Attack Problems, Not People

Attack Problems Not People - Marshall Atkinson

So you were walking the shop floor the other day and you noticed one of your workers, Fred, aimlessly wandering around. It looked weird.

At night, you lie awake in your bed worrying about how you are going to get all of the orders completed on time. Now, you have a worker that seems to be willing to create canals in the concrete with his feet by walking the floor in unproductive circles. Holy smokes.

“Fred!”, you bark. “Get over here.”

Fred shuffles over with a “Ut oh” look on his face.

“Just what are you working on?”, you say like a jackhammer.

“I finished that order for ABC Plumbing, and now I was looking for that next thing.”

“The next thing?”

“Yeah. Someone said earlier that it might be important, but I can’t find the Work Order. I think it was on red shirts or something, but I don’t even know the name of the order.”

“Oh”, you say out loud, but you think to yourself, “I guess Fred was actually working after all. He just needs some guidance.”

Then it hits you like a bucket of cold water.

Fred isn’t a bad worker. The problem isn’t with Fred. It’s with our processes that we have set up. Or not set up. How can Fred be the best he can be if we can’t get organized enough for him to figure out what he has to do next?

Raise your hand if you have had a conversation like the one I made up above. By the way, mine is touching the ceiling too.

We all have.


Attack Problems, Not People


That revelation happens to any leader in a business sooner or later. We basically realize that anything that isn’t working correctly if it is process-related is our fault.

Own that sucker.

Fred is a good guy. He could reach another gear during his day if the next step was so obvious he would have to really try hard to fail.

It’s so much easier to blame Fred than take ownership though. Don’t you wish your staff would just “know” what to do by some sort of Work Order Osmosis? Just being in the building would auto download the right info into their brains.

Good luck with that.

What you need is to build the correct end result of the process so that it happens automatically and easily. Your work is to create it so that it is less “Fred” and more “system”.


Here’s How You Know If You Are Doing It Wrong


If there is anything in your process that is beholden to one person, then you are in trouble. Let’s take a stab at a few examples:

  • That bucket of PMS 375 green ink can’t be mixed because Alfredo had to go to the dentist.
  • Those three boxes of shirts that came in for the rush order that’s due Friday, but nobody can find them. Billy put them somewhere and he’s on vacation. Your sales guy just asked if these should be reordered.
  • Everyone in the front office quotes differently. One customer could get four different answers depending on who they spoke with at the time.
  • Chuck, your shipping guy, has the flu and is out today. That jacket order that has to ship to Germany is finished, but he’s the only one that knows how to handle international freight.
  • Silvio, your lead printer just walked out on you. Because he knew everything, you trusted him to set jobs up and get them produced. He didn’t train anyone. Enter panic mode.


You get the idea.

Instead of building a process so that there is only One Answer, everyone simply invents their way of doing something. It’s like a weird version of “Evening at the Improv”, except it is never funny.


Build Out Your Processes


The first thing to do is to make what’s called a “Process Map”.

This is a flow chart that shows how things go from one point to the next in your shop. If you do it correctly, you remove the “people” from the equation. Each step becomes a task associated with moving the order forward toward completion.

Ideally, this routing is built so there is only one way to do it. Standardize everything. When you create that process, with detailed instructions, timelines, and expectations you will strengthen your company. This is because you can train your staff on the “way”. This holds them accountable. When there is only one way to do something, it is either right or it is wrong.

Yet, it might sound a little hokey, or even easy…but trust me, it’s not.

There should be a good amount of debate on what is the correct way to do something. You want input from the staff that is responsible for the task, but also outside influencers too.

Poke a lot of holes in the plan. Is it dependant on one person making a decision? Can you do it so that a step or two can be skipped? How can something be automated? Can you do it without walking paper around the building?


Let’s Get Back to Fred


Remember him?

He was wandering around trying to figure out what to do next. What do you think the problem is there?

Hint: It’s not Fred.

It’s the production leadership team. For starters, there wasn’t a printed schedule for Fred to follow that listed the jobs he had to complete today. Ideally, this is pulled and printed yesterday, so the plan of action has been created so Fred has the expectation of what he needs to do when he comes in.

Also, everything Fred needs should have been pulled and staged in his area, so all he has to do is set up the job and run it. Again, this task is handled yesterday.

The process that Fred should have gives him the expectation of the amount of work he needs to complete (the printed schedule) and has everything he needs neatly lined up in order.

If Fred has that, all he has to do is execute.

The problem you have is that you are asking the wrong person questions. Your production manager here should be the one that dictates what’s going on today. Because that didn’t happen, it looks like Fred is a loafer.

Open up your eyes to the situation.


How Problems Get Created


To end this article, let’s go through a few reasons problems arise in a business. If you can work to prevent these, you will naturally have fewer challenges with your staff. It’s a good place to start.

While you are reading, think about how you handle things in your shop.

Could you change something for the better?


Problem Solver: Communication


This is a big one. Look through what was happening with Fred.

The expectations of what he needed to do today weren’t in his hands. He truly wanted to get to the next job but was having trouble because the information was not clearly communicated.

Wrong information can be just as bad. Has anyone in your shop cloned an old order but forgot to change the notes associated with it? That Work Order gets out to the floor with the “Client must approve the first shirt with a digital picture” note still attached. That causes an unintentional delay, that ripples throughout the day and causes all of the other jobs to be late. Not to mention bugging the client about something that didn’t need to happen.


What about missing information? When the order can’t ship because at the time of order entry the sales guy was still waiting on an address. Now, the boxes are sitting in the shipping area, and can’t go anywhere. The order has to go today according to the schedule, and the client can’t be reached. So who is picking up the freight when it can no longer be shipped ground?

Dig deep into this with everything you do in your shop. How has the challenge of communication caused problems for you in the past? Is it still causing issues?

In everything you do, think downstream from your role. How will someone else use what I am giving them to instantly know what to do? That’s how you move forward faster and increase your quality at the same time.


Problem Solver: Training


How would you rate your training program in your shop?

Do you practice “The Rule of 3”?

This states that for each core task in the building, there are at least three people trained to do the job well. This is needed so that when Alfredo goes to the dentist someone else can mix a bucket of ink. When Chuck as the flu, that job can still ship to Germany. That day when Silvio walks out in a huff, it’s no big deal as you have other people trained to print too.

You can solve these types of problems in advance by being proactive and getting your crew trained. Just because someone works in screen printing doesn’t mean that they can’t learn embroidery or how to ship.

The more your staff gets conversant with the skills other departments employ on a daily basis, the stronger your company will become.

Imagine how great it would be when that huge order drops in unexpectedly, you have three or four people who know how to handle that instead of just one.


Problem Solver: People


Another point I want to make is who you allow on your team to start. I’ve been to a lot of shops, and I can tell you that not everyone that is in the building is a superstar.

Someone made a decision to hire that person, for some reason.

Do you have what I call “deadwood” people on your crew?

These are the folks that if push came to shove you would fire them first over other people.

If that’s the case, what if you didn’t wait and replaced them now with someone better? I know you probably have a few people on your staff that you are constantly talking about. They have attitude problems. Attendance problems. Quality problems. Hustle problems.

Guess what? They can be someone else’s problem.

You know what you should do.

Solve your the problem with the quality of the people on your staff now.  Then find out why your hiring standards allowed the JV team to come on board.

You can do better.


Problem Solver: Your Customers


Are you taking jobs that you shouldn’t?

Stop and think about this for a minute. How many of the jobs on your schedule right now are profitable winners? Jobs that you were really excited about getting because they fit your business plan perfectly?

On another hand, how many of the jobs on your schedule are big fat losers? These are the ones that in the bottom of your gut you have no business even thinking about taking. They clog up the schedule and cause more headaches than other jobs that are booked.

The company mission should be to be busy being profitable, not busy being busy.

Your company wants to make more money this year than last, right? Stop and consider what jobs you are allowing to be processed.

Maybe, it’s time to write a few rules or standards regarding what jobs you will be taking?


Wrapping It All Up


Rethink what matters and what doesn’t.

The way to win in this industry is not based on your price list, but doing things better than everyone else. There is always some poser that will produce whatever you can do for a nickel cheaper.

But better?

I doubt it.

What keeps companies alive and thriving is the people that work there. When they get attacked over something that is fundamentally wrong in how it was built, then you are going to have a problem. That just leads to frustrated, apathetic people. They will quit. Usually at the most inopportune times too.

However, if you spend the energy and resources to make the processes flow smoother. To answer questions before they are even asked. When you make things so darn simple to understand that messing things up is actually hard to do?

You win.

Try this. Today, ask five or six people on your team this question:

“If you could change anything in the company to make your job easier, what would that thing be?”



“Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.” – Steve Jobs

“People may hear your words, but they feel your attitude.” – John C. Maxwell

“Some people walk in the rain, others just get wet.” – Roger Miller



Check Out Shirt Lab Columbus


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If your shop needs help with sales and marketing, then I would like you to please check out the new initiative that I’m partnering with Tom Rauen on, called Shirt Lab. This is a one-day sales and marketing learning event that will be held in different cities, one per business quarter.

Our first event will be in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday, October 27, 2018. Q1 2019 will have the event in Atlanta, Georgia. Q2 2019 will have the event in Portland, Oregon.

The Columbus event will be packed full of interactive learning, fun, networking, and new ideas that will make your sales and marketing program much stronger. We’re bringing in the top minds in the business to teach you the best industry practices for sales and marketing. You won’t find this information anywhere else in one session. Accelerate your shop’s growth by doing things differently.

Please click this link to check out our webpage to learn more about the event. You can save $200 by registering by August 31, 2018.


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Accompanying our event will be a new podcast, the Shirt Lab Answer Series. We want you to send us your biggest sales and marketing challenge for the show. We’ll have our industry guests answer them on this new weekly podcast. To submit your question, just click this button:


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Finally, we would love for you to join our mailing list to learn more about Shirt Lab events in your area, our podcast, and other information from the Shirt Lab Ecosphere. Simply click this link to get started.

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