10 Tips to Getting Your Design Approved Faster

As designers we’ve all been there.  You crank out design after design in a busy week, but a couple of your creations just don’t get approved by the clients quickly.  Your production team needs to get the art approved so they can do their job as those deadlines are looming.  After it’s all said and done, if you take stock in why your customer doesn’t approve the artwork immediately, or worse requests change after change, you might find that the problem lies with how you approach the design work initially.  Here are some tips that have worked for me over the years in getting design work approved faster.  (in no particular order):

  1. Truly comprehend the assignment.  If you have instructions on your work order or creative brief, read them.  If you are the one talking to the client, really listen to what they are saying.  Either way, ask good questions if something is unclear or if you have that “crazy idea” that sounds great to you, but might be going in a surprising direction from what the customer really wants.  I’m a big believer in that good design work starts with creating something that pleases you the designer first, but at the end of the day the client is the one paying for it.  To put it in a food perspective, if you go to a restaurant and order a cheeseburger and the waiter brings you cedar plank smoked salmon because the chef thought “hey, I’ll do something over the top and they’ll love it!!”, would you send it back?  There’s no harm in a discussion.  Communication is a good thing, don’t be shy.
  2. Sometimes ask what they don’t want.  This is a good tool to use when you are talking to a client and they are very indecisive or give you the dreaded “do something cool” art instruction.  Instead of wasting your time on a design direction that might ultimately fail, start the conversation by discussion things that the client doesn’t want to see on the design.  What are your limits?  The story I like to use for an illustration on this concept is a Bass Fishing Tournament t-shirt as the assignment.  The client gives you little direction, but you come up with this great graphic of a fisherman landing what appears to be a spectacular world record bass in his boat.  You spend about four hours putting it together and send it off.  It looks great and you are shocked with the client hates it.  Asking why, you come to find out that they really just wanted an illustration of the fish as the main graphic, and don’t want to show people or boats.  This is where a short conversation about what shouldn’t be included would pay off, and get you an approval out of the gate.
  3. Send them the thumbnails.  Before starting a new graphic design project, I always make a bunch of thumbnail sketches because as we all know, there isn’t an idea button on the keyboard.  I like to use Post-It-Notes as the sketch pad as I can easily discard any I don’t like, and the layout that makes the grade I can stick to the side of my computer monitor for reference.  Sometimes if I’m uncertain my idea will be liked by the client I’ll just scan in the sketch and e-mail it to the client.  These sketches only take about thirty seconds or so to doodle up, so if you can get your idea approved before you slog through the actual design construction work, the final approval will come much faster as the client will already understand the concept.
  4. Get some feedback.  The old phrase “Man supports what he helps create” is sometimes true in the design world.  If you let the client participate in the design process all along the way by having discussions, sending them the thumbnails, and keeping them in the loop, they are more apt to approve the design when you send it to them as they have been in on the process and know what’s coming.
  5. Double check everything.  Before you send your design to your client, reread the work order and compare the instructions to your design.  Everything match?  Forget anything?  If you didn’t use spell check before you converted your fonts to outlines (and why not?), make sure you review all text.  Especially phone numbers or any critical verbiage.  Make sure your Pantone colors are right, and all elements will separate and aren’t on a layer that won’t print.  (Especially true if you are using someone else’s art file initially)  Check your dimensions.  Only once you are satisfied that your design hits all the criteria points should you send it off for approval.  It’s the old carpenter rule “Measure Twice, Cut Once”.
  6. Use an Approval Form and mock up the design on a shirt.  I’ve seen a lot of different art approvals forms from shops over the years.  They all vary in style and quantity of information.  The best have all the critical information you would expect, including dimension information, PMS colors, Order & PO numbers, dates and the like.  However the one thing that I think is the best idea to put on the form is how you show location placement, with some guidelines like 3” down from the collar for a full front.  By illustrating the exact placement your customer will know what to expect; and it also gives your production crew a blueprint to use when printing the image on the shirt.  Some shops also add some deadline verbiage regarding exactly when they need the approval from the customer in order to keep their order on the production schedule so it ships on time.  This is especially needed for rush orders.
  7. Do it early.  Need your art approved so it can go into production faster?  Get it scheduled and out the door earlier!  If you need it handled by Friday, make sure you send it by Wednesday or Thursday.  Don’t put things off.
  8. Make sure you use the customer’s correct email address.  Seems simple, but you would be surprised at the number of e-mails people don’t receive because the sender typed in the address incorrectly.  If you have any text on the standard e-mail that goes out to the client, double check to see that you are spelling their name correctly too.  I get one or two e-mails a week still with my name spelled incorrectly, and it always taints the perception of quality I have for the sender.
  9. Follow up.  If it’s been a day or two since you sent the graphic out for approval and you haven’t heard back, follow up with a quick e-mail or phone call to verify that the customer received the file and everything is ok.  In your e-mail you can include a sentence or two about the importance of approving the file so the order can stay on the schedule and print on time.
  10. Do great work.  Challenge yourself to keep your designs fresh, in your creative voice and technically sound.  It is hard work keeping up and sending out killer ideas one after the other.  Sooner or later you are going to send out one that you just half-assed your way through it.  Keep your focus and keep searching for inspiration.

So there you have it!  I’m always interested in how other people maintain their creative edge and work through their problems.  Feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me directly at matkinson4804@gmail.com.  I’d love to hear from you.

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: http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/How-to-Build-an-Accu-1469.shtml
  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 – http://atkinsontshirt.blog/2013/02/02/why-customer-service-needs-to-have-a-big-dose-of-empathy/
  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 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.