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Master Tips for Streamlining Your Production Process

Streamlining isn’t something you do one month out of the year – it’s a continuous journey.

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IN YOUR SHOP, you have a production process. Subjectively speaking, are you happy with it? From a satisfaction perspective, consider these five things:

  1. On-time delivery
  2. Production quality
  3. Efficiency
  4. Cost optimization
  5. Speed to customer

Do you think you’re the best you can be? What’s holding you back? Maybe you already know, or maybe you don’t. Let’s unravel some of the top tips you can use to streamline your production process.

A process, after all, is a series of steps or actions that will give you the particular result you desire. As the famous writer of Atomic Habits James Clear once said, “You don’t rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your systems.” Therefore, if you know the overarching goal you want to achieve, do you have the systems to execute that intention?

Foundational Ideas

First, you need to benchmark where you are now. Take an average order you produce and carefully examine every step along the way, from accepting the order to the customer receiving it. Write down those steps. Gather the information needed. Get your arms around exactly what you’re expected to deliver. What’s that look like?

Then, once you have the basic outline, compare that to a few dozen orders or more in the system. Do they all act and behave the same way? What are the common points? Are there big differences?

More than anything, you want to determine where the variables are so you can account for them. Standard work always flows easier. Outliers produce more headaches. Before you can look at your production challenges, start by really digging into the types of jobs you’re bringing in.

What’s incredibly easy to get out the door? Can you name your biggest headaches? What determines if an order is easy or difficult? What do you need to make every order easy?
The goal is to build a process, that can handle both standard work and variable work, and produce excellent results. Usually, your preparation here determines your outcome.

Benchmark These Traits

Start by reviewing these 10 areas:

1. Information. What prevents most orders from being completed on time is either missing or erroneous information. People have to stop what they’re doing to find the right answer. Or worse, mistakes are made, and rework is needed. Look at the quality of the information you have and the decisions that are made with it.

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Master Tips for Streamlining Your Production Process

2. Time. When are orders coming in and when are they expected to ship out? The more compressed the deadline from start to finish, the better your processes need to be built. In every step in your process do you understand the time it takes to perform each step? Does your team know exactly when they need to do something? This is also not 100 percent in production either. Think about how your art department, purchasing, and receiving affects your production team.

3. Size. Order quantity can impact your schedule. Many smaller orders mean more setup time, and fewer orders produced. Bigger orders may tie up equipment for an extended length of time. Understanding how long it takes to set up a job, run the job, and break a job down is the number-one factor in determining the accuracy of a production schedule. Are you measuring this?

4. Quality. What does quality mean in your shop? In every department. As they say, the devil is in the details. How are you injecting better quality into the process as each department touches the order? Be sure you have clarity here.

5. Equipment. Is your equipment modern and up to date? Well maintained? And by equipment, I mean the tools you use every day. Computers and printers are equipment. Screens are equipment. Squeegee rubber is equipment. What’s broken or not working as it should?

6. Consumables. We need a big list of products to deliver the end results that our customers want and need. Are you using the best products on the market, or are you still purchasing consumables “the same way we’ve always done it?” Not all inks, emulsions, chemicals, tape, etc. are equal. Better products produce better results. You should be testing.

7. Environmental. Do you have a stable environment that’s conducive to your work? Have you stopped and considered how humidity and temperature can affect the outcome of what you’re trying to achieve? In hot or cold temperatures, low humidity or high humidity, the machines and products we use in the industry behave differently. What are you doing to stabilize this in your shop? How does this affect your output at different times of the year?

8. Training. Equipment and processes don’t run in isolation. We need well-trained crew members to make the magic happen. On a scale of 0 to 10, how would you rate your crew’s expertise overall? Are you satisfied with that? What are you doing on a consistent basis to elevate the skill levels of your team? How does that impact your production process?

9. Organization. Does everyone know what to do without being told? Are you planning the work as it is coming in, so your production schedule is accurate and up to date at all times? Are departments or team members waiting on anything to do their jobs? Where are your bottlenecks? What are you doing to minimize downtime?

10. Leadership. Every ship needs a good captain. Someone has to take control, demand excellence, and keep things moving forward – not only with the team leader, but also with designated crew members underneath them. Want a better production process? Look no further than “who” is driving the results. What are they doing on a constant basis to make things better and easier for everyone? Leaders proactively solve problems.

Knowing those 10 ideas, let’s break some process streamlining tips into the first five things you probably want to improve: On-time delivery, production quality, efficiency, cost-optimization, and speed to customer.

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Master Tips for Streamlining Your Production Process

On-Time Delivery

How accurate is your production schedule? When you accept an order to ship out on a particular date, does that happen every time?

The best practice for this is to schedule work so that 100-percent of the order is complete one business day before the job is expected to ship. Everything in your company works backward from that date. To be able to achieve this on a consistent and predictable basis, your team needs to have an expert grasp on the time it takes to complete each step in your process to produce the order.

The two most common impediments to this in our industry are with the sales to art to screen room to production workflow, and with obtaining the inventory needed for the order in time to make the deadline. Your effort with these two challenges can pay huge dividends to quicken your production process if you resolve them.

Another key factor to review is what type of jobs you’re taking, and if they’re priced correctly to be profitable. Often, shops book out their production calendar with less-than-ideal profitable jobs. Smaller orders take just as much time to set up as larger ones. Salespeople are notorious for giving away the store in order to close the deal. Take a hard look at the quality of the profit for the work you’re accepting, and see if bad work is clogging up the process.

Lastly, for on-time delivery, how you organize your day can make a huge difference in getting everything completed. Production leaders should complete the scavenger hunt for tomorrow’s production and push everything to the floor, prioritized in the order that the work will be completed. Get in the habit of doing this today for tomorrow. Art not approved or inventory not received? Those jobs get moved out and off of the current day’s schedule.

On-time failure happens when screens are being made or goods are coming in the same day as production. Audit that occurrence in your process review and change your steps in other departments to improve this area in production.

Production Quality

The first action in improving production quality is asking and answering exactly, “What is quality in your shop?” Not just in the final production result, but in every single step along the way.

It’s how you enter information and instructions at order entry. How purchasing makes buying decisions. In the art department, how they construct the file or ensure accuracy in simple things like typing in PMS color numbers correctly. What mesh selection, tension, and EOM is needed for the print? It’s how you reclaim, coat, image, expose, and wash out screens for practical matters. Not to mention the mechanical part of printing, with off-contact, squeegee durometer, sharpness and angle, and stroke speed.

Your final production quality is controlled by the variables in these processes (and more that I’m not even mentioning due to space limitations). Do you have an absolute grasp on this, or are you just winging it?

For production, you need to be focusing on the result. Does your team have clarity with that upstream from where the action happens? Are you proactively thinking about this not just from a leadership perspective, but also with your regular staff?

Efficiency

What is efficiency? Simple. What can we do to increase the amount of output in the process with less time, labor, product, or effort?

It’s extremely common in shops to double-stroke the underbase screen for a print. If this is you, have you ever stopped to wonder why? This takes twice the amount of time to print and double the ink. Is it needed? What if you put more effort into making a better screen with higher tension or a better EOM? Annually, that could be a tremendous amount of time and consumable savings.

There are opportunities like that throughout your shop. To start improving your efficiency, you have to simply ask, “Why?” “Why are we doing it this way?” See if you can improve your technique or process. There usually is a better way to do something. Be open to it.

Cost Optimization

This is a fancy term that means, “saving money.” There are plenty of ways to look at this challenge in your shop, especially with your processes.

Whenever you can produce more in the same amount of time, it’s going to cost you less to produce. The trick is to dig in and know what all those costs are in reality. You have to measure.

For example, how many screens can you coat with one emulsion trough on average? Are you recording that? What happens if you add more emulsion coats to the screens? Do you get more screens coated with a hand trough or a machine? What happens if Steve does it on Monday, but Jill does it on Tuesday? Do they have similar numbers? What does it mean if they don’t?

Understanding the costs behind the work you’re doing is how you can dial in your pricing, but also how you can build in more margin if you can make the process more efficient.

Speed to Customer

This is otherwise known as, “When do they want it?” In today’s marketplace, speed is an advantage. Your customers are used to going through a drive-thru, downloading things from the internet, or ordering something from Amazon to be delivered that same afternoon. Your processes should take into consideration what your type of customer wants and needs for turnaround time.

The only way to know this is to constantly be talking with them about this topic. A major part of your process must be dealing with the notion of time. Are you measuring this? How many can you produce in an hour? What is your setup time? How many minutes each day do you spend on downtime, not actually decorating anything?

If someone wants it Friday, can you look at your schedule and say yes? What if it had to ship tomorrow? What would you need to be able to do that? What are the roadblocks or bottlenecks that are standing in your way to be able to do things faster?

Streamlining in a Nutshell

Streamlining your processes is a continuous improvement project that never stops. It’s not something you do one month and then never do again. Instead, it’s a way of looking at your processes in your company and always working to improve them. Can you make tiny little enhancements all the time? Great. Those stack up into bigger improvements.

That big leap forward that you want? It isn’t going to be one jump. Instead, it may be hundreds of small steps that many people in your company make. You just have to start.


Listen to Episode 9 of the Screen Saver podcast to hear more process tips from Marshall: screenprintingmag.com/screensaver.

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Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, based in Mesa, Arizona. He coaches apparel decoration companies on operational efficiency, continuous improvement, workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management, and sustainability. He is a frequent tradeshow speaker, author, and host of two podcasts, as well as co-founder of the Shirt Lab educational company. He can be reached at [email protected]

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