Shop Owners – Train Your Staff So That They Are Decision Makers

A frequent discussion I have with my consulting clients is that they spend an inordinate amount of time solving seemingly minor problems in their shop.  You know the drill, there’s a problem on press…they come to you.  An order didn’t ship right…they come to you.  A client’s invoice is messed up…they come to you.  Which mesh should we use for metallic inks again?  They come to you.

They come to you for every question under the sun, and you stop what you are doing and answer them each and every time.  Even if your office door is closed and you are in a meeting, someone will stick their head in the door and interrupt with the next crisis.  Why not you ask?  Orders have to ship!!  I’m the boss, and it’s obviously important to get things handled.

Guess what?  All of those interruptions are your fault.  You let it happen by conditioning your staff to not make any decisions and to always come to you for the answer.  However, there is a better way.  Try this phrase the next time a problem is dropped in your lap to solve.

“What would you do?”

The challenge that you are going to find, it’s that either you haven’t supported them enough to be responsible for the problem on their own or they haven’t been fully trained in their position to understand the situation.  By turning the question back to them, you are making them think.  I know that might sound dangerous, but having a thinking and self-sufficient staff is the key to moving at a faster pace, and of course, freeing up time for you to tackle bigger challenges.

“What would you do?” posits the problem with them.  Most of the time, they will have the correct answer.  What if they don’t?  Not a problem, as here’s where you would normally step in with the correct answer.

Here are some tips to use to build a better, more self-sufficient and critically thinking staff:

  1. Build standards and rules in place in each department on how all operational tasks are to be handled.  For example you could, design a mesh count chart for the screen room, write a policy that states that all invoices should go out the day after a job is shipped, or art for jobs needs to be approved two business days before the job is scheduled to be run.  You get the idea.  The more standards you have and training you implement, the easier it will be for your staff to know what to do when situations arise.
  2. Have your department managers really manage.  Meaning that anyone with a question should go see them first.  Your managers should be empowered to make decisions.  If any of your staff circumvents your management staff with a challenge, redirect them to the appropriate manager first before you get involved.  The more you continue to have the final rule on things, the more you are going to be asked these questions.
  3. When outlier challenges emerge that don’t fit your norm, pull your staff together once the dust has settled and discuss the situation with everyone.  What happened, and how did we solve the problem?  Celebrate decision making at lower levels.
  4. Let your staff know its ok to make mistakes.  You have their back.  It’s part of the learning process.
  5. You can also train and set limitations for staff on anything that has a monetary value.  For example, give your customer service reps a $500 limit (or whatever you are comfortable with) to resolve problems for their client without having to ok it with management.  This goes a long way to instantly make your customers happy when challenging situations arise.  They could upgrade the freight, use it for a credit memo, or throw in a free screen, whatever.  Have the rep add some notes to the order under invoicing to justify the decision and move on.
  6. After you ask, “What would you do?” be sure to listen intently and ask good follow up questions.  You may even role play a little bit and pretend to be the client or another department to get them to understand the implications of their answer.
  7. Make decision making part of the performance review process.  Celebrate it in these conversations and discuss the employee’s decision making abilities during the review.  What went well?  What was a problem?  Keep pushing it forward, and give your expectations so that everyone is clear on your objectives.

To sum up, the more that you entrust your staff and train them to make decisions, the more time you are going to have to work on bigger challenges.  After all, you are paying your staff to do this work already.  Critical thinking and brain power is part of their job description too.

Still need help resolving some challenges in this area with your shop?  Shoot me an e-mail at and let me help you raise the bar with your staff.

What Does Success Look Like?

Often when people start out on a new task, they just lower their head, grit their teeth, and drive into it.  Outcome?  Who cares…we just want to finish!  Of course, the inherent problem with that is the fact that you may wind up with results that aren’t quite effective as they should be.  That can leave everyone standing around later scratching their heads and wondering, “How did that happen?”

One of the things that I’m always talking about with my management staff is that they need to “Paint the Picture” with their staff, so they are communicating what success should look like when delegating responsibility or assigning someone a new task.  This is especially crucial if you are building a program that could take several months of hard work to complete.

Having a better mental illustration of how the end result may look like to each person, can get better buy-in and more quality work towards your goal.  For example, let’s say you were starting a cross training program where certain staff members are to be trained in a different, and unfamiliar, department.  The goal is to develop a well trained staff, where you have bench strength ready in case of emergency or when work picks up.

For the department manager, “Susie, I want you to think ahead three months from now.  Imagine how nice it will be to be able to take a day off, and not worry about your department falling behind. Having more trained staff members will give you the peace of mind that the work will be completed correctly, efficiently, and without stressing out your normal crew.”

For the potential trainee, “Fred, imagine how great it is going to be to learn a new skill.  We want you to spend afternoons in Susie’s department learning how to do that work.  You have a great attitude, and this is going to make you a more valuable employee.  In a few months, you’ll have a great knowledge base and we’ll be able to use you more.  This is your first step to moving up the ladder.”

For the trainer, “Bill, we think you have some great potential here.  For the next three months, we want you to show Fred how to do everything in your department.  By coaching him every afternoon, you’ll help us strengthen the department, and you will be able to get more accomplished each day.  Remember how crazy it gets in the summer?  Fred is going to help with that stress.  Not to mention, we want to see your managerial capabilities a little more, and how you handle yourself with a leadership task that involves other staff members.”

Painting the Picture is a good conversational tool to use when rolling out something new, solving a challenge, or brainstorming on some innovational topic.  What do you want to do?  How do you define success?  At the end of the journey where will the road take you?  Jot down some notes and tell a story when discussing something with your staff.  Don’t just drone on and on about the procedures and rules that you are trying to push out.

Tip: For even better buy-in involve others in describing what success should look like.  Ask them to describe their pain, and what should be done to resolve it.  Write down their ideas, brainstorm a little bit.  Keep focusing on the topic, and then write a Goal Statement.  People who are part of the process are more apt to dive into the project and ensure its final success, rather than just being told “this is what we are doing”.

Question: How do you define success?  Let’s share ideas!  Post a comment or write to me at

Earning Trust

A lot of companies focus tremendous effort in finding and developing new customers.  You may use a lot of tools, advertising and various schemes to bring them into the fold, and start nurturing a relationship.  However, is that same energy and critical thinking being spend on your existing customers?  When someone does business with you do you make it easy for them, or are there a series of roadblocks that they have to navigate before they hand you their money?  Do they absolutely, with-a-doubt know that you value their business, and would like to ensure that they come back again?

In the past week, I had two experiences with my customers that boiled down to just one simple statement that I said during the conversation – “We aren’t selling t-shirt printing, we are selling trust”  Our customers trust us to get their job handled perfectly, on time, without an issue…every time.  It doesn’t matter if we ship a million orders, if just one goes wrong – that one order is all they are going to remember, as it is crucial to them.

Think about all the energy that you spend every day to ensure that each and every order is handled correctly.  Is it enough?  Do you feel that your customers trust you?  Are you in constant fear that they will go somewhere else for a nickel cheaper price?  Are you adding more value to the relationship than ever before?  Below are some ideas that may help you build better trust with your existing clients.

  1. Spend time with them.  A long time ago I heard the phrase, “People do business with their friends, not their enemies”, and that’s stuck with me all these years.  It’s crucial that you get out from behind your desk and get some face time with your customers.  Sit down and casually chat.  Let them see you and understand you.  It doesn’t have to be about business.  Instead of shipping their next order, personally deliver it.
  2. Be honest.  If you make a mistake, own up to it.  Resolve the problem quickly, eat the cost.  Don’t weasel out of it or try to blame them.
  3. Add value to the relationship.  Introduce them to new potential clients for them.  Share new ideas, books or articles.  Help them with their challenges.  Educate them on new techniques, different things to sell, or industry tricks that can benefit them somewhere down the road.
  4. Make it easy for them to do business with you.  Is your ordering process cumbersome?  Do you require a lot of sign offs and proofing?  Those are certainly necessary as part of the workflow, but is it difficult for your client to handle these?  Are they formatted correctly for your client to even open them?  Is there technology, software or something you could do to make this process simpler?
  5. Do what you say you are going to do.  Keep your promises.  If the order is supposed to ship on the 15th, make sure it does.  Better yet, have it ready to go on the 14th.  Now, multiply that by all the orders in your queue – can you repeat that forever without failing?  If not, what are you going to do about it?  If you don’t have an accurate production schedule, maybe this article will help you:
  6. Be realistic and know your capabilities.  Under promise and over deliver often fails, as it sets you up to project weak promises to your client to begin with.  Better, be realistic with what you are agreeing to and if you can handle it better or earlier then that’s a big bonus.  Exceeding customer expectations is fantastic, but to get a chance to over deliver you must first excite the customer with your original promise.
  7. Do it better than your competition.  Everyone can print a t-shirt or embroider a polo.  What sets you apart from them?  Chances are your competition is using similar equipment and techniques.  How is your customer service?  Your art department?  Your overall craftsmanship?  Look at your business from the outside in – what do you see?  Where are you weak?  What are you going to do about it?
  8. Listen.  Your customers talk to you all the time.  What are they saying?  What are their needs?  Seek them out on social media – what are they discussing there?  Don’t just cram your agenda or monthly super sale down their throat – maybe that’s not something they are interested in, but are ready to buy something else.
  9. Be Yourself.  Nobody likes a fake.  People admire and cling to sincerity.  Project yourself into the conversation and don’t be afraid to show yourself.  On the company front, does your firm have a company culture?  Does everyone from customer service to the shipping department interact with customers the same way?  There isn’t anything worse than to spend a lot of money marketing your company, and then at the point of customer interaction your employees fail you.  Check out this article I wrote about that –
  10. Empathize with others.  Show genuine concern and understanding of the situation.  If your client hands you something they honestly need help with – try your best to solve the problem for them.  They are coming to you for a reason.  Empathize and understand their situation, listen and comprehend what they need…and then go out and hit a home run for them.

Earning trust is usually as simple as being yourself, being honest and doing what you say you are going to do.  Extend that to your company, and that’s how you build your business.  I’d love to hear some examples of how you build trust, or how companies that you deal with have built trust with you.  Feel free to e-mail me at

Feed the Eagles and Starve the Turkeys

There’s one thing for certain in life or business, and that’s there are only so many hours in a day.  Many forces work against us constantly, tugging at our shirt sleeves for attention and time.  I’m often asked how I manage to get so much accomplished in one day.  It’s simple really; use the motto “Feed the Eagles and Starve the Turkeys”.  Here’s what I mean:

Eagles are your top priorities that HAVE TO get accomplished today.  No matter what.  An order has to ship; you have to call a client, send a quote, attend a meeting, write a brief, and hire a staff member, whatever.  You are dead if you don’t do it.  These are your strategic top priorities for the day.

Turkeys are time sinks.  They suck the life out of you by draining one of your most important assets…time.  Maybe you have to sort through ten pages of SKU’s, print a report, or enter pages of hand-written inventory numbers.  These may be somewhat important tasks, and they have to get accomplished too; but if you let the Turkey’s rule they will monopolize your day leaving zero time for your important Eagle tasks.

So how do you define the two and get things going?  After all, you want to be Feeding Eagles right?  Amazingly it is just as simple as writing a to-do list.  Have you ever looked back on your day and wonder “Where did all the time go?  I was supposed to get more accomplished!” Using a to-do list focuses your attention on the Eagles, and pushes the pack of gobbling Turkeys off for a bit.

There are a number of to-do list managers, methods and software that may help you with creating your list.  This article isn’t about them.  I’ve been using daily to-do lists since I was in college at Florida State University back in the early 1980’s.  It used to be a piece of scrap paper, old envelopes worked great.  That morphed into using a dedicated legal pad, and I would highlight items as I accomplished them.  These days I’m using the built in Outlook task manager, as I use that for my e-mail.  The format really doesn’t matter as long as you are consistent.  Here are some tips:

  1. Be brief.  Just a few words for each item.  This is your list.  You know what they mean.
  2. If you are creating a follow up list for items you have delegated to staff – start the line with their name.  I organize these at the top of the page and group them by staff member.
  3. Eagles rise to the top of the list.  Outlook lets you sort them by simply clicking and dragging.
  4. For Super Important Eagles, after I print the list I hand-draw a box around the item or draw a star next to the item so they stand out.
  5. Delegate the Turkeys if you can.  Give clear, concise instructions and the expectation of what you want accomplished.  Make sure you follow up.
  6. Use a calendar.  Look ahead and plan your activities.  Get them on the list with a date assigned to them.
  7. Print the list and carry it with you all day and make notes.
  8. As tasks are accomplished cross them off your list with a pen.  It is very satisfying.  You are getting things accomplished!
  9. Update your list.  Repeat.

Your Eagle tasks are your most important things that you have to do today.  Get these accomplished first.  This doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing the work either.  They just have to be actioned first.  By “feeding” them, this means that you are dedicating time and energy into accomplishing this important goal.  You have to think strategically and prioritize what needs to be accomplished.

If you have a very large project, assign a due date on a calendar and work backwards dividing small segments of the project into chunks.  Make each chunk an Eagle task, due on a particular date.  If you are involving other staff members, make sure you discuss assignments, tasks, and most importantly due dates with them.  Be realistic.

By time “starving” the Turkeys, you make way for the Eagle items to get handled.  Once these are out of the way, you can focus on the Turkey tasks that need to be handled, but aren’t as critical.  Turkeys could be long range items, or tasks that need to be handled, but really don’t have a due date.  Updating an employee handbook, or planning on some training a month or two from now.  Important tasks granted, but not as critical as getting an order produced and shipped, or returning phone call from a client.

The key is to make it work for you. I’ve found that the best way for me is to use one list, one calendar and just update it once a day.  (the “touch it once” rule)  Ten or fifteen minutes of planning in the morning and I’m organized for the day.  Will sorting Eagles and Turkeys work for you?  It all depends on your skills with being organized and disciplined with your tasks.  Try it!

Sometimes the Word “No” is Your Friend

Quite often a lot of companies get into trouble by saying “Yes” to situations that they really should avoid.  It is harder to say “No”, as we’re wired to please, to accept a challenge, to “Get ‘Er Done”.  However, if you stop and think about the situation before you react, you might save yourself a lot of valuable time, money and effort that could be wasted on unfruitful orders.  It’s counter-intuitive, but the word “No” just could be your best friend one day.

Here are some tips to help you make a good decision:

  1. Do you have all the facts?  Quite often, by thinking about the order and writing down everything you’ll need, including a timeline of deliverables, you’ll uncover a hidden challenge that could tip your decision one way or another.  Be sure to ask thorough, detailed questions.
  2. Are you sure you have the expertise?  Accepting a job that requires a skill that you don’t possess is just asking for trouble.  Learning on the job is a great way to travel down the road to ruin at breakneck speed.  Either factor in the cost of bringing in an expert to help you with the lacking skill or just say no to the deal.
  3. Do you have an exact idea on all of your costs?  If you are the guy that just marks everything up by percentage, without understanding all of your production costs, this could mean trouble.  Sometimes extra labor, materials, or other factors are needed to complete a job and if you don’t do a good job on the estimating step you could be working extremely hard, for free.  What’s the point of that?  Use a pricing matrix or schedule (that is built on actual data based on your company) and stick to it.
  4. Do you trust your customer?  There are some clients (you know you have some) that are less than truthful with you about things.  There are just some things about them that would make a used-car salesman proud.  If that’s the case, tread lightly when accepting a deal from them, or someone like them.  Sometimes a polite “Sorry, we can’t handle that order” is better than taking an order that is going to blow up in your face.
  5. Can you fit this order into your production schedule?  Do you even have one?  Hopefully your shop is busy enough that coordinating the jobs and orders requires some planning.  When handed a challenging order request though, if you don’t have a production schedule that you can easily refer to you may be in trouble.  Salespeople are notorious for blindly taking jobs and not worrying about the repercussions.  After all, there not the ones that will have to pay the overtime.  Here’s a follow up article I authored on building a production schedule –
  6. Is there even enough time to do it?  If you know your capabilities per hour, you can deduce how long it will take to run the job.  Unless you can print the job on more than one press or bend the laws of time and physics, sometimes it’s best to pass.  This request is usually centered on a rush job.  Here’s a follow up article I authored on tackling rush orders –

So how do you say NO and not lose your customer or send the wrong message?  Here are some ways you can gently break the news or turn down the order:

  1. Be firm, but not overly defensive or apologetic.  Be honest about the situation, and explain that the project isn’t in your wheelhouse and you are concerned that you will let them down.
  2. If you really would like to do the project, but circumstances are preventing you from agreeing to the proposal, rephrase the challenge by saying “I can’t do this…but I can…”  Rephrase the topic into what you need to be able to accept the deal.  Maybe it will work out in the end.
  3. You can also say NO in the present state if you need more details on how the work might have to be performed.  Have some good notes or research ready and be prepared to explain what you need or what details are unfocused.  You may end up turning down the deal as offered, but your client will be impressed that you thought of an entire series of points that they haven’t contemplated.
  4. How about saying NO to only part of the project?  Maybe you could produce part of the order, and they could contract another part to another vendor.  This could be a good solution if you have some other companies that you share business with from time to time.
  5. Don’t forget that there are only so many hours in a day.  Accepting something that you know you should say NO to, may have a domino effect on other business.  Can you adjust your production schedule accordingly?  If not, explain to the client and show them that you value all of your clients and have a responsibility to them.  After all, they wouldn’t like their order to get bumped if you accepted something else…right?
  6. Another way of saying NO is giving them the cost and time estimate for you to do the work on your terms.  This way, if it does come in you will get paid for what you are worth and have the correct amount of time to produce the job.

Saying NO is hard.  As apparel decorators we are hard wired into thinking that we have to accept every job that comes along, as every company has been through some dry spells.  However, some orders just plain stink.  You can tell they are going to be problems from the moment you hear or read about them.  Sometimes that voice in your head that says DANGER! is right.

How to Improve the Biggest Variable in Your Company: People

Your company’s biggest variable for success is your people.  Everything your company is known for is a direct result of their motivation, engagement, training, effort, and skill.  Chances are you have a good group that already works for you, but there are probably occasions, or maybe even some people in general, that simply don’t measure up.  This article focuses on increasing the performance of your staff:

  1. Lead from the Bottom Up.  Employees are motivated when they feel needed, included, and part of the team.  Communicate your expectations consistently, and define what your company success should look like.  The old adage, “Man supports what he helps create” works here.  Get your staff involved in the decisions, and delegate responsibilities.  People want to contribute!
  2. Make it Easy to Succeed and Difficult to Fail.  Even with complicated or complex tasks, try to make it easy for your staff to do it correctly by giving them the tools for success.  This includes training, support, and leadership.  If they work on equipment, make sure it’s properly maintained and not outdated.  Constantly look for opportunities to change something to eliminate ways someone could fail at their task.  Ask your staff, “What do you need to do this better?”  They will always tell you!
  3. Cross Train.  Want a more motivated and professional staff?  Keep them sharp by constantly training them in other areas of your business.  People naturally want to contribute and learn, and by giving them more opportunities to succeed than just the one role they play your staff becomes more engaged.
  4. Be Proactive.  Building a “Do It Today” company culture is a constant effort.  Your leaders must always encourage your staff to try to think a few steps ahead in everything they do.  Whether it is answering a question for a client, or working on a project; everyone needs to look forward and address any needs that might be just over the horizon.
  5. Set a Good Example.  Company management should walk the walk.  Just like children take their cues from their parents, employees take their cues from their management leaders.  If you have a supervisory role in your company, you should set the bar for your staff.  Think about how you focus on detail; how you execute your job; how you talk, act and perform.  Your staff is looking to see what you do, and a good many of them will emulate your actions.  If you operate with high standards of performance, so will they.
  6. Paint the Picture.  This phrase is something I use constantly.  “Paint the Picture” means that you have to illustrate to everyone how success will look like in the future.  This is especially true if you are trying to define a company culture change.  This leads to some great discussions and if you have a highly engaged staff they will think of things that you never considered.
  7. Be Fair and Equal.  If you are a leader and outwardly play favorites, you are adding to the difficulty in getting your job accomplished.  Whether if it’s how you speak to people or actions you take, you need to be consistently level with everyone.  Whether you like it or not, your staff talks about you and a lot of it is in a gossip type format.  If you give them ammunition by not treating everyone equally, this can lead to employee dissatisfaction, apathy and low morale.
  8. Celebrate Success.  Want more success?  Celebrate when something great happens and include everyone.  Thank everyone for their contributions, and publically acknowledge key performers.  A public thank you goes a long way, and helps reinforce how you define success in your company culture.
  9. “Catch People Doing It Right”.  You’ve heard this one before, I’m sure.  It works.  Don’t always focus on what your staff is doing wrong (of course that’s important too…), instead focus on encouraging your staff when they are improving on something.  Positive reinforcement.
  10. Get rid of the deadwood.  Eventually you’ll discover that you have some staff that regardless of what you do, will never improve or measure up.  These people bring your company down, and like a dead branch on a tree, need to be pruned.  Your performance review program and managers should be working with this type of person all along, but eventually the writing may be on the wall.

12 Ways to Resolve Any T-shirt Shop Problem

One thing is clear in running a t-shirt shop is that there will always be a problem handed to you.  Sometimes these challenges are something that you create.  Sometimes these challenges are something that’s handed to you by a customer, stinky and steaming and you cringe just thinking about how you are going to pull it off.  Either way, there are some foolproof methods to help resolve these and get back to “normal” business quickly.  Here’s a list of things that I do when confronted with a challenge:

  1. Stop and try to understand the problem.  Quite often you won’t get all of the information and you need to dig a little deeper than just what someone hands you.  Maybe they don’t know everything; maybe they are covering their tracks; maybe they were misinformed.  Regardless of the circumstance, I write my own notes and look up the information myself.  I try to talk to everyone involved to get an accurate picture of the challenge.  Don’t stop until you completely understand the situation.  If you are working on something for a client, make sure that you repeat it back to them so that you are absolutely clear on how they see it, and what needs to be done.
  2. Ask who can help?  Maybe the situation is such that you need to bring in other people to help resolve the challenge.  This may be especially true if this is a technical issue with machinery, or a situation with ink, emulsion or other supplies.  There are a lot of reference sites and help available online too.  Not to mention your vendors, call them and ask for customer service or speak to your salesperson.  Don’t just sit there, start asking!!  It’s ok to admit that you don’t know something.
  3. Check to see if you are following procedures, policies or recommendations.  Are you doing what you are supposed to be doing?  How do you know?  Don’t rely on someone just telling you that they are following directions; make them prove it to you.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked about something and was told “we’re doing it right”, only to discover they weren’t.  The next step is always about training to make sure your staff knows what to do, and understands your expectations.
  4. Do you have the training in place?  Quite often it’s not a “worker error”, but a management error that causes the issue.  People need the training and expectations to know what to do.  They simple don’t just get this by osmosis by being in the shop, you have to train them and hold them accountable.  How are you error proofing your shop to eliminate challenges?  Does everyone have access to 100% of the information they need to do their job correctly?
  5. Ask “Why” five times.  This is always a good one and usually works when trying to diagnose and resolve a situation.  Example problem: The ink wasn’t cured properly on the shirt after printing.
    1. One – “Why wasn’t the ink cured?” – The ink needs to be heated to 320 degrees to cure.
    2. Two – “Why didn’t the dryer cure the ink?  The temperature was set for 320?” – Donut probe tests showed that the dryer was set for 320, but in reality the ink was only heated to 295.
    3. Three – “Why do we have the dryer set so low?”  Nobody is doing regular donut probe tests or been trained on this procedure.
    4. Four – “Why don’t we have the training in place?” – Production management failed train and properly supervise the challenge.  Nothing has been scheduled.
    5. Five – “Why haven’t our managers scheduled any training?” – There’s little expectation or accountability for training.  Here’s where you start – build your policies and training.
  6. Do you make it easy?  Do you make it easy for your customers to provide you with the right information?  Do you make it easy for your workers to do their jobs correctly?  If it isn’t effortless, does this add to the problem?  Be sure to ask everyone how you can make things easier.  Listen to what they say.
  7. Documentation.  Check your documentation for the facts.  For receiving issues, look at the packing slip.  For machinery issues, your preventative maintenance logs or settings.  For work orders, check the notes in the system or the client’s PO.  These are just examples, but the idea is the same.  Look it up.  If you don’t have the information, why not?  Get something built so you have the information when needed.  If you can’t find the information how can your staff?
  8. Get out in front of the problem.  Write an action plan, and discuss it with everyone involved.  Set it in motion and get to work.  Be sure to discuss the expectations with everyone and set time lines if possible.  Everyone must agree to the plan, and understand their role in it if they have tasks to accomplish.  If there is any pushback, resolve the challenge further.
  9. Let go of the need to blame.  Who cares how you got into this mess?  How are you going to get out of it?  Sure, you can write somebody up or terminate them if it makes you feel better (and sometimes it is necessary), but that doesn’t resolve your immediate challenge right now.  Get the fire and explosions put out first, then backtrack later and figure out how the blaze started.
  10. Breakdown the problem into smaller chunks.  When faced with an enormous challenge, breaking it down into smaller bits and working on those can get the project started.  I constantly use the phrase “How did the pygmy eat the elephant?” (One bite at a time).  This works!
  11. Be proactive.  Resolve the problem before it starts by working smart.  85% of problems in your shop are the result of management’s failure to properly organize, train, document, build a policy or procedure, or think about how to do something properly.  The 15% remaining balance is just some knucklehead doing it wrong.  Insist that your teams work smart and communicate.  Develop policies and procedures that work.  Train your staff and constantly drill them in the execution of their work.  Follow up.  Make it hard to fail, but easy to succeed.  What’s left is just managing the knucklehead’s in the shop to make sure they are doing everything properly.
  12. Look for more than one solution.  Sometimes the first answer isn’t always the correct one, or the one that ultimately works.  This is better if more than one person is tackling the issue.  Thomas Edison famously had teams of people working on problems, all from different backgrounds.  His famous quote was “I have not failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.  Try one thing, if it doesn’t work what did you learn?  Try something else.  Keep going…

Hope this helps.  If not, and you are stuck on a certain challenge and need some assistance you can always reach me at

Change Your People – or – Change Your People

Last week I attended a wonderful event here in Milwaukee that the WMEP ( produced called “Manufacturing Matters”.  This event was loaded with networking opportunities, information sharing, classes on different subjects, and some really inspiring stories.  The governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, helped open the conference; and the keynote address was delivered by Dan Ariens from the Ariens Company.  Ariens builds and markets snow-blowers under their name and lawn tractors under the brand name Gravely.  (

I really enjoyed Dan’s direct and unflinching look at his company’s journey with Lean, and their struggles to constantly get better.  One of his statements about initiating change was the profound and slightly cryptic “Change Your People or Change Your People”.  My entire job is about change and continuous improvement, so you can see how those words might have struck a chord with me.  I’ve been mulling over that phrase since then.

I’m sure you can interpret that phrase however you’d like, but for me what cracks it like a fastball off a wooden bat is the fundamental motivational challenge for leadership.  “Change Your People” – change their attitudes and expectations for what success looks like.  Change their ability to “own” their work and instill a sense of craftsmanship, and desire to constantly seek improvement opportunities.

The back half of “Change Your People” is about not settling for that person that’s getting in the way of progress.  Another great line Dan shared was about a “CAVEman” – Critical About Virtually Everything – and the need to drive these people out of your organization.  Do you have someone in your company like this?   They constantly complain about everything, but never offer to take charge and lead?  Where are their ideas?

Continuous improvement is always tough sledding.  Identifying challenges is pretty easy.  Working on the problem usually isn’t bad either.  It’s the follow through, and the discipline to keep the change going months down the road that is always the hardest.  When it comes down to it, it isn’t the policies and procedures that score the home runs, it’s the people that you have working for you that do so.  Their attitude, skill, talent and creativity are what you need on your team to be successful.

Change Your People – or – Change Your People.

When You Are Up To Your Ass In Alligators

There is a small sign that used to hang in my dad’s office that reads, “When you are up to your ass in alligators it’s difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp”.  He passed away a long time ago, and I have that sign now.  I have it hanging the back wall of my laundry room and it’s usually the last thing I see before I walk into the garage and leave for work every day.  Occasionally, I’ll think about that sign on my drive to work and reflect on it as I’m thinking about my day ahead.  I’d like to share some of my thoughts about that sign:

  1. Ask the locals.  I’m sure the swamp engineer didn’t take any time to discuss the project with the people that use the swamp about what dangers or challenges would materialize if the water receded.  So if you are starting a big project at your company that is going to affect other people downstream, take a few moments and discuss your plans.  They just might tell you about the wildlife.
  2. Think about “what if”.  Before embarking on a project think about any long term consequences that could arise due to an environmental change.  Planning on switching your operating system, or the way you stage your inventory before production, or the metrics of an attendance plan?  What are you going to do with your alligators once the water starts moving?
  3. You might need some help.  When I think about that phrase I’m always struck with the mental picture of myself standing there alone with dozens of hungry gators, jaws flashing, all of them circling around me for a good angle to get the first bite.  It’s a different picture if I include a team of people though.  Sure, there are all in the same danger, but we would have a better chance of success for the change if we were working together towards that goal.
  4. Does the swamp really need draining?  Swamps actually are good things, but the idea here is that maybe there’s another solution to the challenge that doesn’t involve drastic change.
  5. Rise to the challenge.  Slay the gators.  Sometimes you just have to have the inner discipline and power through the problem.  Whether it’s just you alone, or you have a team beside you, knocking off those angry gators one by one until your mission is accomplished could be the only way out of the challenge.

I hope you found my article helpful.  I’d love to hear from you on how you “Drained the Swamp” and overcome your challenge.  By the way, I like my gator tail double battered in buttermilk and flour and deep fried.  Yummy.

Fried Gator:  2 pounds gator tail cut into chunks, salt and pepper, flour, cayenne pepper, buttermilk, 16 ounce vegetable oil, seafood cocktail sauce of choice

Directions  In a large bowl, toss the gator chunks into the buttermilk, and dredge with flour that has been seasoned with cayenne pepper, salt and pepper.  Double dredge the meat into the buttermilk and flour.  Using a large skillet, heat oil to 350 degrees and fry gator chunks until golden brown, approximately 4 to 5 minutes.

Serve hot and dip in the seafood cocktail sauce of your choice.  Wash it down with a cold beer.