Shop Shakeup: Make Changes That Stick

Seeing major changes through is harder than it looks. Our expert helps one North Carolina shop owner put his foot down.

Seeing major changes through is harder than it looks. Our expert helps one North Carolina shop owner put his foot down.

Jeff Ayersman likes to joke that he’s still a newbie in the screen-printing world. “We just started up 26 years ago, and we’re still trying to figure it out,” says the owner of Capital Promotions (asi/157018) in Raleigh, NC. Ayersman runs a growing shop, with two presses – one automatic, one manual – and about a dozen employees, several of whom have been with the company for many years. Capital Promotions has a diverse book of business, ranging from contract work to collegiate printing. “We do a little bit of everything,” he says.

The problem, however, comes when shop employees need to fill a repeat order. Capital Promotions has scads of old artwork – accumulating more than 15 years’ worth of films, for example – but no consistent filing system for storing a job’s specific color, mesh and durometer requirements. Relying on a mix of institutional knowledge, scattered paperwork and proofing, the shop ultimately gets each reorder right, but Ayersman says, it would be nice to reach that point more quickly and with more confidence. “We’re pretty good at winging it, but you can only wing so much,” he adds. “The guys will say, ‘Gee, you pulled it off again.’ I don’t want to have to pull it off. That’s not a way to run a business.”

Shop Management Quick Tip

Jeff Ayersman of Capital Promotions tried a shop management program in the past, but wasn’t able to make it stick. One key point when making the transition from paperwork to digital records is to make a “no pen” rule. Don’t allow employees to handwrite notes on a work order, says consultant Marshall Atkinson. These are likely to get lost in the shuffle. Instead, train everyone on how and where to input such notes digitally in the shop management program.

Through the years, Ayersman (pictured in blue polo) and his staff have pinpointed issues with shop procedures and corrected them by instituting new policies, but nothing seems to stick. “We always go back to our old habits,” he says.

To help Ayersman work through his issues, Wearables paired him with screen-printing consultant Marshall Atkinson. The chief operating officer of mega-contract shop Visual Impressions in Milwaukee, Atkinson has a quarter-century of experience in the decorated-apparel world. Over the course of several lengthy conference calls, Atkinson helped Ayersman identify the root of his shop’s issues and develop a blueprint for future success.

The Five Whys

The first thing Atkinson does is reassure Ayersman that his situation is not unique. “This is exactly what happens when you go from mom-and-pop to a more corporate structure,” Atkinson says. “As you scale up and add people, you get to some kind of tipping point and really need good procedures and policies in place.”

Eliminate Film and Save

Jeff Ayersman of Capital Promotions estimates that his shop burns about 15 screens each day. For shops that burn 35 to 40 screens each day, consultant Marshall Atkinson recommends switching over to a computer-to-screen system. A new CTS system could cost as much as $65,000, he says, but a decent used system may run $25,000 or less.

The benefits, though, greatly outweigh the costs, according to Atkinson.

  1. You’ll save money, by eliminating the consumable cost of film.
  2. You’ll save space, since you no longer have to store hundreds or thousands of old films for repeat orders.
  3. You’ll save time. M&R has estimated that its CTS systems cut registration time by as much as 95% when paired with its Tri-Loc screen registration system. “It’s a really fast way of doing stuff,” Atkinson says of CTS.

To get started in establishing long-lasting and effective policies, Atkinson tells Ayersman to compile a list of the 10 biggest issues in his shop, then run them through a problem-solving technique known as the “Five Whys.” Basically, he says, “You ask why five times, and that will get you the answer.” Atkinson takes the example of not remembering specific colors in repeat orders. First, ask yourself why you didn’t remember, and with each subsequent question, drill down until you come up with the real issue: perhaps that the shop never created a form to record such job information.

Atkinson advises Ayersman to get everyone in the shop involved in creating comprehensive work order forms and checklists. Other employees might come up with ideas you wouldn’t have considered; plus, he adds, people will be more engaged and enthusiastic about something they’ve helped to create. Whether they are handwritten or incorporated into shop management software, forms only go so far if they are not accompanied with crystal-clear expectations and iron-clad procedures to back them up. Every staff member should be trained to fill out the form with exactly the same nomenclature, Atkinson says. “If anybody ever has to walk up front and ask a question, that means you didn’t put your order in correctly. That means you have to change something for next time,” he adds.

About Our Series

If your shop is struggling, we want to hear all about it. We’ll choose the screen-printing shop most in need of a makeover and send Charlie Taublieb, screen-printing expert and owner of Taublieb Consulting, for two days of tough love and a total overhaul of your processes. Taublieb will review your shop top to bottom and get your people and processes in line for Wearables’ new Shop Takeover. To apply, email Senior Writer Theresa Hegel at thegel@asicentral.com and tell us about your shop dilemmas; we’d also like you to make a short video on your smartphone and email it to us, so we can see your shop’s personalities and layout.

Ayersman has created forms and even tried to use a shop management program for a time, but the 50-year-old says he and his staff found it cumbersome and were resistant to change. Many of Atkinson’s suggestions, in fact, are not new to the shop owner. “I promise you, we have created forms. We have great ideas, and everybody seems to be on board, but we never maintain them,” Ayersman says. For instance, about a year ago, Ayersman had self-promotional notepads and pens made and instructed everyone in the shop to write a quick thank-you on the pad and include both in every box that is shipped out. The marketing initiative lasted about two weeks before the shop got busy and the new procedure fell by the wayside.

Where the Buck Stops

Ayersman’s lament leads to Atkinson’s next piece of advice: accountability. The reason policies don’t stick, Atkinson says, lies with the manager, not the employees. “The buck stops here,” Atkinson adds. “Everybody has to do their job, and it has to be right or there will be hell to pay. If the ‘hell to pay’ doesn’t happen, then you can’t expect the first part to happen. You have to hold employees accountable.”

Before laying down the law, however, Ayersman must, well, lay down the law – namely, by putting together a comprehensive employee handbook. Such a document clearly states the acceptable rules of behavior for staff, and copies should be signed by each employee after reading. After the rules are established, it’s important to enforce them consistently. At Atkinson’s shop, for example, workers operate under a 20-point system, losing points for being late or having unexcused absences. Reaching certain thresholds triggers consequences ranging from write-ups, to suspensions without pay, to firing. At the start of the new year, an employee’s points return to 20, and the cycle begins again.

The next step is to establish a regular performance review plan for every single person at the company, including Ayersman. Atkinson recommends having reviews every six months, but only discussing compensation once a year. His shop uses a combination of self-review, a direct supervisor’s review and an anonymous review, compiled from a survey of the worker’s peers. Each review includes the same 10 questions, regarding topics such as customer service, attitude, quality and communication. It’s important to celebrate an employee’s achievements, but also to set three concrete goals to be accomplished in the next six months, Atkinson explains.

Ayersman should also develop a cross-training plan for workers. “If you’ve only got one printer, he owns you,” Atkinson says. Any critical job in the building should have at least three people who know how to do it, so the shop is covered on those occasions when vacation and sick leave stack. Hands-on experience is crucial for cross-training, and Atkinson recommends scheduling practice time on the calendar. “You have to give people time driving the car to learn how to do it,” he says. During such sessions, don’t worry about speed – that comes with experience, he adds.

Ayersman believes his staff will be willing and able to start cross-training. “It’s just a matter of making it a priority and scheduling the time to make sure it happens,” he adds.

The Action Plan

Jeff Ayersman, owner of Capital Promotions in Raleigh, NC, struggles with establishing and maintaining procedures – turning repeat orders into a daunting prospect. Consultant Marshall Atkinson suggested a few areas for improvement:

  • Write an employee handbook.
  • Collaborate with the team to update work orders and other forms.
  • Establish clear policies and procedures.
  • Enforce those policies consistently to ensure repeatability.
  • Cross-train employees.
  • Set up a performance review plan.

The Verdict

A month after the initial conversation with Atkinson, Ayersman has already begun to make changes to Capital Promotions. He is about to implement a new shop management system that he hopes will help with record-keeping, and he’s also invested in a Pantone-matching ink system to help mix colors accurately every time. In the past, Ayersman says, the shop would, for example, simply add a little black to a bucket of ink when a customer wanted it darker, a big no-no when it comes to consistency. Ayersman and staff have also decided to trash all their old films and start fresh – keeping only those they know belong to frequent reorders. All three steps will help with organization and repeatability.

Only time will tell, however, if the changes stick. “I think we have a clear path toward success. It’s not perfectly clear yet, but there are definitely things I think will help us,” Ayersman says. “Now, I’ve just got to implement them and get everyone on board and stay positive.”

Atkinson is pleased with Ayersman’s attitude: “You seem to be working things out. You’ve just got to take things one day at a time.”

Catching Up With … Linda and Steve Wachal, Creative Impact Co. (asi/170792)

The Shop Shakeup series launched in January when consultant Marshall Atkinson worked with Linda and Steve Wachal, owners of Creative Impact Co. (asi/170792) in Evansdale, IA. The Wachals couldn’t see eye to eye on many issues and struggled to turn a profit on their highly diversified, but very disorganized decorating shop. We recently checked back in with Linda to find out whether Atkinson’s recommendations stuck.

Pricing: Pricing remains a “real bugaboo” for the Wachals; however, Linda says she recently increased her screen printing prices. “I think we’ll be OK with it,” she adds. “I still wish I had a better guideline on how to price the other items we do.”

Shop Management: As part of their shakeup, the Wachals received a free year of cloud-based shop management system Printavo. Linda says she’s worked with the program a little, but wasn’t able to save time using it, so eventually abandoned it.

Diversity: Creative Impact Co. offers screen printing, embroidery, laser engraving, trophies, sublimation, direct-to-garment, business cards, signs, banners and more at their “one-stop shop.” Atkinson suggested running cost analyses of each segment of the business, eliminating ventures that make no money and scaling up the more profitable techniques. The Wachals ultimately decided that scaling back isn’t an option. “We have to remain diversified in order to remain busy and have a competitive edge,” Linda says.

Theresa Hegel is a senior staff writer for Wearables. Contact her at thegel@asicentral.com and follow her on Twitter at @TheresaHegel.