Skills – (The Holy Trinity)

The next core ingredients to our shop gumbo is called the Holy Trinity.  In Cajun cooking these always consist of onions, green peppers and celery.  These are added to the roux base and are cooked down until they are soft.  At this stage we will throw in our garlic and sometimes sausage too.  Oh boy.

So for the shop, what’s the next thing we’re adding in after we know where our customers are located?

Sales of course.

For our industry, we replace onions, green peppers and celery with e-mail sales, in-person sales, and website sales.  That’s the Holy Trinity of our success gumbo.

From your customer’s perspective, what do you think they think of your sales skills?  Do you make it easy?  Can they place an order without much hassle?  Do you come off like a used car salesman?  Are you always ready with information and knowledge about the industry?

For e-mail sales, if someone sends you a quote request, can you quickly respond with a written quote that is branded with your shop information and looks professional?  Can you respond quickly, or does it take you a day or two to get around to it?  Do you have the “sunshine law” in your shop?  That’s when every single email that comes in is answered before the sun goes down.

In-person sales is all about humanizing the experience.  Solid relationships happen when there is a face associated with an account.  When was the last time you visited your top twenty customers?  Do you know the names of their kids, or that they like two sugars with their coffee?

What competes with those big mega-huge apparel websites?  People doing business with people.  This means you have to get out of your office once in awhile.  Try this: for that next order, hand deliver it instead of shipping it.  Thank them with a smile and let them know you appreciate their business.  This is something your competition won’t do because it requires effort.  Instant market differentiator!

For web orders, let’s talk about the checkout process.  It’s funny, and the reason I’m asking is that I’ve reviewed a good number of apparel industry websites and finding the order button sometimes is an exercise in futility.

Why are your web order sales down or non-existent?  Because your customers can’t figure out how to place an order.  Or you never got around to making your website responsive so your website looks horrible on their phone screen.  Or your site is too slow to load the images, which frustrates impatient customers.  Or any number of things you wouldn’t tolerate with any other website when you are shopping online.  Why is it then ok for your own website?  Think about it.

If you want your business gumbo to taste awesome…make sure you are adding in your sales Holy Trinity.

Customer Service Excellence – Be Helpful – (The Main Ingredients)

Customer service is the bulk of the main ingredients for our gumbo.  This is the water or beer that’s added with the beef bouillon, that goes with the sugar, salt, hot pepper sauce, bay leaves, Cajun seasoning, thyme, cayenne pepper, stewed tomatoes and tomato sauce.

When you add the customer service ingredients to the sales Holy Trinity and your market research roux, you are setting yourself up for a super successful pot of business gumbo.

So what defines great customer service?  Being helpful for starters.  The bulk of your information should be at your fingertips, however if you don’t know something just say so.  Get back to the customer with the answer as quickly as you can.

Great customer service is epitomized with that friendly, problem solving demeanor.  I know you’ve been to a restaurant or store and based on the interactive experience with that one employee thought either extremely positive or negative about that company.  Everyone has a story like that.

What are your customers saying about your shop?

Your company’s customer service is just as important, which is why it’s the bulk of the ingredients.  Customer service isn’t limited to just the folks that man the phones either.  Your art department is front and center when you send out a proof.  Your receiving and shipping teams are highlighted when boxes are moving in and out of your shop.  Your production team is on duty when those goods are decorated and placed in the box.  Are they neatly folded and looking perfect or do they look like a college student’s two week-old dirty laundry?

Great customer service is about making sure that the customer is so absolutely thrilled with their experience and your shop’s delivering on their expectations that even the thought of doing business with anyone else seems ridiculous.

Do your customers think that way?  If not, what are you doing about it?  Maybe you need to change up some of the ingredients in your shop gumbo to make it taste better.

Always Deliver!  – (The Meat)

So what’s left in our gumbo?  The main meat of course.  There are lots of variations in gumboland as this concoction can have oysters, crab-meat, shrimp, chicken, pork, ham, sausage, veal, and even leftover turkey after Thanksgiving.  It’s all about preferences and taste.  What do you like?

In our shops, the main meat can be defined as “Always Deliver!”.  

This means staying late to finish that job.  This means solving that problem when the goods come in the wrong color, or two mediums were misprinted.  This means hitting that PMS color…even over an underbase white.  This means sewing tiny letters, even on a hat.  This means printing on a towel, and not having the ink so abrasive it can take off skin.  

The meat of our industry is based on delivering on expectations.  As soon as you don’t someone is going to say:

“Hey, where’s the meat?”

It is so noticeable that it is going to be frustrating to the customer.  Can you imagine being handed a big bowl of seafood gumbo and the actual seafood is missing?  How would you react?  That’s what happens when you don’t deliver in this industry.  It’s a big deal.

Always deliver.

Go the Extra Mile – (Lagniappe)

Another great idea that comes from the land of gumbo is the expectation of lagniappe.  This usually is defined as something extra given to a customer to make them feel special or welcome.  This is the all you can eat pretzels or nuts on a bar when you are having a beer, or the thirteenth donut you get when you buy a dozen.  They don’t have to do it, but it’s just friendlier.

For our gumbo, this the crusty baguette that is served piping hot with a garlic compound butter.  It’s served up with the bowl of our delicious gumbo on the side of the plate.  Crusty on the outside, warm and soft on the inside, and if done right, it really compliments the dish as you can use the bread to soak up the goodness in the bowl.

In your shop, what type of lagniappe do you offer?  Are you going the extra mile to make your gumbo stand out?  Have you even thought about it?  These days a little something extra could be just the thing to separate you from those yahoos down the street or online.

Maybe you throw in an embroidered hoodie with your customer’s logo, or a few dozen beer coozies with an order over a certain size.  You could offer a free screen at every 144 shirts ordered.  What if all new customers received free digitizing on embroidery?  It could be that you polybag all embroidered shirts or jackets, just because it looks nicer.

Think about what would make your customers smile.  That’s what is important after all.

“There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.” – Roger Staubach

Hey, thanks for reading my blog…here’s my lagniappe for you:

All-Star Gumbo Recipe – make this for your shop crew next Friday

Cooking Time – About 4 hours. Serves 20 – Make sure you have enough beer

  • 1 Cup All-Purpose Flour
  • 1 Cup Bacon Drippings (render down about two packages of bacon)
  • 1 Cup Coarse Chopped Celery
  • 1 Large Coarsely Chopped Onion
  • 1 Large Coarsely Chopped Green Bell Pepper
  • 2 Minced Garlic Cloves
  • 1 Pound Andouille Sausage, Sliced
  • 3 Quarts Water
  • 1 Bottle of Beer 
  • 6 Cubes Beef Bouillon
  • 1 Tablespoon White Sugar
  • 1 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper – add more if you like it spicy
  • Kosher Salt to Taste
  • 2 Tablespoons Hot Sauce (Tabasco or Crystal) to taste – add more if you like it spicy
  • ½ Tablespoon Cajun Seasoning (Tony Chachere’s) to taste
  • 4 Bay Leaves
  • ½ Teaspoon Dried Thyme
  • 1 Can Stewed Tomatoes (14.5 oz)
  • 1 Can Tomato Sauce (6 oz)
  • 4 Teaspoons Gumbo File Powder
  • 2 Tablespoons Bacon Drippings
  • 2 Packages Frozen Cut Okra – Thawed (10 oz)
  • 2 Tablespoons White Vinegar
  • 1 Pound Lump Crabmeat – Fresh if you can get it
  • 3 Pounds Fresh Fish (Grouper or similar) cut into small chunks – Fresh if you can get it
  • 2 Tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
  • (Note – if you can’t get seafood, or don’t like it…substitute 4 pounds of the meat of your choosing.  Chicken and sausage work very well here.)

 

Directions:

Make a roux by whisking the flour and 1 cup of the bacon drippings together in a large, heavy saucepan over medium-low heat to form a smooth mixture.  Cook the roux by whisking constantly, until it becomes a rich, mahogany brown color.  This can take 20-30 minutes.  Watch your heat carefully and whisk constantly or the roux will burn.  When the color is right, remove from heat and continue whisking until the mixture stops cooking.

Finely chop the garlic, celery, onion and green bell peppers with a food processor.  Stir the vegetables into the roux, and mix in the Andouille sausage.  Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-low heat, and cook until the vegetables are tender.  About 10-15 minutes.  Remove mixture from heat and set aside.

In a large soup pot, bring the water, beer and beef bouillon cubes to a boil.  Stir the bouillon cubes to dissolve.  Whisk the roux, vegetable and sausage mixture into the boiling water.  Reduce heat to a simmer, and mix in the sugar, salt, hot pepper sauce, Cajun seasoning, bay leaves, thyme, cayenne pepper, tomato sauce, and stewed tomatoes.  Simmer the soup over low heat for 1 hour.  Mix in 2 teaspoons of the file gumbo powder at the 45 minute mark.

While the soup is simmering, melt 2 tablespoons of bacon drippings into a skillet and cook the okra with vinegar over medium heat for about 15 minutes.  Stir in the okra into the simmering gumbo when cooked.

Mix in the crabmeat, fish and Worcestershire sauce and simmer until all the flavors have blended, about 45 minutes.  Before serving stir in 2 teaspoons of the file gumbo powder to thicken the mixture.

Serve over white rice, with a crusty butter baked bread, alongside an icy cold beer.  Dixie or Abita Turbodog if you can find it.

“Laissez les bons temps rouler!”

Untie the Employee Hostage Knot

Untie the Employee Hostage Knot - Marshall Atkinson

Regardless of the size of your shop, your employees are the lifeblood of the company.  Without them, you would cease to perform or exist.

So what happens when you find yourself in an organizational crisis where one employee is holding your company “hostage”?

This can be in several forms.  

They have a skill you need (press or embroidery operator, digitizer, artist, accountant, salesperson, manager, etc.) without anyone poised on the bench to back them up.  By lack of training or hiring someone else to support their role, you’ve given them leverage over your shop.  “You can’t run this place without me!” is what they say.

Have you ever heard that?

Maybe they have been with you since “day one” and feel that they have an overwhelming sense of entitlement, even if they are just an hourly employee.  You don’t dare get rid of them, because it would feel like cutting off a toe or losing a friend.  The problem is, they know that.  That’s why they sometimes strut around like a barnyard rooster.  “Hey, I’m untouchable!”

You may not even recognize what’s going on, but your other employees do.  They resent the fact that this person gets special perks or their bizarre behavior gets overlooked.  Do people on your shop floor complain or make snarky remarks about them?  Do you shrug your shoulders and try to laugh it off?  “Hey, that’s just Fred…whattagoingtodo?”  Maybe you’ve even voiced your opinion out loud yourself a few times, but nothing ever happens.

You know better.

  • Despite a crazy workload with backed up orders on the schedule, what are you really saying to your crew when your production manager plays a round of golf every Friday with his buddies?
  • What about when you allow your salesperson to act like a jerk because you are too scared to confront him because he really brings in a lot of work for your shop?  
  • What happens do you think when you allow the office manager to bring their dog into work every day, despite the fact that some fellow office workers are allergic to dogs?  
  • What message are you sending to your crew when you allow your lead press operator to come in fifteen minutes late to work or more every day, but insist that everyone else show up on time?  
  • Do you keep your manager on staff even after they make a racist remark to someone they manage?  
  • There was a big shouting match on the production floor yesterday between one of your supervisors and a new employee.  Not a good look for your company.  What did you do about it?
  • Do you allow multiple people from the same family to work in your shop?  What happens when all of them want to take a vacation at the same time?  Does your shop screech to a halt that week?

You are treading dangerous waters by allowing these behaviors in your company to exist.  Do you have a plan to wrestle control back from the people in your shop that are selfishly slowly damaging it?  

Here are some strategies that might let you get control back:

First, you need to train other staff members in that person’s role in your company.  Call it back up.  State that it’s for when they are sick or on vacation.  Whatever.  The real reason is that you need to take their chip that they can play against you away.  

Start cross training multiple people in that person’s role as soon as you can.  I like having at least three people know any critical task so that spreads the knowledge base out a bit.  Once you have that coverage, you won’t feel like you are tied to that heavy anchor for much longer.  Remember, you aren’t letting that person go…you are just putting a control in place to diminish the leverage they have against your company.

Let’s say you only have one automatic press or embroidery machine operator in your shop.  When two other people know that equipment and can run it just as well, that person’s argument about giving them “extras” diminishes to nothing; and now will be squarely focused on their performance as it should be.

Secondly, what happens if your salesperson’s relationships with their clients is the only way you are doing business with them?  He knows it, so that’s why the thinks he is untouchable and pushes people around.  A way to resolve that challenge could be to tie the company to you with a written contract for some new negotiated terms.  Take the salesperson out of the big picture, and make the relationship more about your company and the benefits of working together.

Third, think about how you are handling compensation and employee reviews in general.  Have you ever given a raise to an employee not because they actually earned it…but because you can’t function without them?  That’s not a good position to be in, nor is it smart business.  If you do that once, that employee’s hand will always be sticking out asking for more.

One of the things you want to continually stress in your company is that you create and adhere to some published human resources policies for any type of personnel decision.  Create that employee handbook and outline the expectations that all of your employees are asked to follow.  Then, make sure you are doing what you’ve outlined.  

For compensation increases, there should be a policy and procedure as to what happens and tie that to an employee review.  Performance pay increases are all about merit.  Did they earn it or not?  Make the process transparent so the employee knows what they should be getting if they achieve the benchmarks that you’ve created.  These can be tied to the overall health of the company too.  Employees that are always demanding more than they really deserve can be frustrating.

For any of these employee hostage type scenarios, the more you bury your head in the sand and let the employee have leverage and control, the worse it is going to be for you later.  Especially if you want continuous improvement or meaningful change in your shop.  Don’t think that your other employees aren’t noticing the situation either.

A better way is to plan to take that control back by taking some necessary steps and planning some action.  Your employees can’t run the show with unwarranted demands.  Don’t let them.  It’s important to create a culture of excellence, by demonstrating that teamwork and performance goal achievement matters.

Get some tools in place to help you.  

Written job descriptions, an employee handbook, a performance review system, a robust cross training program, goal setting with targeted performance management, and company-wide reward and recognition programs; all of these can help mitigate that employee hostage situation.

If you don’t have back-up employees capable of performing or learning someone’s job because it’s a skill like art or accounting, look for availability to outsource it temporarily while you could hire a replacement should you need it.  There are plenty of freelancers or firms dedicated to helping in these areas.  Get that information, find out the costs and make a plan that you could use should you have to go that route.  Maybe you will never have to cash that chip in, but it’s good to have in your pocket should it work out that way.

Like any other challenge in your shop, plan the resolution and put it into action.  

“Start with good people, lay out the rules, communicate with your employees, motivate and reward them.  If you do all those things effectively, you can’t miss.” – Lee Iacocca

“You can’t let your past hold your future hostage.”  LL Cool J

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

4 Ways to Promote Your Shop Using Social Media

4 WAYS TO PROMOTE YOUR SHOP - MARSHALL ATKINSON

Sales dragging and you need some customers?  Guess what?  The good news is that they are out there…you just need to lasso them into your world and get them to notice you.  How to do that you may ask?

Using the power of of social media.  Not just any-old social media though.  Content rich, powerful, and accurate to what you do in your shop every day.  The goal is to directly connect your post with the needs of your audience.

But first, let’s talk about what social media is and isn’t.  For a lot of busy shops, they’ve tried to post things on Facebook or maybe even Twitter with little success.  It just sits there like yesterday’s pizza.  Nobody wants to touch it.

First, ask yourself if these social media outlets are even the ones your business demographics even use.  Are you in the right place?  If you cater to businesses, which has more B2B presence for you…Facebook or LinkedIn?  Which channel do your women customers use more: Instagram or Pinterest?  The short answer?  You have to find out yourself by doing some snooping.  That means you need to get busy and start following your customers (or target customers) by asking questions, taking surveys and keeping careful notes.  It’s the only way to know where they hang out.  Once you have this figured out, you can tailor your message to them on the right channel.  Half the battle is in this important step, so make sure you do your homework.  For best results don’t skimp.

Next comes the hard part.  Actually building your promotional content.  This is going to require some thinking.  Do you just want simple brand awareness?  Do you want to show off your skills?  Do you want to drive your audience to your website?  Is your goal to link your post to selling something?   Before you just fire off a post, think about what you are trying to achieve.  Then, decide how will you know if your post is a success.  What does success even look like?   Can you track it?  Let’s discuss these more in depth.

Brand Awareness

What is that exactly?  Brand awareness is the idea that when someone thinks they need your product or service, your shop instantly comes to mind.  In fact, there is a term for that called “Top of Mind” placement.  This is is super important to remember, as brand awareness is driven by frequency and meaningful engagement.  It isn’t necessarily driven by having a sale or discounting your services.  You just want people to remember you exist, so when it comes time to get some shirts printed or embroidered, they will think of you.

Here are some tips to use for your posts to drive Brand Awareness:

  • Make it visual.  People like action photos of things happening.  Just delivered 1,500 hats to a client for a big event?  Take a selfie and post it with the boxes.  Makes sure your logo is prominent on your staff’s shirts or your delivery van.  Get the customer involved too!  Have them share pics of the event with everyone wearing the hats you produced!  If you are using Instagram or Twitter, drive that home by getting them to use a special hashtag.  #thenameofyourshop or #awesometees or #somethingthatisfunky.
  • Solve a problem.  A customer just asked about putting foil on a shirt.  Post a pic of how this looks to your feed.  Every time a customer poses a question to you, that should be a prompt to answer it in general terms on your social media feed.
  • Schedule it in advance.  I use Buffer for all my social media posts, and generally have things scheduled out a few weeks in advance.  This is a great tool to use, as you can push out your content on multiple social media streams and channels at once.
  • Post relevant content.  Your posts shouldn’t always be about you.  Share content that you feel others would enjoy or benefit from.  Articles, videos, infographics, whatever.  It doesn’t matter as long as it’s relevant, quality content that your network will enjoy.  Better yet, share your customer’s posts when you can, as that drives engagement with the people that matter most.   
  • Develop your brand strategy.  Are all your marketing efforts linked with your logo, information and identity?  Do you look professional, or just hacked together?  Your brand aesthetic is your calling card, so if it looks tired and out of tune customers may go elsewhere before they even give you a chance.  Develop your standards and stick to them.

Show Off Your Skills

For the most part what we do in the decorated apparel industry comes off as magic to most people.  How many times has someone asked you “How do you embroider a hat?” or “What’s the secret behind printing across a hoodie zipper?”  How many times have you explained what a “satin stitch” is or the difference between a “vector and raster file”?  What type of detail can you get using a DTG printer on a black shirt?

The great thing about social media is that there are a few channels that are perfect for pictures or videos of you demonstrating your knowledge.  Just using your camera phone these are really easy to take on your production floor as you are walking around.  People want to feel at ease that their order will be handled properly, and nothing says that I know what I’m doing better than a hundreds of photos, or even a short video demonstrating that point.

  • Create a Pinterest page for your shop.  Have one main page where all photos are shared, but also place copies of photos into segregated content boards for easier viewing.  Some example board titles could be “Puff Embroidery”, “Simulated Process”, “Skull Art”, or “Shop Staff Pics”.  Be strategic and show off what you do best.
  • Once or twice a month shoot off a link to your shop Pinterest page and call it a “Virtual Shop Tour” or similar title.  New photos!  The idea is to drive visitors to your page to see and understand your skill level and creativity.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve talked to a customer that I sent to see a printed shirt example and their response was, “Hey, I didn’t know you did embroidery?  I just saw that on Pinterest too!”  
  • Instagram is also great for shop floor pics, but lacks the ability to categorize topics.  You can also use hashtags to drive engagement and make your pic more searchable.  When creating one, think about how someone would type in a search query.  I once got five new customers from one Instagram picture.
  • Quality photos work best, so try to create a fantastic visual when you are snapping a photo.  Color, lighting, angles and textures are all interesting.  Experiment with how to take a shot.  If you are showing off a skill, try a close up instead of the entire design.
  • You could also try creating your own infographic and pushing that out on your channels.  Create one with topics like “5 Best Shirt Colors for Halloween”, “How High Density Printing Works”, “Save Money on Your Embroidery with Better Digitizing”, or “Quirky Hoodie Placement Ideas”.  Tailor these to your target demographic.  

Drive Your Audience to Your Website

Online, your website is your identity.  Websites are created for different functions.  Some are just placeholders or an information delivery system.  It’s where customers go to look up facts or answers to their questions.  Other websites function as a store, and should be driving business to you with orders.  Which platform describes yours?

Either platform should function easily and perfectly on multiple devices.  If your website doesn’t work on a cell phone or tablet, you are in big trouble, and probably losing customers by the second.  When is the last time you updated your site?  I click on industry shop websites all the time, and a good many are in serious trouble with this.  They look outdated, irrelevant, and untrustworthy.  If this is you, think about prioritizing your website effort.  No excuses pal, as this was due yesterday.

  • On your website, you should have multiple tabs or pages that have different content ideas.  You could have an online quoting system, shop gallery of actual orders, facts about your sustainability program, or even philanthropies you support.  If they are on different tabs on the website, these can be included in individual social media shares.  Make each tab something that is important to your shop.
  • If you have a blog on your site, included hyperlinked references to other posts, pictures or videos.  This drives more engagement.  Make sure you choose the “open in another window” option so they won’t leave your main site to go see what you have referenced.
  • If you are selling something on your site, make sure that the user can order easily and quickly and not get bogged down with too many steps.  The number one reason why people abandon carts is that the process takes too long or is too complicated.  Think about how you order online and what drives you nuts.  Why do you not have the same mentality with your own website?  Think like your customer.
  • Make sure you encourage users to follow you on all of your social media channels by including the appropriate social media button icons.  Occasionally you should post this on your channels to get more followers.
  • Create the content that links to the appropriate pages on your site.  This content can be anything.  Hysterically funny.  Thought provoking.  Informative.  Educational.  Just don’t make it boring.  Push your content constantly, and schedule creating it well in advance so you actually do it and it isn’t a last minute half-assed effort.  People that do social media well work at it all the time.  Early is always better.

It’s All About Selling Something

There is a famous quote that I like that goes “Nothing ever happens in business until something gets sold.”  I’m positive you’ve heard that before.  It’s true in our business too.

All of your social media efforts have to be based on this fact.  Your efforts must be linking you to the customer, and the customer to the sale.  At the end of the day, are you asking for the sale?  

This doesn’t necessarily mean you are discounting anything or giving something away either.  A lot of shops just constantly chant the mantra of Sale! Sale! Sale! with their social media efforts. All that does is either become so much white noise that your customers tune you out, or you are training your customer base that if they wait around long enough they can get whatever you are marketing far cheaper than yesterday.   Remember, value is long term, price is always short term.

A better approach is to demonstrate your value in the selling proposition with your social media posts.  For your shop, what is that?  Here are some thoughts:

  • Sell your creative team’s strengths.  Got a fabulous art staff that can create some awesome graphics?  Show their stuff!  Interview them on video.  Show the process from thumbnails to the final print.  Include your customer going bananas over the awesome art that’s on the shirt!  Post this on your social media on a regular basis.  In fact, do a few of these and rotate them.  Remember, as your social media follower count grows, the new people following you didn’t see that video you posted last November.  Share it again!
  • Show how you solve your customer’s pain points.  For example, let’s say you cater to local school systems.  Who has time to come down to your shop to start the order, approve everything and then pick it up later?  Demonstrate how your company makes it easy with the system you’ve developed.  Soccer Mom’s and teacher’s can get the results they want with less time commitment.  You make it simple and hassle-free!
  • Give examples of your stellar customer service.  Won any awards?  Got some testimonials in your pocket?  Did your team solve some challenging issue for someone lately?  Launch this out into the social media stream and reap the rewards of other customers!  Customer service always resonates with people.  Use that to your advantage in your selling proposition.
  • Make it personable.  People don’t do business with their enemies, people do business with their friends.  Create a video, podcast, blog or even a gallery of pictures that demonstrate your friendliness.  Your shop is here to help, and is staffed with happy, awesome people.  Show what’s behind the curtain.  Include your staff’s social media links and contact information.  With one click underneath that smiling photo, they can be ordering from the customer service manager or salesperson.

In closing, remember the 90-9-1 rule.  90% of the people that use social media will view, read or watch your content.  Only 9% of the people that view the content will actually like, share or repost the material.  The people that create the content only make up about 1% of the online community.  

This means it pays to be in that 1%.  Create your content.  Get noticed and drive more business your way.  

You can do it!

Expansion Joints

Expansion Joint - Marshall Atkinson

In construction, shrewd builders deploy a technique called expansion joints to allow for unpredictable change.  They are commonly found in sidewalks, buildings, roads, railroad tracks, ships, bridges, and other structures.

The reason expansion joints are needed is that sometimes there are vibrations, heat differences, or even movement in things.  Before expansion joint gaps were introduced into these structures, solid unmovable objects would often crack under stress or pressure.

Really strong things became fragile.

People and companies need their own set of expansion joints too.  In a production setting, allowing for the vibration of unpredictability can help keep things on schedule. You plan for the chaos.

Who doesn’t want to reduce their stress?

What happens in your shop when your lead operator calls in sick, a machine goes down, there is a power failure or some inventory isn’t delivered on the day it was scheduled to arrive?

Does all hell break loose?  What type of stress dog-piles on your people or the company?  It’s not pretty.

What if you planned your own expansion joint into the process?

Let’s pretend you have an order that has to ship Friday.  In your shop when do all the various steps begin to take place so it will ship on that day?  Have you mapped out your core processes and determined the timing and steps?  Do you wing it and hope for the best?

In today’s business climate, speed is an advantage.  There is no waiting.  You can’t have a “I’ll do it tomorrow” mentality.  Leave that to the yahoo down the street.

A production expansion joint would be to have that Friday order deadline really due for completion in your shop on Thursday.  When Friday rolls around that job is already handled and ready to ship.  If you are really on top of things, the order shipped out on Thursday…a day early.  Wouldn’t this surprise and please your customer?

Does your company operate with the mentality of “get it done early”?  If not, how does that happen on a regular basis?

  • Orders have to be entered the day they come in.  Not tomorrow…today.
  • Inventory has to be ordered today too.  Get it in by the distributor cutoff.
  • Art or digitizing has to happen as soon as possible to get the job approved well before production needs it.  Artists tend to have their own internal clock on creativity, and often it isn’t speedy.  However, they do work well with deadlines, so you need to set them.
  • Screens and digitizing have to be ready one full business day before the job has to start production.  The trick is to state on your schedule, or train your staff to figure it out, when the production day start is supposed to happen.  If you do this the right way, nobody has to ask.
  • The job has to be scheduled to production, and the crews given the expectation on when it is needed for completion.  It shouldn’t be a guess.  Jobs should be lined up in order of completion by each machine with everything the crew needs to complete the job.  They don’t go look for anything.  Ever.

When is each of the above steps due?  Well, frankly that’s up to your production speed and capabilities.  What is your average production speed for your equipment (Not the manufacturer’s suggested speed, but your’s in your shop)?  What is your turnover time between orders, (from when you finish one job to when you start the next)?  How many jobs are already crowded on your dance floor?  It’s up to you to determine the landmarked timing for each step.  Make it a procedural standard and stick to it.

By including a buffer day on when that job is due you are allowing for that occasional problem that always seems to come up.  You know what I’m talking about.  You are missing 12 mediums.  Nobody ordered the metallic gold ink.  A truck crashed into the utility pole down the street so there’s no power until they fix it.  There was a big game last night and half your shop has called in “sick”.

These challenges surface, and like a row of dominoes, everything after that is late if you are always working down to the wire.

However, if your mantra is “If you aren’t early you are running late”, then a good chunk of your work is already completed when these problems surface.  And they always surface.  It’s the expansion joint that keeps your unplanned production earthquake from fracturing your schedule.

Is this easy to do?  Frankly no.  You can only control so much.  Sometimes you have to beg for more time.  That is an expansion joint in itself.

For a lot of decorators, this is the busy season already.  The schedule is packed and stress levels are already incredibly high.  Doing things early just seems like a Jägermeister-induced pipe dream.  

Here’s how to get back on track:

  • Emphasis on quality.  Redoing something because you were in a hurry just slows you down.  Make sure your staff double checks everything and is intensely focused on the task at hand.  People tend to skip steps when overloaded or rushed.  This leads to more failure and a vicious cycle of doom.  Slow down.  Do one thing right.  Then the next.  Then the one after that.  Prioritize your work and get the biggest challenges handled first.
  • Set deadlines for customers to approve artwork or sew outs.  “For your order to ship on time we need you to approve this by Tuesday at 12:00 pm”, for example.  After you send the approval out, follow up to make sure they have received it and can open the file.  Any problems or questions?  Set the expectation on the behavior you want from your customer.  
  • Build standards for your shop as to how people work and the expectations you have for each task.  Order entry has to occur the same day the job comes in, for example.  If it is before the cutoff, goods have to be ordered that day too.  Art has to be completed as soon as they can knock it out…the earlier the better.  These three things greatly influence the amount of time production has on the back end to complete their work.  When you push things on the front end, your production team will have more time to complete theirs.  Typically production gets shafted on valuable time if your front office doesn’t have the hustle mentality.  If you are burning screens or digitizing embroidery, the same day the job has to ship, it’s going to be extremely difficult to keep to a production schedule that makes sense.  Front load your orders with attention to timing to set up your production crew for success.
  • Standardize the work and how you communicate in each department.  “For this type of work, we do that.”  The more you train your staff on how you want it to be done, the faster they can move.  Create independent thinkers.  Your trained staff making decisions on their own creates that expansion joint.  The “Check With Me” mentality slows you down and is far more rigid, not to mention it is a sign of insecure leadership.  Experience, skill and training are what moves the bar upward with people.  Create value with your troops by cross training your staff in multiple departments.  Sometimes learning “why” that other department handles things a certain way creates some empathy for the burden they bear every day.  For example, having Customer Service work in Receiving counting in shipments for a morning or two can create the understanding as to why tracking numbers and packing slips are needed for every order coming in.  Communicating this information on your orders is the expansion joint for Receiving to do their work properly.
  • Learn to push back or say no.  Already insanely busy?  Adding another job to the pile isn’t going to help.  Does that order really have to ship Friday?  Will Tuesday work?  Have your staff trained to know your schedule and ask questions.  If a job doesn’t make sense, don’t accept it…or still take it and contract it to another decorator.  Don’t make matters worse for yourself.
  • Bring in extra help when needed.  That old adage, “Many hands makes light work”, holds true.  Getting some temp labor or summer part time help could be the expansion joint your company needs to get through the chaos.  Your full time staff can do all the difficult work, but the new faces can handle unbagging that skid of polos or reclaiming that mountain of dirty screens.  The expansion joint here is just an extra set of hands working.  Sometimes it’s worth the money Mr. Cheapo.  
  • Know what your production capacity is and what you have booked.  If you use production logs in your shop, you can get an average based on actual historical data on your daily speed.  Use this as a benchmark when thinking about what is possible for a standard production day.  Anything over this and there needs to be some thought as to how it’s going to get accomplished.  Can you bring in more people, work more hours, or contract some of the jobs out?  You should be thinking several days if not a week ahead.  Constantly map it out.
  • Make it easy for your crews to do the right things.  Eliminate the need for them to make a choice.  Line up the jobs in the order they need to be completed with everything they need to produce the order so nobody has to search for anything.   For printers, this is screens, shirts & ink.  For embroiders, this is shirts and cones of thread.  For heat press jobs, this could be all the names and numbers ready to go.  There is zero wasted time looking for something for the order.  Eliminate the excuses.  Churn and burn.
  • To speed up your production, a good way to think about it is to look at your downtime.  There are available minutes in your day, you just have to determine how to use them best.  Every morning, after break, or after lunch your crews shuffle in to get back going.  Start measuring this.  Is it five minutes until the first shirt is ready or thirty five?  How can you decrease the amount?  Think about the downtime during job changeovers.  How can your crews take down the old job and set up the new one faster?  These two ideas can greatly influence the amount of work produced a day.  You have to be looking…

Here’s some homework for your shop:  Walk around your building and observe how people work.  Think about your workflow.  Look for the bottlenecks and friction points in the process.

What causes those?  It could be any number of things.  Communication, not enough people, not enough training, lack of follow through.  Who knows?  Dig into the challenge and work out a solution by making it easier for the correct outcome to occur.

Your goal should be that for each core process along the way, whatever is needed is ready and waiting to be worked on at the correct time.  Time is your enemy here.  Map out your processes and determine, based on your capacity, when things have to happen.  Then, define and engineer that result.  Create the expansion joints along the way to allow for the common problems that could happen.

It is up to you to set the tone for your shop and to keep things stable by introducing the expansion joints along the way that will allow for unpredictable changes.