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The DMZ Between Production and Sales

(September 2003) posted on Thu Sep 25, 2003

Discover how to help the sales and production departments work together successfully.


By Terry Combs

For those who haven't seen the news lately and aren't familiar with DMZ, it stands for the demilitarized zone between two formerly (and potentially) warring countries. An example is the DMZ between North Korea and South Korea. A place of edgy peace and suspicion, the DMZ is the no man's land between two groups with a common heritage, but with vastly divergent philosophical and political ideologies. Within our screen-printing companies, we all should have similar goals and purposes. But in reality, this isn't always the case. While we should have the same philosophies and ideologies (doesn't the corporate mission statement say so?), more often than not we come from different directions. And in the middle, we create an unsteady peace in our own self-imposed DMZ, where conflict can erupt between departments at any time. The warring parties generally are production and sales, whose employees believe the other camp is operating under false pretenses and has an ulterior motive. Each side sees itself as the target of a secret plot in which one department undermines the other in order to advance its own noble effort for making the company profitable. I've worked on both sides of this barbed-wire fence, so I feel qualified and justified in throwing a few stones in both directions. There certainly are other departments that impact the profitability and productivity of your company, but sales and production have the strongest influence on your bottom line. They also have the greatest differences in perspective. While other departments seem to coexist in peace, sales and production are historical enemies in the screen-printing environment. The sales perspective "We, in sales, have the company's best interest in mind at all times. Without us, there would be no income to pay production-personnel salaries." You may have heard those words in your company, and they are true. The sales department does bring the orders to the table that feed production and eventually pay to feed all the families of the entire staff. But, if given the opportunity, sales reps will push the envelope on what they can and cannot do and offer. Whether it's unreasonable time constraints or unrealistic printing requests, sales reps will offer as much as they feel they can get away with to close a sale. It's the nature of the beast. When a customer makes an out-of-the-ordinary request, my instinct is to take the order, then see if there's a way we can make it happen. The production perspective "We, in production, have the company's best interest in mind at all times. Without us, there would be no product going out the door to pay those sales-rep commissions." These words are likewise true. Production personnel do the physical work of the company. And when a sales rep takes the double-secret-super-rush-order, it's actually the production crew's work on a Saturday morning that gets it out the door. You're not likely to see the sales rep there unloading shirts. Sales reps may say, "I'll come in and help if you want," but the offer is usually hollow. Most production staff would say that sales reps are not much help on the production floor anyway. Peace talks The following sections describe the main points of contention between production and sales departments and offer suggestions for reducing conflicts and misunderstandings between the groups: The other side is not the enemy Don't foster an atmosphere that supports, encourages, or even allows production and sales people to perceive one another as enemies. I've seen it from owners and managers with even the best intentions. We managers often judge these attitudes, but we're oblivious to the fact that all the signals actually come from us. Our opinions about one side or the other may not come out consciously, but they're certainly communicated in other ways. As I've written in this column many times, a company's attitudes come not from the bottom, but from the top. So conquer your own enemies, and the war below you in the hierarchy of your company will evaporate. Contributing to this adversarial attitude is the habit of allowing for a rush-order atmosphere in your shop. In our effort to be honest, we all must understand that the nature of this business involves some level of rush-order processing. The difference is in not assuming that production staff are available for overtime work on a daily or weekly basis. When processing a special-request order during extra hours becomes the rule rather than the exception, then you've built an atmosphere of resentment. Working overtime can quickly become the assumed mode of operation by management and sales. Working overtime suddenly feels to production like they're being taken advantage of, rather than making a sacrifice and contribution for the greater good of the entire company. The unreasonable promise Sometimes it really is necessary to process an order even when there is realistically no time left to fill the order. The solution can be fairly simple. Build time into your schedule up front for rush orders and special requests from your best customers. Accept the fact that these orders are as much a part of your business as ordering squeegees and screens. When I schedule production, I block out 80% of the time, then save 20% of that time for the week before the next scheduled production week. This extra time is beneficial in three ways: 1. It is useful for sales reps to use for genuine rush orders and special requests from your best customers (at management's discretion). You have to be prudent with this time, or sales reps will begin to take advantage of it. I suggest establishing a quota allowance per rep, per month. For instance, you may decide that your sales reps get three rush orders or four hours of production each month for rush orders. 2. It can be used for catching up on production lost to any downtime in the previous weeks. 3. It can help you complete upcoming orders and to actually get ahead of the game. Adherence to a good schedule can make this work. Have you ever even dreamed of calling customers to say an order is ready four days early? The only other way sales reps can push an order through the process is to rearrange the schedule. Give sales reps the option of moving one of their own orders further back in the schedule to make room for their special request. That usually gets their attention. Show them the schedule and explain one more time how it works. You might say, "This many machines and that many hours in the day allow for this amount of production capability. And no, we don't have a regular crew scheduled for Saturdays. It only seems that way." Doing the real work When you begin to hear rumblings and grumblings such as, "We do the real work around here," it's usually not about the work at all. It's a crew of hot and ink-stained workers who feel under-appreciated. And it's hard to blame them when they are working an extra two hours to finish a rush order while watching the sales reps close up shop and turn their lights off one by one, on schedule, at 4:55. The 20% extra time worked into the production schedule will help in this situation, but some interaction between departments will help even more. For the most part, the people involved in sales and the people who do production work are really from different worlds. But that doesn't mean there has to be a belligerent class war going on in your company. I've employed sales reps who are beloved on the production floor, and others who are despised. And by contrast, I've had production workers who are the go-to guys because the sales department feels comfortable and confident when working with them. I've also had production workers that cause sales reps to cower in fear in their presence. The truly belligerent employees have no place in either department for the greater good of your company. Putting up with the turmoil such an employee causes--even if he is a great sales rep or she is a great press operator--is rarely worth the pain and suffering of the rest of your staff. Most other ill feelings between departments stem from ignorance and resentment because of the impression of having to give more than an equal share in this necessary relationship. These feelings can materialize on both sides of the fence. Here's a long-term solution. At the next company meeting, ask representatives from various departments to stand up and explain their jobs in detail. And when I say explain, I don't mean, "I get out of the car and show my samples, " or, "I expose the screen and put it on the press." Ask them to discuss specific job details and concerns. For example, the sales rep might talk about dealing with a particular customer, the demands made by the customer, and the importance of the customer to your company. The rep could talk about the competition that waits in the lobby after each presentation, the difficulty he or she faces when an order arrives late, or the difficulty faced when weighing what to agree to and not to agree to when facing a customer. Sales reps also can discuss the pressures of meeting sales quotas. The production worker may talk about the necessary steps in changing a production schedule to accommodate an extra order or the time involved in exposing different screens. This individual might mention the lost time in getting together with staff from the art, screen-preparation, ink-mixing, and purchasing and receiving departments to make sure a change can be made and actually accomplished with the least amount of disruption to the normal production schedule. Production employees also talk about the reality of the disruption caused by even the smallest change, even with the most willing participation of all involved. Make sure these job explanations are positive learning experiences and not the opportunity to launch a missile at the DMZ. I guarantee that everyone will learn something, and you will hear your employees say things like, "I had no idea what was involved in that." The DMZ may always be there to some extent in our shops. But you can make the peace more stable and long-term with a little effort and planning.


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