Shop Improvement Series: Production Scheduling Secrets

Is production scheduling your constant struggle? You know, the ability to accurately plan, predict, and produce the orders in-house on a scheduled timetable?

For many shops in the industry, the thought of an accurate production schedule seems like an unachievable goal. It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t ever work.

Good news!

This article is dedicated to helping you uncover the secret mysteries that surround the ability to create, plan, and produce jobs on a predictable schedule. Yes. You can do this.

An Accurate Production Schedule Needs Two Things

To build an accurate production schedule you will need two things. These ideas are critical to the success of keeping things buttoned up and on track. If you don’t have these two things, your production schedule will never hit the mark.

What are the two things?

Simple. The two things you need are Processes and Timing. Let’s delve into these a little deeper and you can see why they are so crucial.

Processes for Production Scheduling

Having functional processes in your shop means predictability. Let’s face it if you look at what you do every day, regardless of decoration method, every job on the schedule is completely different.

Different shirt colors. Design attributes. Sizes. Requirements. Ink or thread colors. Shipping information.

Everything is different.

What connects them is the processes you have in place to easily produce these orders with precision. In your shop, the reason that you have been struggling with keeping an accurate production schedule could be the clarity in which you create, implement, standardize, train, and hold employees accountable, all of the processes needed to complete the work.

This means that regardless of the order, everything is handled the same way. Every time.

We will dig deeper into this notion in a bit.

Timing for Production Scheduling

The other big idea for production scheduling has to do with Timing. It’s the “when” something has to happen, and does it happen by that self-imposed deadline?

A common example for the industry is the need for sales or customer service reps to “pad” the due dates for when something has to be completed. They do this because of a lack of trust within the company that things will go according to plan. If the job is really due to ship on the 15th, they will make the 13th the due date.

Because, you know, “production happens.”

This stresses the system unnecessarily and creates more problems than it solves.

Use a Real Date

Instead, I’m an advocate for using a real date. Always. The most important piece of information on a work order is the due date. This tells every department in your company the “when” they need to do something.

For example, let me ask you a question about setting the time on a clock or a watch ten minutes fast. Plenty of people do this the world over to prevent them from being late. They try to trick themselves into thinking that the time is later than it really is, so they will hurry up. Except what really happens is that they do the mental math and subtract the ten minutes whenever they check the time.

They aren’t late or early because of how they set the time. They are late or early because of how they process time.

Padding a due date has the same result. When nobody trusts the due dates on the jobs, trying to instill order into what needs to happen becomes a Herculean task.

Step One for Building Accurate Production Scheduling

The first step in building an accurate production schedule, believe it or not, all starts with information for the order.

Think of the workflow in your shop as a river. When a customer submits an order to you, that’s at the headwaters of the river. As each department contributes its chunk of the work for the order, the order travels further downstream on the river.

Typically, delays happen because of missing, erroneous, or ambiguity-laden instructions or information. When people have to stop what they are doing and ask, “Hey, what’s this mean?“, it is a tell-tale sign that your information gathering processes are not sufficient.

Your job is to make things easier for people downstream from you.

Information Step: Due Date

There are two dates that you need to clarify on your work order.

The Ship Date, which is the date that the order has to leave the building. Your mission is to tackle everything about the order so that the job is ready one business day before the Ship Date.

Shipping, by the way, could mean the customer is picking it up, or your salesperson is delivering it. Or, that it will ship UPS, FedEx, or an LTL truck. Shipping just means that it’s “outta here.”

The Due Date or as it is sometimes called the In-Hands Date, is the date that the customer needs it. The timeframe between the Ship Date and the Due Date is the freight lane that you choose when you ship something. For example, if the job has a Due Date of the 17th, and your shop is two business days ground away, the Ship Date should be the 15th.

The reason why the Ship Date is so crucial is that every department should take note of this and plan their daily task load according to their ability to keep up.

They have to work backward from the Due Date to know when their part of the order is due.

Information Step: RUSH, Late, Today, Tomorrow

Another important concept to master is how to organize the workload in any department. When you have a stack of stuff to do, how do you know what to work on first?

The RUSH, Late, Today, Tomorrow maxim solves that. This is all based on the Ship Date.

RUSH Orders

RUSH designates jobs that have to be handled immediately. This is like the Disney Fast-Pass. They go to the head of the line in every department. Customer service processes the RUSH orders first. Purchasing buys the goods for RUSH orders first. Receiving counts the RUSH jobs in first. The Art Department creates the art for RUSH orders first. The Screen Room burns the screens for RUSH orders first. Production produces the RUSH orders first. Shipping gets the RUSH order into the shipping system first.

RUSH orders are always earmarked and handled immediately in any department ahead of all other jobs.

Late Orders

Next up, are Late Orders. After the RUSH order work has been completed, any work that is “late”, has to be completed before new work can get started.

Late jobs can’t become later.

Regardless of how much work any department has on its plate that has to be handled today, any bit of work that is late has to be handled immediately before new work can get started. This is true for Receiving, the Art Department, the Screen Room, and especially Production.

Work on RUSH first, Late jobs second.

Today’s Orders

Third on the list are tasks that have to be completed today. After the RUSH, and Late orders are handled, each department can then start knocking out tasks that are scheduled for Today.

Yes, despite the owner or salesperson screaming that something has to be handled in the next ten minutes, you must have the inner steel to not start today’s workload until the RUSH and Late jobs are completed.

Stick to the schedule. Today’s work must be completed today. Do what it takes to ensure that things are not put off until tomorrow.

If there is one thing that I can tell you about this industry that is true, it is that when tomorrow comes there will be some unforeseen gigantic challenge that will land in your lap. When you put something off, that’s when things really start to get ugly.

Do Today’s work, today.

Tomorrow’s Orders

Sometimes there is a certain appeal to work ahead on something. It’s a fun project or a favorite client, or you want to combine like orders together.

As far as work scheduling goes, you must stick to the RUSH, Late, Today, and then Tomorrow for organizing.

That means you can’t jump one job, that might not be due until next week, ahead of others until everything is cleared off your plate. Tomorrow’s work can only be started when you have fulfilled your RUSH, Late, Today obligations.

The reason is simple. For example, let’s say that you want to run a sleeve print, that is due next Thursday, today because you have the sleeve boards up. It might seem like it makes sense because you want to save time for switching out the boards next week. But what really happens is that while you are printing a job that isn’t due for several days, the orders that are due today and tomorrow are not being handled. This causes a domino effect and throws your schedule off.

Step Two for Building Accurate Production Scheduling

Step two is all about understanding how long things take to accomplish. This is the timing of things and how they affect the workload in every department.

For example, do you know the answer to these questions?

  • How long it takes to enter an order?
  • The average time it takes to purchase the inventory for an order?
  • How many packages your Receiving team can check in on one shift?
  • The average number of screens you reclaim in a day?
  • How many screens are you coating in a day?
  • The average number of screens you are imaging a day?
  • How many new art approvals are going out per day?
  • The average number of art revisions your team changes per day?
  • What is the turn-time on getting embroidery files digitized?
  • How many jobs does each press average per day in production?
  • What is your average screen set-up time for each press, both manual and automatic?
  • How many impressions per hour does your press average for both manual and automatic?
  • What is the average number of impressions per hour for your DTG press?
  • In embroidery, what is the average stitch count per order?
  • What is the stitch speed per minute for your embroidery machines usually?
  • How many embroidery runs do you average per hour for each machine?
  • For post-production, what is your hourly average for hang-tagging, polybagging, stickering, or drop-shipping for orders?

What I can tell you is that for each workgroup in production, you will have different averages. Different people have different work speeds, skill sets, and knowledge. Each different machine in production operates at different speeds and has different capabilities.

Are you keeping track?

They say you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and I can tell you that you can’t build an accurate production schedule without these numbers either.

The reason is simple. It’s like the speedometer for your car. You have to know how fast you are operating.

Let’s Do Some Math

For example, let’s use some example math. For the sake of discussion, let’s look at screen-printing and say that one of your automatic presses averages 400 impressions an hour, sets up at 7 minutes per-screen average, and has about ten minutes downtime between jobs.

Screen-printing

How long will it take to print a three color front, five color back on 600 pieces?

For the front, 3 screens x 7 minutes = 21 minutes set up time. For the back, 5 screens x 7 minutes = 35 minutes set up time. 600 pieces / 400 per hour = 1.5 hours. 10 minutes to take down for the next job.

Total time: 21 + 35 + 90 + 90 + 10 = 246 minutes or 4.1 hours.

Therefore, if you started this job at 7:00 am, it will be finished by 11:06 am if there are zero problems during the production run and your crew doesn’t stop.

Using Measured Information

If you know this information for any decoration method (screen-printing, embroidery, digital printing, heat applied graphics, laser-etching, etc.), you can predict how long things take to accomplish in production.

If you have this information on your production work group averages, it becomes fairly simple to stack jobs on a schedule to fill up the day.

How Many Minutes Are Available?

For most normal shops, the production shift is an eight hour day. With a thirty-minute lunch and two fifteen-minute breaks, that cuts it down to seven hours of availability.

If you are using a Production Log, you can measure your average downtime for each press. Downtime is the number of minutes that your team spends each day NOT printing.

So for the sake of discussion, let’s say that for this press you have 35% downtime for each day. You can work to improve this, but it is what it is.

An eight-hour day is 480 minutes. Subtract an hour for breaks and lunch, and that leaves 420 minutes. Then, subtract 35% downtime (147 minutes) and that leaves 273 minutes available for printing. Which is 4.55 hours.

Here’s the Problem

The biggest problem with production scheduling that that sales and customer service can easily over-book the amount of time available in production.

Our first example used 4.1 hours to complete. Let’s say there were three more orders that this press had to produce on this day.

The next job was a one-color front on 120 pieces (7 set-up + 18 minutes production + 10 minutes takedown = 35 minutes total or .58 hours).

After that, the order was a two-color front, one-color back on 400 pieces (14 minutes set-up + 7 minutes set-up + 60 minutes production + 60 minutes production + 10 minutes takedown = 151 minutes or 2.51 hours)

The last job was a sample that was needed for approval. It was a six-color on two pieces. (42 minutes set-up + about 3 minutes for printing = 45 minutes or .75 hours)

So that’s 4.1 hours + .58 hours + 2.51 hours + .75 hours = 7.94 hours needed to complete the work on the same day. This means that if the normal amount of available time is 4.55 hours, we’ll need 3.39 hours of overtime to complete everything on the same day.

Suddenly You Are Eighty Jobs Behind

This is why if you are not paying attention to your numbers and what is scheduled, you can suddenly look up and you are eighty jobs behind on your production schedule.

You didn’t stay the 3.39 hours later and get those jobs out. Instead, you pushed them to tomorrow. Which meant that those jobs became late. And the domino effect begins. It doesn’t take much to get hopelessly behind.

You have to have the discipline to knuckle down and handle things on the correct day.

Step Three for Building Accurate Production Scheduling

This step is all about building out the process of being organized. In your shop, you have to decide how and when everything is going to be handled.

Describe what success looks like. Set the rules.

Work Backward with Dates

The first step for clarity of purpose is for each department to know when thing should be accomplished by, and for that we’ll use the Ship Date to set the rules.

Break It Down

If the Ship Date is the 15th, then 100% of the work for the order needs to be accomplished and complete one business day beforehand, which is the 14th. The reason for this is that if everything is handled the day before, and all is left to ship the job, that removes a considerable amount of stress on getting things ready before that freight carrier truck backs up or your customer shows up.

Right after order entry is when scheduling should decide on when the job is to start production to be ready by the 14th. How many other jobs need to be completed? For the order, how long will it take to produce?

For the sake of this discussion, we’ll pick the 14th as the production date.

Production Staging

If we use the 14th as the production date, we’ll need to have the inventory received and the screens burned and ready well before we run that job. As I’ve mentioned before in other articles, I like to handle the scavenger hunt for everything for tomorrow’s production before we leave today.

This means that on the 13th, the inventory must be ready and the screens imaged as we are grabbing them and staging everything in RUSH, Late, Today, and Tomorrow order by the press. Before anyone goes home on the 13th, everything needed for production on the 14th is staged in the order it needs to be produced, by each appropriate workstation.

Get Ready

In order to pull everything for production on the 13th, this means that the 12th will be the last day to receive the goods or burn the screens for this order to hit the Ship Date.

If any inventory is missing or the art isn’t approved on the 12th, then sales or customer service needs to do the research into the challenge and move the Ship Date out accordingly.

They should be trained to do this without anyone from Production notifying them of the problem. It’s their job to manage the orders by looking ahead several days in advance for any potential challenges and start working on solutions.

Remember: If you change the Ship Date, don’t forget to print new Work Orders and replace the ones on the floor if you still use paper documents.

Driving this home, for the order to be produced on the 14th, 100% of the inventory must be received complete and the screens imaged on the 12th. For embroidery, digital printing, or heat press graphics…the inventory is due the same day, and the art must be digitized for embroidery, the digital files ready and sent to the queue for DTG, and the transfers in-hand or ready for heat press.

If whatever is needed is handled earlier, that’s a bonus. You win!

Purchasing and Receiving

For shops that are not contract decorators, they buy their own inventory for orders.

A good rule of thumb to follow is to purchase everything for the orders as soon as you possibly can do so. Many smaller decorators may wait a day or so after an order is entered to gang a few orders together to take advantage of free freight discounts. Contract decorators are at the mercy of their customer’s buying habits.

Regardless of who is buying the inventory, it is critical to get the garments moving your way as quickly as possible. When the warehouse actually ships the order, shipment freight delays in-transit, and other problems are all potential issues that may have to be dealt with eventually.

For Receiving, it is imperative that all goods are checked-in on the same day that they arrive. There is no waiting.

Find out if the inventory is complete, mark it accordingly in the system, and get it staged for production.

It is important to note that for Purchasing, they have to check the internal clock for the order to ensure that the goods will arrive two business days before the production needs to happen.

Be especially vigilant about this as a good number of times the inventory for orders may be coming from multiple distributor warehouses with different transit times to you.

Sales to Art to Screen Room to Production Bottleneck

This has to be the most frequent reason why something didn’t get started on time. Let’s face it, this is a creative industry and we’re at the mercy of the amazing folks that create the art and get the customer to approve it.

But getting the art created and approved on time sometimes just feels like it is an impossible task.

So, if production needs to print by the 14th, and the job needs to be staged by the 13th, and the screens burned by the 12th. When should the art be created by?

In my opinion, ideally, you want two business days for that process to happen. One to send it out and get it approved, and another business day in case there is a change. Which means that the art needs to be created by the 10th.

Hey, if the art gets approved early then the screen room can image the screens a little early too. But you need to plan that time into the work for how things operate.

Five Business Day Workflow

As you can see, working backward from the 15th, it takes five business days for each department to handle their chunk of the work.

  • In our example, on the 15th of the month, the order ships.
  • Production is handled completely by the 14th of the month.
  • The order is staged and in line ready to be produced on the 13th.
  • On the 12th, 100% of the inventory is ready and the screens are burned. (or embroidery digitized, or art sent to the digital printer, or transfers ready to use)
  • This means that the art is created and sent to the client by the 10th for approval. The inventory should be ordered by this day as well.

Under Five Days?

Do you have to turn the order in under five days? Then these timeframes for each step have to be reduced. You need approval faster, the goods in earlier, and the staging of the items needed for production handled immediately. It’s going to take the same amount of time to produce the order, so the steps before production have to handled quickly.

Lastly: How Does Your System Operate?

Shops all across this industry use many different operating systems. From clipboards that hang on a peg on the wall, to amazingly complex computer systems that use paperless technology, we use it all.

Regardless of what you employ, you need to make sure that everyone in your shop is using it the same way. Setting standards and training on them is mandatory.

Skipping a step, or not understanding something that is needed always leads to problems down the line. If you are having trouble keeping to a schedule, start documenting the reasons why jobs become late.

What’s the issue?

Backtrack that and compare it to your process standards. What should happen?

Repeatable results start with clarity with everyone on what success looks like and why. Don’t be afraid to make changes to improve your operational success.


“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson

“It’s better to look ahead and prepare, than to look back and regret.” – Jackie Joyner-Kersee

“If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.” – W. Edwards Deming