Nine steps every business can take, from organizing more to doing less.
by Laurie F. Junker
No business owner wants to waste time and money, have frustrated employees, and risk customer relationships with mistakes and delays. But the truth is that all of these things happen when businesses operate less efficiently than they could be.
Sometimes this happens by default—for example, when managers and employees fail to actively look for better ways of doing things. Inefficiencies also result from a lack of follow-through, when areas for improvement are identified, but no one engages in the work necessary to make new ways of doing things a part of the daily routine. Some steps toward better efficiency require precious time and resources up front, while benefits aren’t realized immediately.
This is especially true for industries in which products are manufactured to order, every project is unique and processes are honed over years of trial and error. Unlike a factory that perfects the efficient repetition of tasks to produce a single product thousands of times, custom manufacturing brings a unique set of challenges to shop efficiencies. But there are actions that companies in the specialty fabrics industry can take to improve workflow, quality, profitability, customer care and employee satisfaction. Here are nine steps to consider.
1. Ditch the paper
Written orders are a recipe for delays, mistakes and inefficiency. Time is wasted tracking down paper forms (which are sometimes off-site in a vehicle or altogether lost), and sloppy handwriting can result in mistakes and loss of profit. Imagine this scenario: a salesperson wrote 3’6″, but the shop employee read the order as 36″, and now the product needs to be recut. Randy Westlund, founder and CEO of Post Falls, Idaho-based Awning Tracker, knows the problems too well.
“I grew up working at my dad’s awning business and was living through these issues,” he says. After getting a degree in computer engineering and working for NASA, he decided to try to solve the problem by developing project management software for small manufacturers, specifically awning companies. Westlund sees the industry lagging on the technology front because it’s a specialized market made up of smaller companies, and developing technology is expensive. Even with a good solution, companies that want to change need a leader who will champion the new system, and it can be hard to find that person. “Business owners often get bogged down in day-to-day problems and can’t focus on strategy and long-term growth—which should be their primary job,” Westlund says.
2. Centralize information
Even if a shop isn’t ready to dive into a digital order tracking system, it can take steps to become more efficient by keeping information in one place. This can be a spreadsheet or a whiteboard, either online or centrally located, that shows all jobs, what stage each job is at, and who’s responsible for what. This can eliminate a lot of “steps” to answer questions, for example, when a customer calls to ask when an awning will get installed. At many shops, this would require the person answering the phone to track down the sales rep, the sales rep might need to ask the production manager, the production manager may have to go to the back of the shop to see if the special order materials have arrived, and so on. It can take 30 minutes to answer the question, and in that time, three or four employees are interrupted while the customer is annoyed by the wait.
A centralized job tracking system like a whiteboard can help, but it only works if every single person keeps it up-to-date. Not following through is a common pitfall, according to Westlund. “I see this with my customers who have adopted our software. Acquiring a system is step one. Step two is getting everyone to use it. This takes discipline and might mean letting go of employees who refuse to change and adapt to new ways of doing business.”
And it’s not just job tracking that benefits from more centralized, shared information. Giving the person who answers the phone access to salespeople’s calendars to schedule appointments when potential customers call can be the difference between gaining or losing business. “In the time it takes a receptionist to track down the salesperson to check their schedule, that customer might have called the next company on the search list,” Westlund says.
3. Know job costs
Many companies can’t accurately answer the question, “Did we make a profit on that job?” According to Westlund, owners may know the cost of materials and have a general idea of employee hourly rates, but are less accurate when calculating indirect costs, such as taxes, insurance and other overhead. Getting a better understanding of those costs creates a clear picture, makes prioritizing and planning easier and drives lasting efficiencies. (For more on job costing, visit www.SpecialtyFabricsReview.com and search “job costing.”)
4. Do less
Limit the amount of work in progress to focus on the most profitable and enjoyable jobs and customers. “When you’re juggling too many jobs at one time, you waste a lot of time jumping back and forth between them,” says Torey Heinz, founder of Shopflow, a Zeeland, Mich.-based firm that works with marine canvas shops to increase throughput. One easy way to figure out where to focus is to make a list of projects/customers and rank them by revenue (or profit, see step 3) and what Heinz calls the “level of joy” they bring—how easy they are to work with. This process can clarify what types of business segments and jobs a shop excels at and should pursue. Limiting the number of jobs in progress will ensure that the jobs a company does take on are completed efficiently.
“If you have 10 jobs in the pipeline at a time, it might take 10 weeks to complete all of them, versus focusing on one job at a time, where each job only takes a week,” he says. “It still takes 10 weeks, but you’re delivering a completed job every week, getting paid sooner, and the customer is much happier with the quick turnaround.”
5. Retool workflow
Kamber Narrow Fabric Machinery LLC, based in Birmingham, Ala., rebuilds and sells secondhand textile machinery to domestic and international clients in the military, aerospace and automotive industries. A few years ago, the company implemented lean principles, an effort led by company president Michael McGrath, who holds a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt. The first step was doing a Pareto analysis (or 80/20 rule) in every company area. Operations manager Ben McGrath cites one example: “When we analyzed data on machines sold for the last three years, we found that 80 percent of machinery sold came from 20 percent of the types we offer.”
Kamber then applied Kanban—a lean tool that helps companies visualize work to increase efficiency and continuously improve—to scale production up or down to meet market demands without wasting time or creating excess inventory. The process led to a decision to outsource some jobs such as painting and tearing down machines in preparation for a rebuild, which gave the company more flexibility and reduced fixed labor costs.
“This was a totally new approach for many of the employees, and it took a while to adapt to these new ways of working,” Ben McGrath says. “However, the benefits to the organization have been tremendous, and the employees appreciate the eradication of pointless waste.” The company is now in the process of retooling its sales process.
6. Educate and empower employees
A common issue in specialty fabrics end product manufacturing is the double-edged sword of high employee turnover and what’s sometimes referred to as “tribal knowledge”—expertise gained from years on the job. Employees who have it often guard the information, believing it creates job security and makes them more valuable to the business. However, the practice can negatively affect productivity and workflow.
“When the staff member is absent for vacation, illness, etc., machine downtime can increase, quality decreases, and it can be very costly for the organization,” Ben McGrath says. Kamber has developed video training, Kamber Machine Academy, on completing basic maintenance and setup of its most popular machines, and reference materials so that new employees can get up and running quicker. And while some longtime employees may see this as a threat, most find that better processes and training make their job less stressful and more satisfying.
7. Reduce interruptions
Interruptions disrupt workflow far too often, according to Heinz. “When people don’t have the information they need, they have to stop and interrupt others to continue with their specific task,” he says.
A good centralized source of information and weekly or daily status meetings can help ensure everyone is on the same page. Beyond that, people need time to focus, a few hours each day when no one is allowed to interrupt and they can “batch” work. This is true for everyone from administration to production. Heinz recommends shutting a door, using headphones, or, better yet, having the company get behind the effort with steps such as posting signs that indicate when an individual or department is in “do not disturb” mode.
“When you’re in the zone and get interrupted, it disrupts your concentration and isn’t easy to get back,” he says. “Giving people that time gives them breathing room that ultimately results in greater productivity.” He also recommends reserving time at the end of the day to organize the workspace, review what went well and what presented challenges, and make a list for the next day.
8. Organize facilities
A clean, well-organized space is safer and more productive, be it a kitchen, warehouse or sewing room. It’s a concept few would argue with, but many find difficult to undertake and maintain. According to Ben McGrath, applying a methodology such as the Six Sigma 5S approach can be a relatively easy way to get started:
- Sort: Get rid of unneeded parts and supplies.
- Straighten: Organize remaining items for peak efficiency.
- Shine: Thoroughly clean the space.
- Standardize: Clearly label/color code everything.
- Sustain: Train, refine and stick with the system.
Change, big and small, requires persistence and daily work. As Westlund emphasizes, “Things can be dramatically easier with the right tools and processes, but you have to be disciplined.”
Laurie F. Junker is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.