Hitting Critical Production Dates

Hitting Critical Production Dates

In the last few weeks, I have had at least a dozen or so conversations with shop owners regarding how-to tips on hitting critical production dates.

Their production teams are so behind, they can’t figure out how to catch up.

If this was a commercial restaurant kitchen, the term for that is called “in the weeds.” It takes a lot of effort and thought to solve this challenge and get caught back up.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all panacea to the challenge, but I thought that since this was such a popular issue that a blog article might be in store.

Before we get too deep into the nitty-gritty, here is a bullet point list that this article will cover on hitting critical production dates:

  • The Right Kind of Work
  • Inventory Issues – Not in the System
  • Inventory Issues – Partial
  • Inventory Issues – Goods Not Here
  • Art Challenges
  • Shop Organization
  • Production Effectiveness
  • Production Scheduling

I made the above list so you can skip the parts that don’t quite apply to you and get to the section where you might need help with resolving your critical production date challenge.

The Right Kind of Work

One critical production date challenge that repeatedly crops up when I start asking questions is the type of work that the shop is bringing in.

Yes, there is such a thing as the difference between good work and bad work. Good work is profitable. Bad work is not.

It’s that easy.

Some shops out there are convinced that they need to do a mixture of retail (or full price) orders and contract (or wholesale) orders to keep their equipment spinning.

Everyone prices things differently so for the sake of argument let’s say that for a retail order the profit is $5 a shirt. For the contract job, it is $0.50 a shirt.

Your results may vary, but you know what I mean. This is just an example. Don’t kill the messenger.


The challenge that many shops face is that they are overloaded with $0.50 a shirt work.

There are only so many hours in the day. What happens continuously is that the $5 shirt orders are squeezed out of the production schedule to make way for those $0.50 a shirt profit jobs.

Right now, there could be so much work coming in that you are actually working overtime to get the $0.50 a shirt jobs out the door. I’ve spoken to a bunch of shop owners this past week who are working nights and weekends to keep up. They can’t hit critical production dates, as they are already over a week late on orders now.

When I ask why they don’t have more retail $5 a shirt work on the schedule their standard refrain is “I wish. We’re just so busy I don’t have time to work on those types of sales!”

Busy Being Busy

As my friend Mark Coudray is fond of always saying, “Are you busy being busy or are you busy being profitable?”

Take a look at what is causing the critical production date challenges in your shop. Maybe it isn’t a retail vs contract type of work issue. It could be that you are filled with a lot of low quantity work when you want bigger orders.

What is your critical production date boat anchor?

Do you have a lot of orders that are under 36 or 48 pieces? What is the percentage of your work of these low quantity jobs?

Recently, a six auto shop that was struggling with hitting scheduled production dates had 47% of their workload under 48 pieces, and these jobs were going on their autos. They were spending the majority of their day setting up jobs and not actually printing.

The downtime was literally choking them.

Inventory Issues – Not In The System

This is a common challenge with contract shops. The client takes a job and purchases the inventory. It gets sent to the shop either before the Purchase Order arrives or it is put in the system.

Depending on how much contract work you do, this could be about 10%-30% of your daily deliveries of inventory that hits your Receiving Department. This creates an enormous pile of uncounted, unreceived, and unprocessed potential problems.

No wonder you are having trouble hitting critical production dates.

Some shops call these NIS orders (Not in the System). I like to call them UFO orders (Unidentified Flying Objects) just because it’s funnier. UFO, as in “what the hell is that?”

This can become an exaggerated issue if there is any delay in getting the orders into the system, or when the Receiving team doesn’t know that the order is in the system and they can process it. That uncertainty doesn’t move the Ship Date. It only compresses the amount of time that you have to process the order.

NIS Workflow

Here’s what you need to do. Have an area designated for the NIS orders. Sometimes this area may be empty. Sometimes it is completely full. Do not tempt fate by using that empty area for anything other than NIS orders.

Create a shared Google doc that your customer service, sales, and receiving teams can all access simultaneously. Here is a template you can use. I like to use a Google doc as it can be updated live with information, and is saved automatically.

Your Goal

The goal is for all of your teams to check this spreadsheet several times a day. This is to both update the spreadsheet with information, but also be cognizant of what is going on.

If the Purchase Order is entered into the system and an order is created, then the spreadsheet is updated with that info so the Receiving team can process the goods for the order.

You can hide or filter all rows that have been processed (do not delete) to only show unprocessed work. Make a new worksheet for each year.

Once the order is in the system, then the inventory can be received properly, following the department’s procedures. If you need help creating a better Receiving Department workflow, read this.

The goal of dialing in the NIS receiving challenge is to reduce the time delay in processing the backlog of inventory that should be allocated for jobs. Often production is waiting for inventory, when in fact it has been sitting in your shop for over a week because nobody has touched it yet.

A better workflow and more stringent communication are how this critical production date challenge is resolved.

Inventory Issues – Partial

Another gigantic critical production date challenge that is facing almost every shop is the issue with partially received orders.

Pre-COVID the garments would come in usually one or two shipments at the most. Now, because of supply chain and freight problems, it is not uncommon for the inventory for orders to arrive in four or five shipments from two or more apparel distributors. It is a hot mess.

Whether your shop is a retail-facing business, contract, or a mixture…you are dealing with this challenge right now.

The organizational requirements to deal with this challenge have greatly increased. Receiving teams are having to spend more time processing work than ever before.

Instead of “touching” the inventory once or maybe twice per order, it is not uncommon for your team to increase the work needed to properly count and receive the goods for an order by four or five times.

This means delays. Which could be backing up your production.

Partial Order Workflow Changes

Here’s what you need to do. For starters, you may want to add more team members to the department. As they say, many hands make light work.

Assess the daily workload that your team is struggling with. How could one or more additional team members help with that? What could they be doing?

And yes, again…this is why you need to raise your prices. It is not business as usual any longer. I don’t know if you have noticed, but the price of poker has gone up.

Again, check out this article on Receiving procedures to help with your basic workflow.

More Space is Needed for Partials

Also, consider increasing the area of your Partial inventory staging section. Because of the supply chain challenges, I’ll bet you have more partial orders than ever before.

When it takes a few deliveries before you get all of the inventory, you need to be able to keep what you have in one place, and all together.

It should be easily accessible instantly by your Receiving team, so you want it right by their work area.

Section off by rows, and use the last digit of the work order number to segregate the boxes. Print a label for each box to easily identify it, and use a fat marker and draw a big “P” on the label to indicate that it is a Partial. When all of the goods show up, reprint a clean label and paste it over the old one.

Then move the fully received item to the production staging area.

Inventory Issues – Goods Not Here

If there is one thing that production needs more than anything and that is the inventory for the work. Without the garments, there isn’t anything they can print, embroider, or heat press on.

You are essentially stuck and dead in the water.

So, what do you do about your workflow now? First, I would really ascertain if this is a true condition. That’s why having a great working NIS or Partial workflow that is highly accurate matters.

There is nothing worse than ramping up the drama for an order and stating to the customer that you don’t have the inventory, only to learn by the tracking number that the goods have been sitting on your floor for a week. I hear this complaint from shop owners constantly. (Yes, you are not a unicorn)

If the goods truly are not in the building, then you need a few options. This can be divided into two lines of thought.

Partial Orders and Zero Inventory Orders. Let’s take a look.

Partial Orders – Goods Not Here

Let’s say there is an order for 500 shirts. All but 36 mediums are in the building. You have a few choices:

  • Wait until 100% of the inventory is in. Move the production date out. It really helps if you have the freight tracking information on the missing pieces.
  • Cancel the 36 mediums from the order. This will make what has been Received change to 100% Complete. You now may produce the order. Return or refuse the shipment of the 36 pieces when they arrive.
  • Split the order into two orders. One for 454 pieces and the other for 36 pieces. That is two separate scheduled production events.
  • Use 36 mediums of a similar style and color that you have in inventory or can source faster than what you are waiting on. Many shops keep floor stock in popular colors and styles for this reason.

The Best Thing You Can Do

The best thing you can do is be proactively looking ahead on your orders and make decisions. One ultimate scenario is actually to make these decisions with your customer at the time of sale.

“Inventory is weird right now, what should we do?” is a conversation I would be having with your customers. Get instructions upfront, especially on critical orders. This will help you untie the knot later without the drama.

By the way, to be most effective, have your customer service or sales team on top of this…not your Production or Receiving teams.

Art Challenges

One of the biggest problems in this industry has been the traditional “Waiting on Art Approval” issue.

You can’t burn screens or digitize that embroidery file until the customer agrees that the art is perfect and ready to go. Getting them to the finish line on this sometimes is a gigantic struggle.

Sometimes the delay is caused by the client not responding quickly (or at all) enough to hit the critical production date. Other delays are caused by the art that needs changes. Occasionally, the delays are due to simply how the work is scheduled.

Let’s break down a few ideas that could improve this area for you if it is part of your critical production date problem.

Try these:

  • Start with great information. Many art changes are due to either incomplete or missing information. Your art department goal should be to get approval the first time for at least 85% of the work going out. Track the reasons why changes are requested. Shore up what you need to do to build out better creative briefs from sales or customer service to ensure more change requests don’t happen.
  • Get your creative team to pay attention. Are the changes due to your art staff missing a key element, spelling something wrong, or any other lazy mistake? Again, tracking the reasons why changes happen helps shed light on this target.
  • Get the art sent out earlier. Sorry, but it is as simple as that sometimes. If your production team seems to be always waiting on the art to get approved, start that cycle earlier by moving up the art department’s due date for the approvals to go out.
  • Outsource some of the work. “We’re too busy” is an excuse. Solve that by removing a chunk of work and using a virtual team. GraphXsource and Seps.io are great services you should look into.
  • Set the expectations with the client during the sales process on when the art approval will be coming to them, and the steps they need to take. “In order to hit your production date, we’ll be sending you an art approval form on Wednesday. Please approve or state changes to the art by the end of business on Wednesday, so we have the necessary time to complete your order.” Then, keep your word on sending them the approval.

Workflow Tips

What works best is to have the screens and digitizing complete and ready two business days before the production is to start on the order. If you are doing this the day that job is to run you are jeopardizing the on-time production for the order and putting tremendous pressure on your production team that they don’t need. Don’t forget we want to stage the production by the equipment sometime the day before it is to run. That won’t happen unless everything is ready to go.

If you have sent the art approval and haven’t heard back, have sales or customer service call them. This is part of their job. Occasionally, the email wound up in the spam folder or is buried 250 emails deep in someone’s inbox. Don’t send them another email. Call.

Shop Organization

Getting your shop ready to work and staying ready to work is part of your production management team’s job. Your production area should be kept neat, clean, and ready to work. Orders should be scheduled in advance, and proactively staged by the equipment one business day before the job is to run.

When chaos is allowed to take over, this is a poor reflection on your production leadership team. How your production floor is laid out, organized, and properly staged with work is important to how your shop is going to hit critical production dates.

I want you to consider how people cook dinner for a minute. There are three types.

The first type prepares the meal and cleans up after themselves as they go. Cutting boards, knives, bowls, and any utensils that are used are cleaned or placed in the dishwasher as the meal is cooking.

For the second, they cook the meal, eat the dinner, and then clean the kitchen right afterward. This takes about twenty or thirty minutes extra.

The third example will cook the meal, eat dinner, and clean everything up a day or two later. Dishes are piled in the sink, and the dishwasher for some reason is always full. The kitchen isn’t cleaned until either someone is coming over, or some of the dishes are needed again. Everything is always last minute.

Which of the three workflows listed above sounds like how you run your production in your shop? Can you identify which is the most efficient at getting more work handled daily?

Production Effectiveness

At the end of the day, did your team accomplish what it needed it to do? If you have twenty orders that have to be produced and shipped today, did all twenty get out the door?

Are you measuring and talking about effectiveness on a consistent basis? You should be judging your team on the results. Not on how busy everyone looks.

One of the challenges that leaders often overlook is simply stating the expectations to the team so they can understand what they have to accomplish today.

Are you charting out today what needs to be accomplished tomorrow?

If you are missing critical production dates, what are the reasons why? If you backtrack through them, what do you think you will find?

Start doing the work to eliminate the excuses as to why things don’t happen how or when they should. This could be with your people. Your equipment. The consumables. Even the type of work that you are accepting.

Production Scheduling

I’ve written before on the best way to schedule work with the Rush, Late, Today, Tomorrow mantra. If you missed that, read this.

Right now a lot of shops are simply behind.

Production will not get caught back up if you dogpile more orders on top of what is already late. Critical production dates won’t be hit when you are buried neck-deep in a backlog of work.

If you have a seemingly gigantic pile of late orders and no light at the end of the tunnel, here are some tips for you to get caught back up and back on track.

Try this:

  • Do the math. If you know your average setup time and production run time for each machine, look at each order individually and calculate how long it will take to run that job. Add ten minutes at the back end for tear down.
  • If you don’t know your averages for each machine, try using a simple tool like the new Production Tracker app. Remember, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.
  • Build out your schedule with the time calculated for a regular day. Then, figure out if you worked an extra couple of hours or Saturdays, where would that take you?
  • If you still can’t get caught up, consider outsourcing a few jobs to some trusted contract printers in your area. Yes, sometimes contract printers actually print for one another. That is co-opetition at its finest.
  • Again, look at the type of work that you are taking. If your schedule is overloaded with less-than-profitable work, or dinky orders that don’t make sense, consider changing the type of orders you accept. Increasing your pricing or your minimum order sometimes helps too.
  • Keep your team informed on what’s going on. State the challenge. Benchmark it and celebrate milestones. Make it a positive experience instead of a lion tamer’s act with a whip and a chair.

The Last Word on Hitting Critical Production Dates

Effective shops have dialed in processes, trained staff, functional equipment, and workflows that make sense.

If you feel that you need to improve in an area, good news. That’s what I do. I’m here to help you improve.

Let’s schedule a discovery call and to see how I can help point you in the right direction. Just click the button below.

“Being a good listener is absolutely critical to being a good leader; you have to listen to the people who are on the front line.” – Richard Branson

“It is much easier to be critical than to be correct.” – Benjamin Disraeli

“What you do, what you say, how you react to critical situations defines not just the moment, but it defines and shapes you.” – Christiane Amanpour

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