The Power of Observation

Boy observing with binoculars

Observation. This is a new trick that I want you to start using in your shop.

Take any moment in time during the day. From a vantage point, watch how your staff goes about their work. What you may observe may surprise you.

“Things That Get Noticed, Get Done.”

Here’s a simple concept: “What’s next?”

Regardless of the department, does every member of your team know what to do next? Is it so easy to make the correct decision that doing things improperly is actually difficult?

For example, if I’m a worker in your shop. Do I have the next task ready for me to work on right now? Are the instructions and information complete? Do I have the time and training to begin? Is that next thing staged for me, so it is impossible to miss?

Take some time to observe your staff working. When they have to walk away to go get something, where are they going, and what are they looking for? What if it was already there?

Use Visual Clues

Use visual clues to inform people they are making the right decision.

Number and Color Code Equipment

Press One could have a big red numeral on a sign. Press Two could have a big blue numeral on a sign. In your system, everything for Press One could use the color red to signify it is for that press. Press Two uses blue, so things are coordinated with that color.

Other things you can color code? Mesh counts. Team members. Decoration departments. Turntimes. Low cure vs standard cure ink buckets.

Use the Last Digit

For organizing inventory around the building, use the last digit of the work order number. There are three main areas that will work for you. In Receiving, both partially and fully received, ready for production. After the order is complete, stage all orders ready for customer pick up the same way.

Segregating boxes 0 through 9 has proven to be the fastest and easiest method of finding inventory stock for orders. Use designated floor or shelf space.

Tape on the Floor

Mark areas on your work floor with brightly colored tape. Create a travel lane that can not have anything placed in the way. This allows staff to walk, but also carts, skids, and forklifts. By equipment, place a line of tape for lining up staged work to be produced. Around electrical panels, fire extinguishers, and other safety areas, use yellow and black striped safety tape to earmark areas that have to remain empty.

Today’s Schedule

What needs to be completed today before you go home? Is there a checklist or prepared schedule? Is it built with a prioritized ranking?

How will someone know what to do next without asking anyone? What should be accomplished by break or lunch?

Do yourself a favor and build out the process that maps these expectations out for your team. This could be a printed sheet of paper from your system, a hand-written notebook page, or scribbles up on a whiteboard. The communication vehicle you choose matters less than actually giving away the information. This, by the way, is always built yesterday and is ready before management leaves.


If you want people to do the correct thing, put up a sign. As we’re in the visual communication business, make it professional in appearance, not a scribble with a marker.

  • Where do you want people to put something?
  • Please don’t heat up shrimp in the microwave.
  • Recycleable material goes here.
  • Fire extinguiser below
  • “Don’t forget to clock out before you leave!”

Whatever your message, use a sign. If you want someone to do the right thing, communicate that intent.

QR Codes

If you observe that people sometimes forget the next step or proper process, one trick is to film that action and place a QR code near that area.

  • Maybe your regular shipping clerk is out that day. Here’s how someone helping out can get the steps to properly ship to another country.
  • Show the proper procedure to mix and fill up the screen room dip tank with the correct ratio of product and water.
  • Here are the steps to print a packing list.

Observe your team, and if there is any sort of struggle to remember how to do something, use the QR code and video technique to give them an easy way to access the proper way to do something.

Top Things To Observe In Your Shop

Over the years, I’ve traveled and have had the privledge to visit many decorated apparel shops in this industry. Here’s a list of the top things that I always notice.

  1. Cleanliness. The best shops that are the most profitable are kept immaculate and ready to work. Usually the best place to judge this is in the employee bathrooms. If nobody can find the trash ca for the paper towels, I’ll bet they have sloppy processes in other places too. This is 100% about the employees you have on your team.
  2. What time does the first completed shirt happen? If your shop starts at 7:00 am, how long after will the first completed shirt come off the embroidery machine, or down the printing dryer belt? 7:10 or 7:55? This says a lot about the people working, the processes deployed, and the willingness to get things completed. Also look before and after breaks and lunch. You may be surprised.
  3. Completed work order with information. If anyone has to walk the work order up to the front office to try to understand what they are supposed to do, it isn’t complete enough. This includes art instructions too. People should be able to comprehend instructions and do the right thing. If not, you need to make some changes.
  4. Clutter. How difficult is it to work and move around the shop? Can people work quickly and efficiently, or do they have to move two things out of the way to do something? Are there empty tables and open spaces kept so new work can be brought in to be completed?
  5. The “Come to work” routine. What time does your shift start? Observe each person’s process. Do they clock in, and then immediately hit the bathroom? Are they fussing around with coffee, music playlists, purses, bags, jackets, and personal items for ten or fifteen minutes? What is the length of time between that employee clocking in and actually starting to work for the company? I’ve watched people at some shops putz around for almost thirty minutes before starting to work. What do you think the annual cost of that might be? This includes office staff too by the way.
  6. Lack of measuring anything. The shops that struggle are always usually the ones that don’t see the value in measuring. They don’t know how long something takes, or how many of something is completed in an hour. In screen printing, they don’t measure screen tension but are the first ones to complain about ink not being opaque because they don’t understand it isn’t the ink.
  7. One person does everything. This is a control problem. When one person is the only one that knows how to do something, they feel they have leverage. This could be in any department. When the owner wants or tries to train others, this is seen as a threat. Also, any technique, software, equipment or consumable that is brought into the shop to help with the situation is labled as “bad” or “it won’t work.”
  8. SME or Subject Matter Expert. There usually is only one. This could be with the internal software or in a department. Usually it is the owner. “Nobody does it like me” or “It’s easier and faster if I do it” are the reasons why nobody is trained in that area. Consquently, all questions have to move through that person, which becomes a gigantic time suck. Hint: it doesn’t have to be you.
  9. We know what to do, we just don’t do it. There is a lack of action. How many people in this industry own a doughnut probe or screen tension meter, but don’t actually use them? When I ask, they are usually buried on a shelf under a half-inch of dust.
  10. “We are too busy.” This is the number on excuse as to why something isn’t being handled the way ti should. The real reason is usually closer to “we don’t know why that is important” or “it is not a priority for us.” Blaming it on being busy is more convenient than admitting the truth.

Do This Now

This week take fifteen or twenty minutes and quietly watch your crew work. Take notes. Do this at different times during the day.

Record your observations. Talk to your team. Ask questions.

Start making changes.

Remember, “you can change your people, or you can change your people.”

“There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few that learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.” – Will Rogers

“It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that others waste.” – Henry Ford

“People’s minds are changed through observation, and not by argument.” – Will Rogers

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Marshall Atkinson also shares exclusive blog content at Supacolor makes The World’s Best Heat Transfer and provides tips, inspiration, and other resources designed to empower professional garment printers.

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