7 Habits of Highly Effective Production

Multiple Orders Staged for Packaging - Marshall Atkinson

Arguably one of the best business books of all time is Stephen Covey’s classic work “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.  If you haven’t read this work, get a copy…especially if you are not as effective as you would like to be.  It is Amazon’s #1 bestseller in business books.  Over the years I’ve probably reread that book a half a dozen times or so.  I learn something new every time as I’m usually on a different part of my journey or working on a new challenge.

I thought that it might be fun to compare his seven habits to what we face each day in an apparel decoration production environment and see how they line up.  Here goes:

Habit One: Be Proactive

This one seems obvious, but I’d say that for the most part people in this industry only look at what is right in front of them.  Often production staff have blinders on when it comes to scheduling.  We have orders to get out today, and sales just handed us another rush job that has to be completed…so nobody gets around to thinking about what has to be handled for all of the other jobs slated for tomorrow.  Let alone something for two or three days from now.  Next week?  Fugghitaboutit!

Are all of the orders for tomorrow or the next day ready to start?  Files digitized, screens burned, inventory checked in and counted complete?  Do you have enough of that special ink color?  What happens if your key production employee is on vacation?  Did someone order that metallic thread?  Who on your team is constantly looking at orders and thinking about these challenges?

What does disaster look like to an unorganized production manager?  When they realize that they should have started that job yesterday.  Ut oh.

A better way of thinking about production is to constantly look ahead and plan.  The jobs that you are running today are set.  By about midday, you should be staging and arranging tomorrow’s work at each workstation…so before anyone leaves everything is ready for tomorrow’s production and all you have to do is execute.

That will only happen if you work backwards from the ship date on what needs to happen to be able to accomplish that level of organization.  All the prep work needs to be completed long before someone wants to stage that job.  Each department in your company needs to proactively handle their end of the tasks and keep to a tight schedule to be able to meet that production coordination deadline.  This takes a lot of communication and constantly proactive forward thinking on everyone’s behalf.  It’s never easy either, as you’ll always be in a constant state of motion because new orders will have new challenges to overcome.

Refining your proactiveness within your company can have a dramatic effect on your production schedule.  Imagine what it might look like if for that order where the 50 medium hoodies are delayed in shipping to you from the distributor, as they are coming from another warehouse that’s a few days away, the office customer service rep notifies receiving with a tracking number, changes the shipping date automatically and adds notes in the system describing the issue.  The production schedule is already updated and changed to reflect a new ship date and changes the date the job is to be run.  Any questions or concerns are relayed to the appropriate staff members with an e-mail or short conversation if needed.  All of this happens by habit, and without a morning production meeting to discuss what’s going on.  

Do you have that level of seamless coordination in your shop among your departments?  If not, how come?

Essentially a process is built, with all of your staff trained to think proactively and help people downstream from them in other departments.  The inventory challenge above could be any issue in your shop…art, screens, digitizing the file for a different fabric, a customer’s last minute request, a freak snowstorm, someone on vacation, or whatever.

In your production environment what you seek is to raise the bar with how circumstances are handled proactively to set you up for success, by having everyone orchestrate their efforts to keep to your timetable.  Being proactive means everything adjusts accordingly to solve the problem, in advance.

How does it work in your shop?  Are you satisfied with the results?

Habit Two: Begin with the End in Mind

This habit is all about imagination and vision.  Are you effectively communicating your vision to your staff every day on what should happen in your shop?  Do you have goals?  Are you relaying them publicly to the staff that you have hired to achieve them?

These could be anything.  The total number of sales in dollars.  The number of jobs that are completed and shipped today or this week.  Learning a new technique.  Landing a big account.  Maybe just today’s production schedule.  Shop cleanliness.  Even your employee cross training program.

The idea here is that you need to start with that vision of achieving the stated goal.  What is it going to take to hit the goal?  For sales, it may mean you need to close a certain number of sales per week or per month.  This means that production might have to ramp up to be able to push more out daily by increasing your efficiency, adding more staff, more shifts, or equipment.

Once you have defined the goal publicly, everyone is accountable for achieving it.  If you keep the goal secret, how can you expect your staff to accomplish what it takes to hit the target?  If your sales team closes a lot of big orders, but production fails to increase the daily capacity of what it can produce there is going to be a big problem somewhere down the line.  Hello overtime.

Another question you might add is what metrics do we need to measure so we know we are achieving our goal?  How are these metrics measured?  Once you start measuring and keeping track of the metrics, are you sharing the metrics with the people that you trust to make it happen?  Or are you just yelling at them to do better?  Your staff needs, and probably craves, information.  Even your car has a speedometer.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter how I do things in my shop compared to how you do things in yours.  We have different customers, staff, equipment and challenges.  The point here is that you need to describe your vision on what you want to achieve.  

What does that look like?  Is that five years from now?  Or are we just talking about the end of the month?  Once you can articulate your goal, what work will you have to accomplish to be able to achieve it?  Have you discussed that with the people that you are empowering to hit the mark?  If they don’t feel that your goal is realistic, why not?  What do they need to achieve it?

Ready, Fire, Aim is not a good plan.

Having these conversations with your staff will be the most fruitful thing you can do to raise the bar in your shop.  Collaboration and engagement are very powerful drivers in running a successful business.  Once you start asking for people’s thoughts and opinions they feel less like hourly workers and more like partners in the process.  This will only happen though if you start talking about your goals and visions for the future.

Don’t just be processing orders.

Habit Three: Put First Things First

Today, what is the most important thing your company has to do?

It could be a rush order for a client.  It could be a sample that is going to potentially land you that big account.  It could be working on some huge order that’s due on Friday.  It could be learning a new technique to improve your shop’s capabilities and product offering.  It could be celebrating hitting a landmark achievement for your company with your staff, as their hard work made it happen.  It could be finally taking a day off and going fishing.

Whatever it is are you doing that first today?  How are you prioritizing your effort?  I talk to a lot of shop owners and one of the things they often discuss with me is how they are scheduling important jobs.  It seems like there is some mystery about this for some reason.  Their production staff sometimes waits to start on an important job and it ships late.  So, they ask how do we do it?  It’s not that difficult an answer…you just prioritize and do it first ahead of other jobs.  Even if this means you take down something that’s already running.  You might have to even start on that important job the day before, or keep people late, or work on a Saturday.  You do what it takes to get that important job handled first.

One way to prioritize that hot job is make it obvious that it needs to be a priority.  Does everyone in your company know that you are going to Defcon 5 for that order?  This can happen by earmarking the job in your system with a special code or name so it’s searchable.  At Visual Impressions, we add a $ in the PO field in front of the customer’s PO number so it’s searchable in our system.  You could print the work order on yellow paper, or use a hot orange job jacket.

Whatever you do, every department needs to be trained that this job goes to the head of the line.  Purchasing buys the shirts first, receiving checks these shirts in first, the art department creates the file first, the screen room burns the screens first, embroidery digitizes the file first, production pushes it to the machines first, packaging polybags the shirts first.  Shipping weighs it and gets it ready to ship first.

If you set this up as the standard work habit, all of your staff will know what to do and you can expedite this order with less hand holding on the order.  Also, this doesn’t mean that it has to be produced on the day it was scheduled…if everything is ready to go, do it early.  Always early.

In fact, the earlier the better.  I think a lot of people get hung up on dates.  “I’m supposed to do this on Wednesday” they say.  They get muddled down into thinking Wednesday only.  If you have time, do it on Monday.  Get it out of the way.  The best habit you can have in a production environment is always to do it early.  Think ahead.

As I’m always telling my son, “If you aren’t early, you are running late.”

Habit Four: Think Win-Win

I think this is my favorite habit from Stephen Covey, as it is about character within people.  It is the hardest to achieve, but the most fun to work on.  Let’s face it, even though our shops are loaded with some wonderful machines they are truly driven by the people we employ.  Our equipment doesn’t run by themselves.  It is run by the staff on our team.  Who are you letting play the game everyday?

Covey explains that the Win-Win habit is controlled by three character traits:

  1. Integrity: sticking with your true feelings, values and commitments
  2. Maturity: expressing your ideas and feelings with courage and consideration for the ideas and feelings of others
  3. Abundance mentality: believing there is plenty for everyone

So how do these complicated ideas translate to a production environment with our staff?  Easy.  It’s all about trusting and respecting the people that you have hired to do the work.  This is a leadership challenge.

Too many production managers get caught up in the “I’m in charge” mentality and don’t realize that their number one job is make their staff better.  This can only happen if their focus is on understanding each person as individuals first.  Everyone has different skill sets, dreams and abilities.  Our job as leaders is to identify the character traits of our staff and push them to excel by offering them opportunities for growth.

If as production leaders we are constantly talking about growth, driving the culture of excellence, and demonstrating that each person is capable of more…and giving them the opportunity to excel by allowing them to train in more advanced positions; you will have a transformative culture in your shop.  This is why you let the kid that washes screens learn how to operate an automatic press, or the part timer who is your embroidery trimmer learn how to digitize.  Are you pushing for more excellence in your shop?  Are you rewarding those that are driven to become more than what you hired them for, or do you have a “lock-down” mentality that squashes dreams of advancement?

In production we constantly want to shove more through the pipe every day.  The problem is that only so much is going to go through at one time.  Eventually, you’ll need to change something.  Add another shift.  Buy another piece of equipment.  More overtime occasionally.  Do something now to alleviate that pressure tomorrow.  If you are training for bench strength continually, when you are ready for that growth and want to scale your company you’ll have the employees on your staff that will be ready to shoulder that load.

Not to mention if you work on creating an environment where your staff can learn and excel, more will be accomplished daily because your staff will be more independent, knowledgeable, and self-sufficient.  A better trained staff equals a better result in production.

As leaders if we are committed to growing our staff and believing that the work they do has value, and that their opportunities within our company is endless, our staff will be more committed to achieving the success we constantly seek.  This all starts with discussion with each of your team members about what they want to do.  Are you having those conversations?

Imagine how much better your staff will be a year from now if you are committed to improving something daily by 1%.

Habit Five: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

This habit is all about communication and active listening.  One of my favorite quotes lately has been “You have two ears but only one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you speak.”

In a production environment there is a lot going on.  We are inundated with questions, challenges, and discussions about orders and how we are going to achieve what we need to accomplish on our schedule.  Things have to happen in a certain order, and to get that job to ship on time we need our staff to complete their tasks with speed and quality.

However that doesn’t always go according to plan for numerous reasons.  To truly comprehend the situation, we need to take a step back and ask more questions…constantly.  “Seek First to Understand” is all about finding out what’s needed.  Maybe some equipment isn’t working just right, or a worker needs some small item to accomplish their task better.  I’m always amazed at how much an impact just getting someone a calculator or a tape gun, or laying out some shirts for a press can just get that crew to finish their job right now.  How much time is being wasted in your shop with employees walking around getting stuff?  Find out what they need.

Understanding the situation means you need to be there.  You can’t do this from your office, or across town.  The only way to know the challenges that your crew is having is to be there when they are having them.  You have to talk to people constantly.  If you ask them “What do you need to make your job easier?”, trust me they will tell you.  Want more production daily?  Solve these challenges for your crew.

Once you start actively listening to your staff, you can then start engaging them with how you want to build your culture or push the change you seek.  Nobody is going to change their behavior for you if you aren’t listening to their needs first.  Want more shirts printed by press three today?  First find out why they are having a problem with the flash unit.  Need that big hat order embroidered by 3:00?  Turns out they don’t have enough hat frames to have a second set ready to hoop while the first run is going on the machine.  One thing always plays against another.

Habit Six: Synergize

This is a fun habit.  Synergy is the habit of creative cooperation.  It’s teamwork.

In your shop, are you working together as a team?  Truly?  I see a lot of shops have in-fighting between departments.  I call it “Defending the Castle”.  Customer service blames production, and production blames the art department.  Problems mount, but there aren’t any solutions on the horizon as your group doesn’t work together as a team to solve problems.  Finger pointing is a sport.  There even could be a lot of bad blood between departments.  Do you think that’s conducive to a fantastic result?  That’s a boat anchor.

Want to move faster?  Work together as a team to solve problems.  Create the culture where your employees try to make it easier on the next guy by helping.  Talk about what isn’t working together as a group.  As a team, invent the solution that will solve the challenge.

Everyone that you employ has different backgrounds, skill sets and viewpoints.  Celebrate that and bring them together to solve your problems.  That’s what synergy is all about.  Teamwork resolving challenges to make your company stronger and more agile.

How does your group collaborate to make something work better in production?  Do you just have a manager or owner barking orders?  Yelling more, more, more without a teamwork culture and methodology created to achieve it won’t usually produce the long term results needed.

Recognize that change is difficult.  Want better results?  Collaborate with everyone involved to achieve the desired result.  What behaviors will need to change?  What documents will need to change?  What equipment is needed?  What will every person need to do to achieve the result?  How are you holding them accountable?  If the goal is reached what does that mean to the group?

If your shop really wants to achieve more, build that team culture.  Every order counts, every person counts.

Habit Seven: Sharpen the Saw

For production, this habit is all about renewal and learning.  Sharpening the saw is focused on the tasks associated with improvement.  Just the origins of that phrase alone, “sharpening the saw” should give you a good clue.  Imagine you are going to cut down a big tree.  Spending a few moments sharpening the saw blade will allow you to handle that task with minimal effort.  Whacking at it with a dull blade will still produce the same end result, but you will expend much more effort.

Are you taking the time to learn about your craft?  When was the last time you experimented with a new ink or thread, or tried a new technique, or was inspired by reading a book or going to a museum?  Sure, you have orders to fill, but how dull is your blade?

As professionals we need time to reflect on our businesses to make them stronger.  This just doesn’t happen, you have to plan for it.  Spending time at a trade show looking at new equipment, or talking to vendors or other industry professionals will always reveal something you can use to tweak your process.  There are plenty of industry forum groups, online printer boards and other places you can go to ask questions.  If you think you need professional help there are also incredible mentors and consultants available to get you through a sticky problem as well.

Your team should be involved too.  They need training and help.  They need the opportunity to learn and get better.  Does your company provide the time or offer to pay for classes for improvement?  Most industry department managers are in that position just because they know more about embroidery, printing, art, shipping & receiving or customer service than the staff they manage.  That doesn’t necessarily mean they are a good or even a fully trained manager.   Think about the impact that a management or Lean Six Sigma course could have on your top people in your company.

This could be truly impactful for smaller shops.  I read constantly in online forum groups or industry boards from people who are struggling.  They don’t understand a technique, or how a larger shop is able to achieve more, produce at a cheaper cost, or get more handled in a day.  Yet, they don’t do anything to investigate the “how”.  Everyone wants the quick fix or ready answer.  The treasure is out there, but you have to dig for it.  The trouble is that a lot of these people posting don’t want to take their turn on the shovel.

“Sharpening the saw” means that you are doing the work learning.  It doesn’t mean you hand the saw off to someone else to sharpen.  You can’t outsource the learning.  Want to know how to produce better?  Print.  Embroider.  Completely ruin some stuff.  Practice.  Take a class.  Invest in better equipment.  Talk to your supply chain.  Ruin some more stuff.  Practice.  Repeat.  Growth is incremental, not overnight.

You know all of those shops that constantly win all those industry awards?  At one point, they didn’t know anything either.  I’ll bet their saw blades are pretty sharp now.

They probably keep them that way too.


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