Marshall Atkinson urges garment decorators to be as agile as Rocky Balboa if they want to succeed in business

Remember Rocky II, the movie? Sure, 1979 was a long time ago… but I’ll bet you remember this one. Rocky fights a rematch with Apollo Creed, and has to go through an uncomfortable change to defeat the champ. The trick is simple: become a faster fighter. He starts this training by having to chase and catch a live chicken. Yes, a chicken.

Of course, Rocky resists the idea of change. The wise old trainer Mickey gruffly lectures Rocky and says, “Chicken chasing is how we used to train in the old days! If you catch this thing, you can catch greased lightning!” Mickey knew that speed would defeat Apollo Creed; after all, Rocky’s superior strength didn’t do it the first time around.

In the current business climate, you need to be able to catch the chicken. Put simply: does your shop possess greased lightning production turn speed?

One thing that the online business economy has created is a craving for ever-faster delivery times. It follows that production turn-time speed is the weapon that you can use to gain more business in this modern go-faster age. Improving this area of your shop can have tremendous benefits.

Just like Rocky, you’ll need some help to finally grab that bird. Below are some ideas that will challenge you to think about how you can decrease the gap from order taken to order shipped.

Ready? Then let’s go!

Order entry

It all starts here…

Name almost any problem that takes your foot off the production accelerator pedal and I’ll bet it could be resolved by addressing the way in which you enter an order. Let’s face it, we are in the custom production order business. Even though the orders are all getting the same type of decoration, they are usually completely different from one another.

Using the same starting point and order entry methodology gets you to create the answers faster and know what to ask for if something is missing. Standardise this part of the workflow. Train your front office staff and equip them with the knowledge base to make good, chicken-chasing fast decisions.

What orders are you taking? When is something due? How does it fit with the rest of the current production schedule? Can you print a logo on the waistband of some yoga pants? What thread colour is a tonal match for Nike Anthracite?

These questions should never be answered by your production teams. Anything that could hang up production later on must be resolved before the order is entered.

Make a change

Having trouble getting the right information to make the order complete?

Other industries have solved this problem by pushing the challenge back onto the consumer. How many times have you filled out a form online where the fields were mandatory and you couldn’t proceed to the next step until you entered the information?

This can be as simple as having an order entry form on your website. What is it worth to you to have the information in your system without any data entry on your part? How much time and labour savings would that create?

Manage the inventory

One of the biggest hang ups with keeping a production schedule tight lies with how the inventory is being managed. You can’t decorate shirts unless they are counted, received and staged.

A good rule of thumb to follow is that the inventory has to be checked in the day it arrives. All shirts are counted and inspected against the vendor’s packing list. The packing list is then reviewed against the system order information. If everything is complete, the job is marked as such and then staged for production. Challenges with counts, colour, styles or damages have to be reported immediately and acted upon.

Art approval

The problem with getting art approved almost always lies with the customer. Is it any different in your shop?

So, how are you managing this process? Some shops are using a new app called Instaply to get these approvals opened and approved immediately. The faster you can get from order entry to art approval, the more time there is for the production crew to work their magic.

If you are constantly having to make multiple changes to designs before they can get approved, something isn’t quite right with your process.

Sales people are also notorious for the “Do something cool” set of instructions. Or, my other non-favourite, “Just do two or three designs and they’ll pick the one they like the best.” Why do two or three times the work for one order? Dumb.

Then there’s the picky client. Try to reign in these folks by getting hyper detailed instructions from the onset. Shoot them layout thumbnails that you’ve scribbled together early. Bring them along in the process so that their control urge is sated and the final art approval comes faster as they have already made their changes known.


To increase production turn-time speed you need to look at a few areas. First, where are the bottlenecks?

Maybe you have room on your machines, but you are waiting on the files to be digitised or screens to be burned. Maybe you have the job set up, but your crews are waiting for someone to get that PMS 3005 blue mixed. You need to resolve those challenges to increase your speed.

Get more people trained to digitise embroidery files. Buy a computer-to-screen (CTS) screen system. Have [plastisol] inks mixed the day before the job is to run.

Look at your equipment and staff. Typically, newer equipment and seasoned staff members work better and faster. Is that what you have in the shop now? Or are you making do with used 15-year-old machines and a bunch of temporary workers that don’t know anything?

Make it easy

Catching a chicken is easier if you corner it. Then it doesn’t have anywhere to go and you can just reach down and grab it. Increasing speed in your shop is the same: just make it easier for people to do the right thing.

How many more turns a day in your embroidery department do you think you could get if you brought pre-hooped shirts to the machine and just lined them up? Can’t afford a gazillion hoops? How about just adding one more person to the production table to hoop?

Think about how you stage things. Line up everything needed by each of the production workstations in the order that they need to be produced.

The push is to constantly get things out early. Jobs that have to ship today should be produced yesterday. Go! Go! Go!

Other shops are training in the alley to grab the chicken. Here’s what they are doing:

  • Investing in production technology
    – Digital printing on garments means zero screens
    – If you use screens, CTS technology means screens ready to wash out incredibly quickly
    – Automated coaters means perfect emulsion on screens
    – Paperless production: How much time would you save if you never printed another piece of paper?
    – Touch screen monitors on the floor
    – Barcodes on boxes
    – Everything in the cloud
  • Shop operating software
    – Are you still using whiteboards and spreadsheets?
  • Limiting choices.
    – Build your business plan and focus on developing things so they make sense. Why worry about struggling with printing that yoga pants waistband order when your main customer is servicing rock band tour merchandise?
  • Eliminate clutter.
    – A clean shop is a faster shop
  • Quality is job one.
    – Redoing anything is a waste of time. Measure twice, cut once
  • Focus on technique
    – In our industry, it’s the science behind the craft that drives the results
  • There are 24 hours in a day
    – How much of that time are you producing?
  • Look at your downtime too
    – During each shift, how much of that is actually decorating a shirt? Are you measuring? What’s your up- time percentage? If you don’t know, why not?
  • Hiring better staff
    – You get what you pay for. Don’t think you are saving any money by being cheap. Maybe that’s what is holding you back
  • Setting standards and building staff training programmes
    – Decide how you want your business to work and train on it

Getting faster in anything is a culmination of a lot of work. Trying and tweaking many things is going to produce the results you want. Eliminate the wasted steps. Ask ‘why?’ a lot. It’s going to be a team effort. It can’t be just the owner or a manager barking orders. Teamwork will drive your success.

Marshall Atkinson is the Professional Services director for InkSoft, and program owner for the new InkSoft Production Manager software. In his Professional Services capacity, Marshall provides coaching to shops on operational efficiency, continuous improvement and workflow strategy, business planning and strategy, employee motivation and management and sustainability.