If You Find Yourself in a Hole

Stop Digging That Hole - Marshall Atkinson

There’s a famous old farmer saying, “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging”.  When confronted with the truth, I wonder how many people would take that advice?  For that matter, how many people even know that they are in a hole?  If you take a look at companies in the decorated apparel industry, I see a lot of shovels churning and dirt flying.  Sometimes we work really hard at doing things the same way we’ve always done them.  Even if it means we’re tunneling down like a mole rat.

The trouble is, sometimes it’s easier to keep digging that hole.  It’s all we know.  If you’ve been pulling a squeegee for twenty years, trying to understand digital printing can be tough.  Maybe you are used to having customers walk into your shop, and casually chit-chat with you while they place their order.  It’s hard to understand now why someone would want to place that same order alone at midnight, in their underwear, while snuggled up on the couch using an app for an iPad.  It’s easier to bitch about how we can’t find good printers or embroiderers any more, but we don’t do much to support apprenticeships or local schools to help build skills.  Do you even have a mentoring program in your shop to move up your existing talent to learn these jobs?  It’s easy to always blame the ink for our printing problems, or the thread when it breaks, when it could be an entire list of other things that are causing a production problem.  Sometimes it’s not the obvious answer that will resolve a challenge.  Sometimes you need to ask the right questions.

How tight of a grip do you have on your shovel?  Are you willing to change?  Can you stop plowing through orders for one second to realize that they way you go about your business could be flawed?  When was the last time you did an analysis to see what it really costs you to process an order?  How do you know you are even making any money?  I did an analysis for a printer a few years ago, and showed the owners that they lost money on over half of the jobs on their schedule.  The biggest losers were for their “key” clients.  It all came down to pricing.  Unless they gave it away, they couldn’t get those jobs.  Competing in a price war is a losing battle.  That’s gripping the shovel so tight, you can hear the handle wood squeak.  Dig that hole.

So how do you get out of the hole?  It probably depends on what it looks like.  Is it just a tiny dent in the earth, or can you drop a house in it?  Regardless of how big the challenge may be, you can reverse your problem.  It might involve some work on your end, and be a little frustrating at times, but you have to solve the challenge.   Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Define the Problem.  Write it down.  This is going to describe the hole your company has dug.  Is it cavernously deep?  Be realistic, and don’t blame anyone.  Use facts.  If you are going the Five Why route, use this as your Problem Statement.  (Five Why – what’s that?  Click here)

Be Truthful with Your Staff.  Talk to them about the situation.  There is a great saying I’ve always used, “Man supports what he helps create.”  Get your employees involved in the solution so you can pull together as a team and stomp that sucker flat.  Sometimes the people doing the work will have the best ideas on how to solve a challenge.  Just because you are the owner of the business or the manager of the department doesn’t mean that you are omnipotent and know everything.  Trust your people.  It’s why you hired them, right?  They may have a solution you haven’t thought about.

Use the Product Correctly.  Maybe the challenge is technical, and you need to learn a new skill or expand your knowledge on a technique.  It’s ok to admit you don’t know something…ask questions.  Your vendors should have people on staff that can assist you, and could present you with an option or two that will make a difference.  Also, make sure you are using the product correctly if something isn’t turning out the way it should.  There usually is a recipe for success, and more isn’t always better.  I’ve found that asking people to “show me” how the problem occurs usually uncovers the truth in the matter.

Measure.  Just how deep is that hole?  Find a way to measure it.  Examples could be determining your direct and indirect labor costs, or pulling financial data, or running a quarterly inventory exercise, or a monthly safety audit, or starting a time/motion study on a process, or using a Newton meter to measure screen tension, or comparing printed ink to a Pantone book…the list could be endless.  Measuring something provides you with the information you need to make a good decision.  What does the data tell you?  It tells you the size of the ladder you’ll need to climb out.  You’ve heard this before: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure”.  That’s usually an accurate statement.  Are you getting the information to make good decisions?

Own the Problem.  Don’t sweep it under the rug.  Bury your head in the sand.  Whatever metaphor you choose, it’s important that you keep chipping away at the issue.  At the very least, stop whatever you are doing that is causing you to dig that hole.  If you can’t solve the problem today, at least work around it until you do.  Push the problem to the front, and keep working it like a dog with a bone until you are finished.

Can’t we just ignore the hole?  When holes start to get really big, they start to look like graves.  Not paying attention or ignoring the problem could be the death blow to your company.  You read about this all the time.  A major player shuts down a facility due to safety concerns.  An accountant embezzles money for years from the company they work for by setting up phony vendors and paying herself.  A decorator goes out of business when their largest customer decides to move production somewhere else.  A private equity firm buys a business they don’t understand and can’t manage the intricate details of production because it doesn’t run like a typical company.  Safeguards aren’t built into a website and all the credit card information is hacked and stolen.  All of these challenges are preventable.  They started out as small issues, and when nobody did anything they just kept getting bigger and bigger.  Eventually they are Grand Canyon sized and too immense to fix.  Pink slips for everyone!

Stop and think about your company for a minute.  What minor irritation are you putting up with today?  Orders have to ship, so we ignore a problem and put off doing anything about it.  “I’ll do that next week after that big job is out the door.”  That shovel is crunching into the soil.  Sooner or later that squeak you hear in the equipment, the half-assed way your sales guy puts in orders, the fact that you customer service staff doesn’t regularly follow up on their orders to see if everything is on track, the customer you allow to just drop stuff off without checking-in the goods, the outdated way your website is set up, or even the customers or markets you serve…it could all implode right before your eyes.  I’ll bet you’ve been thinking about something for a few weeks now.  Stop digging.  You know what your issues are, right?  Do something about that challenge today.  Right now.  Go!


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