Knowing When to Push or Pull Your Workflow

How to eliminate bottlenecks through workflow design.

Every shop manager dreams of having a frictionless workflow. Staff members know what to do. Jobs are completed easily. Team members help one another along the way, and things hum along like a well-oiled machine. Think that sounds like an impossible dream? You can do this in your shop if you eliminate your workflow bottlenecks. If you understand a few key concepts in workflow design, you can unclog the beaver dam that’s holding you back. We’re going to look at two strategies that you can use to make positive changes in your production. 

Push: Getting Ahead of the Game

In manufacturing lingo, to push means to make the inventory in advance. The product is ready, so it can be ordered and shipped to the customer at any time. Push manufacturing takes an initial investment and a willingness to stockpile. Think of a warehouse full of inventory ready to ship. 

In your shop, the push principle means that your employees complete tasks as early as possible. They set up other departments for success by doing their work ahead of time. No one down the line has to wait in order to do their job.

Let’s say your crew just ran a job with prints on long-sleeve T-shirts. Rather than tear the job down and do the next one in the queue, they decide to run a similar order even though it isn’t scheduled for another day or two because the sleeve platens are already in position. Or, consider what a print crew does when their press is down with a maintenance issue. Maybe while their press is idle, a few catchers hang tag a printed job by their table. This alleviates the need to send it to the post-production crew; instead, the order can go straight to shipping.

Or imagine that a customer service rep just received new shipping information for an order. Instead of just updating the record in the MIS system, she prints the new work order and physically replaces the old one to make sure the job ships correctly. The more you can use push in your workflow, the better your chances of getting ahead of your schedule. 

Pull: Filling the Hole

In a pull workflow, the idea is that one department requests a task or service from another only when they are ready. There is a visual signal that something needs to occur. 

In retail stores, they use a simple card on the rack to denote that the product is out of stock. Even just having an empty hole on the shelf is itself a signal; the pull task is to fill the hole.

An example for your shop could be the way you organize your inventory at the press. Jobs are staged in the exact order that they need to be produced. As the work is completed, new jobs are placed at the end of the line. The pull signal is the empty space, which triggers the press scheduler to find another job for the crew to produce. 

‘Begin with the End in Mind’

This is one of Stephen Covey’s tenets from his classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s a great concept to apply when thinking about the workflow in your shop. The best place to start will always be to outline exactly what needs to happen. Are you set up so that you get 100 percent of the jobs shipped as specified in the work order? If not, something has to change. 

When something goes wrong, what happened? Are you missing shipping dates? Are you ordering the wrong inventory? Does your art team have to revise the design a few times before it’s approved? Is your misprint or defect rate too high?

Keep track of these challenges that occur. Focus your efforts on creating solutions to recurrent problems so they don’t happen again.

Call these challenges “discrepancies.” Keep a Discrepancy Log to chart your issues. This is critical for your growth because it will allow you to see the connections between your processes, people, and problems. Just simply write down the details and discuss them with your team to work out a solution.

For instance, let’s say that you are having trouble sticking to your production schedule. The problem appears to be that the screenroom can’t keep up with the demand for the screens. The frustrated production crew can’t adhere to the production dates because the screens aren’t getting to the press early enough. The pull correction here is to establish which orders need screens first. Triage them according to what has to go on the presses next. Make sure those screens are exposed and dried first. Then, work on the next group. This isn’t a long-term solution, but it will get you caught up.

The push solution is to put some additional thought into when the screens need to be ready and create a production rule. A common standard is to have the screens ready in the rack at least one business day before the order needs to start printing. You’ll need to create the timing standards for the screenroom, which entails working backward from the shipping date and knowing how long the print production will take. This will determine not only when the screens should be burned, but also when the art needs to be approved.

Create push standards for all of your production processes. This helps move your orders along automatically. Communicate these standards to your staff and train them on what they mean. Hold them accountable. 

Simplify with Push

You have to make it easy for your staff to do the right thing, and a push approach is a great place to begin. The goal should be for each crew to make the jobs of the teams downstream from them easier. Eliminate challenges. Provide specific and detailed information. Answer as many questions in advance as possible.

Organize the work so that there is only one correct answer or outcome. For example, your order-entry staff compiles all information about a job and enters it into the system. If something is missing – say, the Pantone color of the logo – their job is to get the answer and solve the problem, not pass that question on to the art team. 

As your workflow moves, each department hands off the order, gift-wrapped and as complete as possible. If their chunk is due Wednesday, pushing to hand it off to the next staff by Tuesday is even better. Monday is fantastic. The push mentality is all about helping.

Do you have an order where the shirts are contained in individual polybags? Don’t leave it to the press crew to unwrap those. Find a few team members to unwrap the inventory and place the shirts on carts, well in advance of when they need to run the job. Your goal is to avoid press downtime – always. 

Expedite with Pull

Push strategies will always help to get things handled in advance. Yet, there will be occasions where something doesn’t go as planned or you need some help. That’s where the pull mindset will save the day. 

For example, your shipping manager has a list of critical jobs that have to go out today. As the production day moves forward, her staff can be following up on them. After lunch, if two or three of the jobs haven’t arrived for them to process, that’s where the pull reaction kicks in. Questioning where the jobs are early in the day can help get everything out on time. If you wait until 4:30 to react, it might be too late.

Think of a pull action as speaking up. It’s not an attack on another department or saying, “You are doing something wrong.” Instead, it’s being proactive. Identify the challenge that may be looming and solve it.
When you are out of 110 mesh for underbase screens; when the art deadline is tomorrow and you still haven’t received the vector logo file; when your inkroom tech notices that you have about a half-gallon of black ink left: These are examples of problems that were allowed to go too far. Instead, standardize your processes to avoid these issues.

Your screenroom manager should be inventorying the availability of screens per mesh count. When a count drops to an established minimum number, he should have more screens stretched or reclaimed. This gets them into circulation in time to prevent any jobs from having to wait because the screens aren’t ready. The same pull theory applies to your art department and inkroom. Set up triggers for corrective steps to be taken at the right times. 

Working in Concert

Push and pull strategies aren’t an either/or decision. They work together, not in competition. The more you create processes and establish procedures, the easier your workflow will become. Make sure you talk to your crew about any changes and get their input. Start small and test. Shoot bullets, at first, not cannonballs. Tweak changes you make for effectiveness. Then, train your team and make them accountable for adhering to the standards.

Read more from Marshall Atkinson or check out the rest of Screen Printing's April/May 2017 edition. 

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