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8 Insider Strategies to Project Manage Like a Pro

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8 Insider Strategies to Project Manage Like a Pro

f you’re “not sure” what’s happening in every one of your print shop’s departments, you might be suffering from project management procrastination. “As you scale, there will be hang-ups in every department as you try to get orders out the door,” says Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe. “If you don’t project manage correctly, your shop’s a rowboat with flooding into it faster than you can bail it out.”

We’re going to break down how to understand in real time how your unique shop operates, so you can set up a realistic project management plan.

1. It starts with the shop owner (you).

As head of your shop, you need to know your production workflow and be attuned to places where there might be bottlenecks. Project managing the entire order lifecycle is arguably the most important workflow in your shop because this is what keeps orders flowing smoothly, from beginning to end—resulting in happy customers and repeat orders.

“As the boss, you should actively identify your shop’s stress triggers, and then take small, targeted steps to resolve problematic areas. When you’re working in a mostly stress-free shop, you’re in a productive workspace.”
La Tonna Roberson, owner of T-Shirt Shop Dallas and Lady Print Boss Consulting

When you head up a team that’s knee deep in getting orders in and out the door on time, weekly or even daily team meetings can be a valuable asset, as they allow your employees a chance to voice concerns and talk about shop issues. “Team meetings are great for raising shop morale, brainstorming and solving problems before they become an issue,” Roberson says.

When you have an out-of-control project management issue, Roberson recommends jumping on a call with a business consultant who’s familiar with the issues that owners in the decorated-apparel industry face on a day-to-day basis.

2. Assign key staffers to oversee your projects.

You need someone who can have a bird’s eye view of the projects and the processes. These should be your right-hand people. They should be deep in the production weeds every day, talking to everyone, reviewing data, and working on improvements or solving problems in real time.

Plus, for larger orders, always assign one point of contact. “This is the one person who deals directly with the customer,” Roberson says. “When you’re managing orders, organization is everything.” Atkinson watches many shops scale, without adding people to handle more orders. The goal is to strategically add higher-caliber and better-trained staffers to your team.

“It’s a mistake to try to do more with the same amount of people because you get buried.”
- Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe

3. Have a very clear discovery process with clients.

Create a thorough project brief based on a list of questions that doesn’t leave out any of the pertinent details (garment type, artwork directions, in-hands date, etc.) so that there’s no question about what’s needed. “Nothing’s worse than constantly contacting a customer to confirm things or get additional information,” Says Kristine Shreve, director of marketing outreach at Applique Getaway. “Even if the person taking the order never does graphic design or screen printing, they should still understand how production works.” 

Also, the important thing here isn’t to make a quick sale. It’s to ensure you’re selling something that will meet your client’s needs and bring them back for more.

“I could sell you anything, but I want to sell you the right thing.”
- Mike Chong, owner of Merch Monster

For example, a client may ask for a navy logo on a dark blue shirt. Is that what they really want? Or how about this: Will you create artwork quickly using a template, or will you need to create custom art, which can take longer?

4. Know your production timing.

Know how much time typical decorating projects take, so you can walk backward in the process to allocate enough time for each piece of the puzzle. This not only alleviates staff from being overwhelmed, but also ensures flexibility and reliability in your order turnaround time.

A production manager can create a baseline timing that gives everyone an idea of how long it’ll take the most common types of orders your shop gets to be completed, like a left-chest logo on 1,000 polos, or a two-color full front screen print on 500 shirts. It’s always better to allocate more time for each department, like receiving, artwork and shipping, so you can accommodate rush orders or solve snags. Also, it’s a good idea to check shipping times from point A to point B, so you can meet the in-hand date for the client, especially if it’s for an event.

5. Use data and software to help you with the details.

One of the most important keys to expert project management is knowing your numbers. If you don't, Atkinson recommends using a print shop-specific production tracker to give you a hand.

“Do you know how long everything takes in your shop? For example, how long does it take for you to receive four boxes of blanks for one order and put them in the system? You might learn that you just don’t have enough people working in production, so you need to add someone.”
- Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe

This might also be a good time to invest in industry-specific project management software. Your staff can input all the pertinent order details such as the type, color and sizes of garments, detailed artwork notes, special packaging instructions, the in-hand date and more.

Using this software, staffers get assigned tasks at certain points in the project. Clients can receive emails or text messages in real time informing them of milestones along their order journey. This kind of open communication can ensure fewer hassles from worried clients and keep them coming back for more.

Roberson also advises having a great pricing system so your staff can easily price products and give quotes. ”Each customer should have their own work folder to look up the company's previous orders, artwork and track order status,” she says. A product like Ms. Tee’s T-Shirt Calculator & Shop Management System gives you the tools you need to price accurately and to organize orders.

6. Don’t be afraid to make over entire departments.

Lately, Atkinson has been helping his print shop clients redesign their receiving departments from the ground up. Due to supply chain issues, decorators need to order from different suppliers and then receive multiple boxes instead of one for a client order. “Purchasing and receiving is now an adventure,” he says. “We need to change our processes and hire more people, without hesitating. You also need to raise your prices to balance it out.”

“Look at your shop with eyes wide open, and identify the problem you need to solve. If you’re collecting data, you can also plan for your next steps. If you know your sales grow 50% each year, you might need to add another press, dryer and employee. Smart shops are thinking three to five years out, while others are thinking about next Friday.”
- Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe

Create an Open-Door Policy to Improve Efficiency

Encourage your employees to come to you when they find problems in your shop’s workflows, with no repercussions. When it comes to your business, follow Chong’s advice and “start doing what you want to do and then test it—fix the things that don’t work.” A great way to do just that is to listen to your employees and see what they suggest doing to help solve bottlenecks and other issues.

7. Cross-train and educate your staff.

In a time of leaner teams, it just makes sense that we’re all wearing more than one print-shop hat. Take the time to map out where you can cross-train staffers to jump in when another person’s out or your order volume jumps up.

Plus, invest time in everyone on your team so that, for instance, a salesperson understands how artwork creation or screen printing works (or an artist with screen printing and vice versa). This works in a few ways: A salesperson can understand when a client request can’t be done and can suggest an alternative before taking the order. An artist can understand how their graphics will translate to screen printing when they understand on press operations.

“Communication is the most important thing. Don’t assume people ‘know’ things. Make sure everyone in your organization clearly communicates information and that there’s a process in place for doing so.”
Kristine Shreve, director of marketing outreach at Applique Getaway

8. Be flexible.

Flexibility extends throughout your shop and its operations. Build agility into your project timelines for the inevitable shipping delays, rush orders and other random issues that pop up. To that end, have some on-call freelance artists, for example, who can be ready to jump in if you get a rush on custom artwork.

Plus, don't be afraid to change your processes as things grow. “Maybe a small shop can get away with orders on a white board,” Shreve says. “A bigger shop needs something more robust. As your shop and order volume grows, don't be afraid to change how you manage your business and the orders.”

Get Organized to Keep Your Print Shop Competitive

Most shops aren’t one-person shows, especially as they grow. But as the owner and/or project manager, you juggle a lot of different balls in the air and it’s easy to feel like you are. But by focusing on some of these key areas, you reduce the likelihood that you’ll burn yourself and your employees out.

“Design your business to work for you,” Chong says. “This way, you can ensure that everything moves smoothly from one point to the next.”

May 22, 2022