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.

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14 Comments Leave a comment

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