SGIA Expo 2013 Recap – Fantastic Show

I returned from the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association’s Expo show in Orlando yesterday with a really great feeling.  Everyone I spoke with had a positive attitude and their businesses are all up.  Maybe this is a sign that our nation’s economy is really getting back on track, as there’s one thing that people in the printing business know how to do and that’s complain.  When everyone is saying the same thing, you can bet that something is going in a positive direction.

Overall, my impression with the show is an outstandingly positive one.  SGIA took great pains to make the show a success.  They flooded the registration floor with teal jacketed reps and they quickly checked you in and produced your badges for the show floor.  All of them were armed with answers for any question you might throw at them.  I loved the entrance way with fake Lifeguard Towers and some real “lifeguards” who would yell out some fun and snarky comments as the giant throng of show attendees would file in.  It made the cattle stockyard like flow into the show enjoyable.

The show itself was huge, with booths from every corner of the printing industry displaying their new stuff.  The real pleasure though, was bumping into people that I’ve known for years and having a quick chat.  The funny thing was when you were talking to someone, and another person walked into view and you couldn’t get their attention.  It was a who’s who of printing every ten feet.

The show organizers did a great job with educational segments, and had these squared off in industry specific “zones” scattered throughout the show floor.  What was really wonderful was that casual passersby could catch part of the discussion and listen in.   I thought it was a fantastic idea to have these out in the open and not pigeon-holed away in a conference room.  In fact, I was part of a three person expert panel on sustainability on Thursday – “Sustainability Pays Back”, and I presented how Visual Impressions has been able to reduce our operating expenses by focusing our efforts into sustainability and lean thinking.  When I was speaking I kept noticing people sticking their heads in and listening.  There were a few that did that the entire talk!  They should have just stepped in and sat down…

I’m a t-shirt printer, so the textile industry was my area of interest.  Booths in this section where jammed packed, and well attended.  Whether they were selling ink or equipment, lots of orders were written during the Expo.  For me the number one most impressive item was M&R’s new i-Image STE computer to screen system with built in exposure system.  I’ve been a big advocate of computer to screen systems for imaging screens for a long time, but the innovation of adding a LED exposure lamp to the device is a game changer.  I was prepared and armed with a flash drive of some ripped files from our art department.  The tech loaded the art; imaged and exposed my full front file in less than one minute.  58 seconds to be exact.  Now the screen was ready to wash out and use on the shop floor.  As a sustainability guy, I could easily also see the energy savings of switching from using high energy exposure tables to low energy LED’s.  I can’t wait to calculate the ROI on that alone.

Lastly, if you’ve ever been to a trade show or convention before you know that the real gems aren’t on the floor or in the booths, but in the “in-between” moments.  Grabbing a cup of coffee, meeting for lunch somewhere, or even a few beers after the show ends.  Those are the great moments and the real benefit of attending these shows.  Lots of shop talk and note comparing on best practices, tips and tricks, and how other people resolve the same daily challenges.  I know from talking with other industry friends that some shop owners or managers say that they can’t “afford” to attend shows like this and they don’t have anything to offer.  That’s about as wrongheaded as you can get.  From my perspective, the shops that I see walking around the floor are always the ones that seem to be ahead of the curve on techniques, equipment, technical knowledge and business practices.  Getting out of your shop and exposing yourself to success is probably one of the number one things you can do to increase the chances that your shop will grow and prosper.  To use one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People – you have to “Sharpen the Saw”.  Shows like the SGIA Expo do just that.  Bravo!!

What is the Voice of the Customer for T-shirt Shops?

Let’s pretend that you have some sort of science fiction mental telepathy mind meld with your customers. (Uh, you mean you don’t already?)  You can see and understand their every thought, just like reading a book.  It’s all right there.  What do you think they are saying about your company?

Based on my personal experience, here are some top ideas to get you more connected with your own customers.  (Sales gurus everywhere call this understanding the “Voice of the Customer”)

  1. Price.  For a lot of customers, incredibly it’s not always about price.  People are willing to pay more if they like the sales experience, or see that you are providing value.  The apparel industry has somewhat of a reputation of companies undercutting each other and eating the dead.  Here’s a fact: There’s always someone that’s willing to do it cheaper.  However, not many companies are willing to do it better.  The guy that does it better is the one that typically has larger margins, and is more successful.  Add value to your sales proposition, and don’t give away the shop.  Charge for your work.  “Price shopper” type clients will never be loyal, but the customer that sees and understands your value and trusts you with their relationship will always be there.  That’s who you want.
  2. Expertise.  Position yourself as the expert in the field.  Build your shop reputation with demonstrating your vast industry knowledge.  Customers want and need someone to solve their problems for them.  Is that something you can offer?  Do they know to turn to you for guidance?  Get the reputation as a problems solver and watch your client base grow.  Demonstrate that expertise by doing things other printers can’t, including keeping your quality up and hitting deadlines.
  3. Partner.  Long term clients are seeking a solid foundation to expand their business.  You are not selling printed t-shirts, you are selling trust.  Your customers want you to be integral to their success by constantly hitting home runs for them.  Make that relationship easy.  A few times, you may have to help them with something without getting anything in return.  Earn that trust by being a good partner and provide the value your customers are seeking.  Missing deadlines, quality issues, making excuses, being hard to deal with, or other challenges erode that trust.  It’s hard, but not impossible to earn it back.
  4. Listen.  Trust me, it’s not about you.  Your customer wants you to listen to them.  Close your mouth and open your ears.  What are their problems?  What are their challenges?  Remember the old Stephen Covey rule from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.  This is profoundly true in your customer relationships.  Don’t just sell them a box of printed shirts – solve a problem for them.  Stop “selling”.
  5. Make It Easy.  Make your buying process easy for the customer to do business with you.  Regardless if you are a brick and mortar shop or online, the more hurdles people have to jump over to hand you their money, the less likely they are to do so.  Make the check out or buying process smoother by thinking it through.  Provide accurate and timely information for them.  Help with artwork or digitizing.  Discuss creative solutions for problems.  Suggest different ways a client could structure their order to save time or money.
  6. Avoid Problems.  Customers see you as the expert.  Help them understand situations by explaining ways they can avoid problems by doing something proactively.  Anybody can “sell” them something.  Not everyone can walk them through the process and provide them with good information to proactively avoid a challenge.
  7. Be Creative.  Let’s face it, not everyone is loaded with creative talent.  Customers will often turn to you for help with their art.  If your art department rocks, then so will your sales.  If you are somewhat lacking in this area, think about how beefing this up can help strengthen your business.  Don’t have the money for a full-time staff?  There are tons of freelancers out there.  It’s no secret that the top shops around the country have the best art departments.
  8. Professional.  Have you ever looked at your company through the eyes of your customer?  When they walk in the front door are they greeted by someone warm and friendly?  Is your shop clean and orderly?  Is everyone on your staff courteous and helpful?  Do you have preprinted information handy that is branded and well-designed?  If your customer experience is somewhat lacking, or your staff has the social skills of a doorknob, put some thought and effort into revamping this area.  You wouldn’t expect any less from stores or companies that you use, so why do you put up with it in your shop?  If your customers aren’t raving to you about your staff and how awesome they are, you aren’t doing this right yet.
  9. Connect Personally.  It seems that the larger the shop grows, the less likely they will personally connect with the people behind their orders.  Purchase orders come in, are routed through your system, invoices are paid.  There might be little face to face or human interaction.  Get out from behind your desk every once in a while and go say thank you.  Personally deliver the next order.  Be sincerely appreciative.  Don’t have time for all that?  How about a five minute phone call.  Don’t talk business, just say thank you and ask about them.
  10. Value.  Yep, #1 was about value too.  It made the list twice as it’s that important.  Trust me on this…everyone can print or embroider a shirt.  You have a lot of competition.  Like other industries, your competition is moving online.  It’s a commodity.  Do you know what your value proposition is for your company?  What do you offer that can’t be matched?  Artwork?  Quality printing?  Customer service?  Turn-around time? Your customers want value for their money.  This is what you develop and market.   Brand this idea, and constantly talk about it.
  11. Bonus – The UnexpectedFor each order, your customers come to you for whatever they are ordering.  What can you do to make the experience so over the top that they rave about it to everyone?  “Because you are such a great customer”…  Throw in a few extra embroidered polos or printed sweatshirts with the next order for free.  Maybe some coozies with their logo printed on them.  Deliver it a day or two early.  Waive the screen fees.  Have it delivered with a box of doughnuts or a pizza.  Be creative.  Your goal is to wow the customer to the point that all competitors fail in comparison, and they will brag about you to everyone they know.

Hope these ideas help you with your shop.  If you’d like to explore some of these points more in depth, please contact me at matkinson4804@gmail.com and let’s set up a time to chat.

Is Your Shop Stagnant? Why Innovation is the Road to Success

Let me ask you some simple questions.  Be honest to yourself while you think about your answer.  Are you a shop that constantly seeks to reinvent itself, improve and get better?  Or are you the shop that sits there enviously and wonders “how do those guys do it?”  This is important, as I see all too many shops closing these days because they can’t compete.  The used equipment resellers are loaded for bear, and their inventory has never been more stocked.  Why is that do you think?

It’s not just the smaller shops either.  Bigger ones are going down in droves as different market forces and other factors affect their business.  So how are some shops not only staying in business, but actually growing?  Innovation.

Stronger, healthier companies are constantly seeking new avenues for continuous improvement.  They are looking toward the future, taking some calculated risks, experimenting, and driving change in their shop.  Professionals practice and develop their game.  It’s the ones with their heads down that just take orders and print, never looking up or facing the market that are going to be left wondering where their business went.  Below are a few ideas that I’ve been working on lately.  Think about how these might affect your shop a year or two down the road.

Innovation for Better Margins.  The margin is simply the difference between what it costs you to decorate the garment and what you are charging.  There’s always enormous price pressure in the apparel decoration industry, regardless of the market niche you are serving.  Yet, few shops really do anything to help build their margins.  Some can’t even tell you realistically what their actual margin even is.

  1. Sustainability.  Sure it’s good karma being “green”, but building a sustainability program in your shop forces you to review all of your processes, materials, and wasted motions to see if they really matter.  It’s hard work, and takes a good foundation of solidly trained staff members to pull off, but you can add thousands of dollars to of your bottom line by implementing a sustainability program.  For a more detailed answer check out this article I wrote for Impressions Magazine – http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/Why-a-Sustainability-2110.shtml
  2. New Products to Try.  Your vendors come out with new products constantly.  In fact, I’ll bet you have some unused samples sitting in the same box they were delivered to you in from six months ago.  You never opened it for whatever reason.  Too busy, didn’t ask for it, loyal to a competitive product, etc.  That, my friend, is foolish.  You should always be looking for the newer, better, cheaper product.  When was the last time you went to a trade show?  I try stuff constantly, and let the staff using the product gauge whether it works for them before deciding about it.  Some are instant hits, some are ok, and some are complete dogs.  You will never know unless you open the box and find out.
  3. Training.  Innovation by Training?  Sure…as unless your staff actually knows how to do something, how would they have a concept on how to improve it?  Taking someone from customer service and teaching them how to ship, or taking someone from the screen room and instructing them on how to set up a job….those just may be the next people on your staff to have the epiphany on how to do something better.  Here’s how you can effectively build a Cross Training Program in your shop: http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/Why-Cross-Training-I-6026.shtml
  4. Automation.  When was the last time you looked at the labor steps needed to do anything in your shop?  From typing in an order, all the way through production, to invoicing.  Many hands touch that job.  How much time would you save if you reduced the steps necessary for each task along the way?  Have you conducted any time studies?  Technology, software and help is out there and early adopters seize a competitive advantage when they understand their numbers so well that they can spend the capital it takes to acquire new technology.  Are you doing anything to innovate in these areas?  Why not?  Your competitors are.

Innovation for New Techniques.  Do you ever just “try” something to see if you can make it work or figure it out?  Other industries call this Research and Development, or R&D for short.  Stretching your creative muscles once in a while when it doesn’t matter and nobody is looking can reap big benefits as you could master a technique or even invent something new.  Take that new skill and bring it to market.  Make money on it.  Here are some thoughts to get you started:

  1. Listen to Your Customers.  What do they want?  Where are they going?  When was the last time you actually sat down with them over a cup of coffee or a plate of BBQ for lunch and asked them?  Partner with them and solve a problem for them.
  2. Experiment.  When was the last time you tried to foil a DTG print?  Print off the seam of the shirt?  Screen print on an inflatable toy?  Fold shirts differently to get a drop ship set in a smaller (and less costly) polybag?  Eliminate masking tape on screens?  Print eight metallic inks on one shirt, without pick up?  Print over hoodie seams without a special platen?  We’ve done all of those, and more.  The “What If” question is a big one.  How are you handling it?  Here’s a bunch of shots of our shop that I’ve taken and loaded on my Pinterest board “Behind the Curtain at a T-shirt Shop” – http://pinterest.com/atkinsontshirt/behind-the-curtain-at-a-t-shirt-shop/
  3. Ask Your Vendors.  I do this all the time.  I state the challenge that I’m trying to resolve and partner with them to work towards the solution.  Some are easy, as there’s a ready-made product.  A few aren’t really in their wheelhouse, but they may have experience or knowledge that could steer me in the right direction.  How good is your relationship with your vendors?  Do you treat them as partners, or do you put them off and keep them at arms-length?
  4. Adopting or Trying New Technology.  Still using film for screens?  Do you waste time digitizing your own files?  Have you looked into Direct to Garment printing?  Do you have an order entry system?  Do you have an online presence? There’s an old adage that says “The only constant in life is change” – this is true of business.  Either you adapt or you will soon become obsolete.  There is technology, services, equipment and expertise out there that can make your business stronger, faster, leaner, and more profitable.  What was the last thing you tried?

Innovation for Exercising the Creative Mind.  Unless you are a blank apparel distributor you probably don’t sell much undecorated product.    We all have our market that we sell to…but what have you developed lately that is creative and would set yourself apart from your competition?  Or, even worse, what are they doing that is going to take your customers away from you?  Adding value to your sales proposition should be one of your key strategies this year.  Have you even thought about it, or are you just like a lot of apparel decorators and just sit and wait for the orders to come in by themselves?

  1. Look to Other Industries for Inspiration.  Put your thinking cap on and try to see things from another person’s perspective.  How would a technology driven company or an equipment manufacturer look at the challenge?  Would they make the same choices you would?  Any material, training, process, or thinking that you could apply to your situation?  Being creative isn’t all art related, as creative thinkers are problem solvers.  Step outside what you know and see things from another’s viewpoint.  What would you change?
  2. Borrow Ideas from Others.  I like to watch the show “Chopped” on the Food Network.  The show’s premise is that they take four chefs and give them a basket of crazy ingredients to use to compete against each other for three separate dishes.  With each round, one chef is eliminated until there is a winner.  What’s creative about the show is that they are taking diverse elements that might not ever be paired together and forcing the competitors to create something not only new but delicious.  What if you took this idea and used it in your shop?  What list of weirdo things could you combine to make something that would sell?  This is where the “Gee, I never would have thought of that” ideas come from.  If you are only taking and producing orders you will never do this.  Get out of your rut!!
  3. Ask Your Staff.  Maybe you aren’t creative.  But I’ll bet you employ some that are very creative.  What’s the one thing that they have always wanted to try?  Find some time and have a shop contest to develop the wackiest idea to showcase your creative juices.
  4. Take a Field Trip.  This could be just to the mall or a trade show.  Bring a notebook.  Take pics.  What do you see?  Sit around the coffee shop later and debate what was really cool, and what would work for your shop.  The best discussions are the ones that are freely and unconsciously made.  Don’t try to squeeze them into a meeting.  Talk.

Hopefully this article is the catalyst that starts some innovation with your shop.  I would be very interested to know if you developed any ideas after reading this article.  I’m all about sharing ideas, so let’s trade!  E-mail me directly if you don’t want the world to know…  matkinson4804@gmail.com.

20 Biggest T-shirt Shop Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

I have over 25 years in the apparel decorating business, and I’ve seen a lot of challenges come and go.  I’ve also heard my share of horror stories from other decorators from hanging out in trade shows, classes, seminars, webinars, and trolling the various internet forums over the years.  Below is a list of the 20 Biggest Mistakes that I’ve heard of, and a comment or two on how you can avoid them.  These aren’t ranked – I’m writing them as I remember them.  There’s a comment section below if you’d like to add yours…as I’m positive that won’t touch on everything in the industry.

  1. Not being honest.  Seriously, this is the biggest mistake you can make, and I know I said I wasn’t going to rank these…but this would be number one if I did.  In any business you have to be honest with people.  Your clients, your employees, your vendors…everybody.  Once you start stretching the truth, it’s hard to get that genie back in the bottle.  Believe it or not, there are people that I know in this industry that are less than honest (you know who you are…) and feel it’s acceptable to conduct business this way.  If you run your business and cover up your challenges (missed ship dates, art issues, inventory counts, shirt defects, employee pay, freight tracking, etc.) with small lies, it’s not too late to stop.  Sooner or later those small lies come out too easily, and larger lies start surfacing too.  Then word gets out, and everyone knows…  Instead, just accept the fact that mistakes happen, things don’t go your way, and be truthful about the situation.  Own up to your shortcomings and do whatever you need to in order to make it right.  It will be ok.  Read this for more info: http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/The-Heartbeat-of-Any-5513.shtml
  2. Not documenting your inventory.  Whether you are purchasing your own stock, or your customers send it in, your receiving team must be 100% accurate with their counts and verify everything as quick as they possibly can.  Accuracy is key, but speed is a factor too as you want to report any discrepancies as soon as possible for resolution.  If possible, get your vendors or customers to send in packing lists with the goods and check against that.  Everything must be counted and checked in by your team.  Don’t take anyone’s word – as if anything comes up “missing” you may have to purchase the deficit to complete the order.  It’s just a better practice to count everything, no matter what, and verify you have what you need.  Otherwise, this could be a very expensive problem.
  3. Hourly employees clocking in late.  Before I instituted a tardiness program a long time ago, I had an employee that would clock in late all the time.  His cavalier attitude made me wonder how much time was he really late.  I had his timesheets pulled for a three month period and he was late a cumulative amount of over 40 hours!  Build a policy, make it fair, put it in your handbook, and stick to it.  This relates to:
  4. Hourly employees clocking in whenever they want.  Overtime is not a right, and should be approved in advance.  Just because someone “wants” to work late doesn’t necessarily mean that this is really needed.  Especially if other members of the same department aren’t getting their full 40 hours.  Make a schedule, divide up the work.  Stress teamwork.  If you are really busy and extra time in a project is warranted, then OT is ok of course.  Keep track of everyone’s hours with a spreadsheet or other reporting tool.
  5. Agreeing to work you can’t do.  Salespeople are notorious for this the world over, and this probably will never change.  They will sell a job – the particulars don’t really matter for this example – that is beyond the capabilities of the shop to produce, it gets dumped in productions lap with the instructions “just make it work”.  Hopefully your shop has a production schedule that’s easily understood by everyone, with comprehension on what can be booked and added to the schedule.  What are the technical limitations of the shop?  How much can you possibly print or embroider in one shift?  What are the costs of overtime?  Do yourself a favor and track the actual costs of some of these gems and compare to what was actually charged.  Are you still making money?  Check out this article to learn more about rush orders: http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/nielsen/impressions_201302/#/46
  6. Putting up with “Deadwood Fred”.  A lot of shops have someone like this – you know this guy.  He has a real lazy attitude, but sometimes has flashes of real skill, so management puts up with him.  He’s a morale killer, and your floor managers talk about him at least once a week.  Nobody has written him up or disciplined him ever, so HR says if you terminate him it could cost the company money.  This is why a robust performance review program will either get Fred to be a solid performer, or if he doesn’t improve either drive him to self-terminate or build enough documentation on his unprofessional work performance that you can defend your decision in court if need be.  Make sure your managers are documenting and disciplining him for any challenge as it comes up.  I’ve always believed that if you have to terminate for performance issues it shouldn’t be a surprise to the employee.  Check out this article to learn more: http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/Build-a-Better-Perfo-2579.shtml
  7. Ink don’t think.  Not very grammatically correct on purpose, but before you start blaming the ink you are using look at all the mechanical processes that go before it.  It may be the ink, but it may also be the art, the screens, the press, the print set up, squeegees, your people….really any number of things.  Volumes of books have been written on the proper ways to screen-print, so I’m not going to get bogged down in them here; but let’s just say that you need to rule out some things first.  Lastly, and very contradictory, maybe it is your ink.  At least that’s what the other sales rep says.
  8. Know your market.  In just about every t-shirt shop across the country, someone comes in about once a week with the “GREATEST T-SHIRT IDEA EVER”.  Very, very few succeed in developing their idea and bringing it to market.  Why?  They just don’t understand it and are lazy.  Pick any day and read comments and questions left by these people on the t-shirt forums and you’ll see the same refrain.  The successful start-ups all do the homework.  They have a written business plan.  They understand their market, their competition, how to sell and at what price.  They go in conservatively and usually with pre-sold inventory; which reduces their out of pocket expenses.  The t-shirt shops don’t really care – it’s a sale.  Get that cash up front though.
  9. Lack of training – When I visit shops all across the country two things immediately stand out.  Shops that are organized and well trained hum like a well-oiled machine.  These shops have a cross-training program, deploy people as needed.  Press operator sick?  No problem as they have three or four people that can fill in for him.  On the other hand, shops that are highly segmented and have the mentality that certain staff members are pigeon-holed in their jobs…or worse, the production management is too lazy or undisciplined to build a training program are rife with problems.  People don’t know what to do; and must always be “told”.  The shop runs like a dictatorship.  These shops have an apathy and morale problem, usually more overtime, and a higher defect rate than most.  Check out this article to learn more: http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/Why-Cross-Training-I-6026.shtml
  10. Lack of Organization – Running a shop by the seat of your pants can work for some folks, but there are probably times where this method becomes a big challenge.  Thoughtful, organized and creative managers know that eliminating clutter, putting the tools next to the work, and planning every single aspect gets them to their goals faster, cheaper, and better than just using the “cross your fingers and pray” method.  If you have to have a daily production meeting with your production and sales staff in order to sort out what’s going to be produced today, you aren’t doing it right.  Be disciplined in your approach and have high levels of communication that everyone in the shop can understand.  For more info on how to build a production schedule that works read this: http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/How-to-Build-an-Accu-1469.shtml
  11. Not understanding cost control.  Larger shops understand the benefit of keeping a tight rein on material costs.  I hear this all the time as smaller shops complain that they can’t understand how a larger shop can undercut their price by such a large margin and still make money.  Chances are that they could be making even more of a percentage profit, as the larger shops filter through more work through their shop and have standardized and automated a lot of the processes.  Better run shops also do their homework and analyze everything.  While one shop may purchase their ink in one gallon buckets, more forward thinking ones won’t think anything of bringing in a 30 or 50 gallon drum of the same ink (usually white or black ink), as they know that they’ll use this ink up over the course of a year.  While a smaller shop can waiver on whether or not to purchase some new equipment; more aggressive and smart shops do the math and determine the ROI (return on investment) of purchasing the equipment as they can calculate the reduction in material, labor, energy or other factors for their shop.  It isn’t a “gut decision”, but one proved with math, which makes it easy.  Also, shops that understand the value in building better margins, also understand the value in building a sustainability program.  Sure, it’s good for the environment and your karma to be green – but the main business value-add is towards your bottom line.  Here’s the link to my article on this: http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/Why-a-Sustainability-2110.shtml
  12. Lack of Communication – This is crucial.  When I meet other business people in a social setting – chamber of commerce breakfasts, after hours events, or receptions at tradeshows – one of my favorite icebreaker questions I ask is “What is your biggest problem that you work on daily?”  I ask this question to everybody, even people outside the apparel decoration industry.  The most common response is lack of communication.  This can be internally with your staff or externally in dealing with your customers.  How are you handling this common problem?  Do you have a disciplined approach to taking orders?  (Purchase orders or forms must be filled out)  Or do you shoot from the hip and an e-mail is good enough?  Do you send out art approval forms and have the client approve the art before anything gets produced?  Do you have all the notes, instructions and anything that can make the production for the order go smoother in your system, on the work order, and available for your staff to read?  If production has to stop to go ask someone a question before running the order, you aren’t doing this right.  An extra three to five minutes by your sales or customer service staff adding more detail to your order, can save someone in the back shop up to an hour in production time.  You have to insist that this communication happens, and constantly train on it with your staff.
  13. Safety – I’ve been in a lot of t-shirt production shops over the years.  Some are surgical operating room clean, with everything neat, orderly and ready to work.  Some look like a tsunami just hit.  Some are in between.  The apparel industry in general is that is prone to safety challenges if not managed correctly.  About once a year, you read online about a shop that went up in flames, or someone was seriously hurt, because a staff member wasn’t paying attention.  This is 1000% a management challenge.  It doesn’t take much for some hanging lint to catch fire, a can of spray tack to go down the dryer and explode, the forklift driver to run over somebody, or someone to get whacked by a rotating platen on an automatic press.  These things can happen in an instant.  Are you ready?  Better yet – what are you doing to prevent these accidents from happening in the first place?  When was the last time you had a fire drill at your shop?  What about fire extinguisher training?  Do you have written policies and procedures?  Do you even know what PPE’s are and how to use them?  (Personal Protection Equipment such as safety goggles, gloves, or earplugs)  Do you have a training program?  For some thoughts regarding this topic, check this out:  http://impressions.issshows.com/screen-printing-business/How-to-Implement-a-S-4122.shtml
  14. Lack of Strategic Planning – A lot of shops are reactive.  That is to say they just sit there and wait for the business to come to them, or wait until they need or forced to do something to alter their thinking.  Why wait?  Like a chess game, the shops that have a leadership mentality are usually the ones that are ahead of the curve and take a proactive stance on everything…they think three moves ahead.  They research and constantly are looking for an edge.  This could be in how they market their shop and attract new business.  It could also be how they look at decorating by adding new techniques or experimenting with developing new revenue streams that are different than their core business.  Strategic planning is innovating and constantly changing their business to suit what’s going on in the real world.  They take advantage of opportunities.  For example, it’s no surprise that digitally printing a shirt is growing in popularity, speed and techniques.  Eventually, this could surpass traditional screen printing for a lot of shops.  Where are you on this topic have you done any research at all?  How will you adapt to changes in your market sector?  What are you innovating?  For some thoughts on preventing problems when planning check this out: http://atkinsontshirt.blog/2013/02/12/when-you-are-up-to-your-ass-in-alligators/
  15. Being prepared to work – What I’m referring to here is how your shop is laid out, and how you are prepped to get more work through your shop on a daily basis.  In a lot of shops I’ve seen, the press crews have to go looking for stuff – the next order, a new squeegee, their ink, screens or even the shirts to print.  You should have the next job ready to go, with the work order, shirts, inks and screens available.   I call this “kit-packing”.  Management’s role in this is to determine ways to make it easier for their staff to work.  You should have duplicate tools at every press.  If you haven’t done so already, either take a video camera and film your press crew working or make a “spaghetti-diagram” of a press while they work.  Record every step, every motion it takes to get the last job broken down and the next one up and running.  Hopefully the press crew stays around the press and doesn’t have to walk across the shop to get anything.  If they do, you aren’t managing the process efficiently.  What can you change to minimize the downtime?
  16. It’s the way we’ve always done it – Have you ever heard this statement at your shop?  Ten years ago, a production manager instilled a process at your shop.  That guy is long gone now, but his goofy way of doing something is still around.  Every day your staff still does it like he wanted, but nobody ever thinks to change it.  Why is that?  The answer is simple – it’s because they aren’t empowered to think for themselves and nobody has ever asked them their opinion if there is a better way.  You can’t just be so narrowly focused that you miss big picture ideas.  Have an open mind.  Ask your staff daily what their problems are, what they need to succeed and better yet, what ideas they have that they would like to implement.  Worse yet, YOU are the guy that has the goofy way of doing something.  You run the shop with an iron hand and aren’t interested in anybody else’s ideas or new ways of thinking.  That’s not you is it?
  17. That guy is trying to sell me something!  Do you have a good relationship with your vendors?  Are you open to new ideas, new products, and new relationships?  How many times have you not opened an e-mail or taken a phone call because there is a salesperson on the phone and “he’s trying to sell me something”.  A long time ago I remember reading a two panel cartoon that had a great effect on me on this topic.  The first panel was a drawing of an inside of a teepee with an Indian tribal council.  The chief was being stopped by one of his warriors who pointed outside, and the chief says “Not now, can’t you see I’m busy?”  The second panel has the same warrior telling the Gatling gun salesman that the chief wasn’t interested because he didn’t want to waste his time talking to a sales guy.  Ever since then, I’ve always been interested in whoever has something to sell – as you never know.  I always listen, read, or try out the product and evaluate if it’s something that has merit.  Through the years, new products have been the difference on some major projects and innovative ideas.  Not everything is a golden gem, but it often pays to increase your understanding.
  18. OJT – On the Job Training – I’m throwing this in here for all the knuckleheads that I read about on the apparel forums that are always complaining about the rush order they took that centers around a process that they’ve never produced before.  CYMK printing, rhinestones, applique, high density, flocking, etc.  Some aren’t so difficult to learn or master, but they wait around until they sell the job and are forced into a production corner.  This really comes down to the owner or salesperson accepting the job in the first place.  Sure, there’s a chance for success and I’m positive that plenty of people have knocked a home run out of the park with their first try at something.  However, strategy-wise it’s much smarter and less risky to learn how to do a process and then over-promise and under-deliver.  Smarter shop owners would out-source the job to keep the client happy, and then spend the necessary time learning and mastering the technique.
  19. Artwork matters.  I’m sure it’s the ex-Art Director in me, but it’s surprising how few people understand the relationship and difficulty with not only designing a creative image for the shirt, but also being able to technically separate the art so it will print well.  You see this constantly when dealing with folks in the ad agency or fashion world.  They will create art that’s either extremely difficult to print, or virtually impossible due to location, number of colors, or just simply how the pasted the art onto a t-shirt template.  A great piece of art is not only technically sound – meaning it’s created to be able to be mechanically reproduced with minimal challenges on press; but it’s also designed with some creativity and flair.  You know a good t-shirt design when you see it, just as you know a bad one.  Not a lot of t-shirt shops ship blanks shirts, so let’s pay more attention to the art part of the process.
  20. Not pricing jobs correctly.  The key to long term survival in this industry is just basic business sense.  Pricing jobs correctly and understanding all the costs involved with your shop are crucial.  As with any business, labor is your biggest variable and expense.  That’s why the exercise of just throwing more people at a problem to get the order out the door might work in the short term; but if you are constantly doing and the cost isn’t reflected in what is on the invoice you are headed into trouble.  Every year, the cost of freight, supplies, apparel, taxes, etc. all rises slightly.  Are you modifying your price lists?  Undercutting your competition to get the job, may keep you busy but it won’t guarantee that you will be profitable.  A stronger and more viable method is to understand the relationship between all of your costs, how you are building your quotes, and outside market factors.

Ok, so that’s 20 things to think about for how your shop operates.  Are you being as effective and efficient as you can be?  What challenges weren’t on the list?  If you’d like share your experience add your comment below, or shoot me an e-mail at matkinson4804@gmail.com and let’s discuss it.

Keys to Success – Building an Accurate Production Schedule

Hopefully your sales are at a point where your production schedule is crowded and full of orders to produce.  As everyone knows, it’s pretty easy to prioritize work when there are fewer jobs to sort through.  However, once the schedule is full and moving towards over-capacity that’s when any production manager will start to feel over-whelmed and liken the experience to juggling running chainsaws.  This article is written with the aim of outlining the need to link building an accurate production schedule with the understanding that every person in the company plays a role in this effort.

The basic goal in having a production schedule is to prioritize and predict when an order will hit the production floor, and the duration of that particular Work Order’s production cycle.  This information has to be shared with the customer service and sales staff, and built so that they can be trained to comprehend the schedule and make some decisions regarding accepting new orders.  There is nothing worse that the cold hard stare a production manager will give a sales rep when they hand them a newly entered rush order that “has to go” on an already booked day.  Something has to give, and it’s usually the order that’s been scheduled and sitting for two weeks.  By having the full involvement of EVERYONE in the company regarding the schedule those circumstances can be mitigated.  The age-old theory of overbooking print production that’s akin to overbooking an airplane flight, where the airline will purposely sell more tickets than they have seats and just issue a voucher for the guy that gets bumped, just doesn’t work in a production environment and leads to upset clients, stressed out staff and increased labor costs.  There is a better way.

The production schedule has to be published on a calendar and made available as a company-wide reference tool.  Whether you are using software such as Shopworks, a whiteboard, or just a big cork bulletin board with index cards that represent orders, defining your system and setting up some rules and standards that have to be followed will go a long way in keeping your schedule current.  Standardizing the work, lead times and actions that your staff must follow is the only way to getting a predictable schedule.  Tailor any standards to your work, company culture and clientele, but here are some I would suggest using:

  1. Orders from the client must be entered 100% accurately in the system, with as many notes, instructions and detailed information as possible.  Anytime someone in production has to “go upfront” to find out what the client wants to do for the order is downtime that can throw your schedule off in big chunks of time.  An extra two minutes on order entry can save twenty times that on the shop floor in downtime (with the press crews standing around wondering what to do and NOT printing).  Complete written information, a color copy of the design showing placement on the shirt, and even a previously printed sample (if available) will go a long way towards keeping your presses churning.
  2. Orders must have an accurate ship date listed.  It’s extremely common for sales and customer service to “pad” the ship date for an order, as they may have learned to distrust the production staff on when something will be ready.  This does everyone in the company a disservice, as the production staff knows this and doesn’t trust ANY dates put in the system so it’s a vicious cycle.  I would encourage your company to use the real information, as production scheduling decisions need to be based on exactly when something has to ship, and not a moving target.  This cannot be stressed enough.   If your production manager has ever asked “when does this really need to ship?” – You are not doing it right.
  3. There needs to be some sort of visual prioritization method for “important orders”.  Yes, I know all orders are equally important, but what I’m referring to are those orders that are associated with an event date, key customer, or some other reason the order is a priority.  These are the orders that will be scheduled and produced first to ensure that they are completed on time.  The visual could be a different colored paper the work order is printed on, the job name typed using bold text, or a “$” is placed in front of the client’s PO in the system so it can be searched and ranked easily.  Whatever your method, giving the production staff a visual heads up on these types of orders instantly communicates the importance and saves time.  If you have this set up well, you don’t need a special daily production meeting to communicate daily production priorities.
  4. Workflow standards.  I would suggest having a basic set of guidelines as to targeted deadlines for tasks to occur.  When these don’t happen according the standard there has to be an adjustment somewhere with the schedule and how you are organizing your production.  For example:
  5. Work Orders must be processed the same day as the PO comes in.  The day the customer wants the order delivered isn’t going to change, so if it takes a day or two for the order to be entered you are short changing your production staff.   Orders are not complete until all information is received.  Before pushing the work order out to the floor, order entry performs a quality control step to ensure the order entered is 100% accurate.
  6. As a daily task, Production Scheduling reviews the orders placed in the system the previous business day and regardless of when it ships, schedules the order to an actual production press on the day that the job has to start to completely finish production the day before the published ship date of the order.  This happens for all orders, every day.  For the production scheduler this is where understanding the capacity of the press per shift, and what types of orders are commonly printed on each press will help.  (more on that later)  The goal is to constantly focus the production schedule based on real information, and always be proactively looking out several days in advance.  This is the most important key to getting a predictable production schedule for your company – you have to schedule the job immediately and work backwards on when everything is due.
  7. Approved art is due back from the client two days before the job is set to run.  This gives the art department time to separate the file and update your system with accurate art notes regarding PMS colors, mesh counts requested, flash and cool down stations, and print order.  I recommend that a color copy showing the art and placement on a shirt is printed and placed with the Work Order documents.
  8. Receiving should have 100% of the inventory for the job, all hangtags, stickers, boxes or other items needed to produce the order, at least one day before the job is to run.  Blanks need to be verified and counted against the Work Order.  If complete, organize the complete job inventory in an area by the last digit of the Work Order for easy staging by the production team.
  9. Seps need to be ready for the screen room and screens burned on the specified mesh for each plate one day before the production run.  This ensures that the screens are ready and can be staged with the blank inventory prior to production.  Presses should never be waiting for screens to come out of the screen room.  Group the screens together on the staging rack, and use a piece of masking tape to label the screens by Work Order number and ship date.
  10. The production team’s goal is to completely print the job one day before the order has to ship (with the real ship dates).  This is an admirable goal, but as they say “production happens”, and won’t always be achieved.  That’s ok.  By working proactively to finish orders early, this also leaves room for a rush order to be produced or some other challenge that may arise.

The main ingredient in getting an accurate production schedule is communication.  The calendar should denote each day of the week, with every job being printed for each press.   Show the total number of impressions booked per day so sales reps can review to see if an order can be accepted or not, based on how much production capacity is available.  If it looks questionable, other orders can be moved around or other allowances made to accept the job.  (Including contracting the order out to another printer, keeping it in-house and working overtime, moving another order for the same client, etc.)

A big help in understanding what’s happening on the production floor is to keep a daily production log.  Think of this log as the speedometer for the shop floor.  This is an important tool to understand your print capacity in real, not vague terms.  There are three key indicators that need to be measured in print production: Set Up Time, Production Time, & Downtime.

  1. Set Up Time is the measurement of the amount of time to accurately set up the screens, prepare the job, get everything registered, or whatever is necessary for production approval prior the job.  This is measured in minutes per screen.
  2. Production Time is the measurement of when the job starts after approval until the last shirt is produced.  This is essentially “how fast” the press is moving.  This is measured in Impressions per hour.
  3. Downtime is the measurement of anything that prevents the press from printing.  This could include waiting on ink to be mixed, ripping a screen and waiting for a new one, waiting on an artist/client to approve the job, equipment failure, etc.  This is measured in hours per shift (or minutes if that’s easier for you)

The daily data gathered on this production log can be kept on a simple Excel spreadsheet and a daily average for each press determined.  This is extremely valuable information to use for your Production Schedule, as you can use this to accurately estimate blocks of time for each press for the work being scheduled based on the parameters of the order.  For example, let’s say Press one sets up at an average of 6 minutes per screen, runs at 438 impressions per hour, and have an average of a half an hour of downtime per day.  You’ve booked a 10,000 piece one location full front 6 color order.  Using your production log information you can deduce that it should take 36 minutes to set up the job, and you can expect 3,022 impressions the first day, but 3,285 impressions thereafter.  If the crews print slightly over those averages, you should expect to finish this on one press in four days.

This information can be booked on the calendar, and would show that Press 1 is booked up for four days until that job has completely finished printing.  If your front office staff is trained in understanding the calendar, any prospective new orders can be added based on the actual availability of the production capacity.  In an overbooked situation, options can be explored such as moving booked jobs on the schedule, contracting jobs out to other printers, staying late or running overtime to complete the jobs.

In conclusion, if your shop has a need for an accurate Production Schedule it’s important to point out that it’s a team effort.  This isn’t a task that the production manager is going to handle on his own.  If the art isn’t ready, the shirts aren’t in, screens aren’t burned, or there’s some confusion on the instructions on the order it will be difficult to keep to a set schedule.  Due to the complex nature of the orders in this industry (every order is a custom job), keeping the orders moving through your shop step by step and on time is always challenging.  Having a proactive, detail oriented, and “team player mentality” effort from everyone in the company will pay off large dividends with the schedule.