One of the biggest challenges decorated apparel industry shops continually face is building an effective production scheduling strategy.

Right now, how slammed is your shop? Does everything ship on time?

When I speak with shop owners, they constantly ask me to reveal the secrets to keeping an accurate schedule.

There are gigantic ramifications regarding not hitting that Ship Date. Expediting the freight. Potential overtime situations with your staff.

Not to mention the damage you are taking to your reputation.

On-Time Is Critical

How accurate is your production schedule currently? Do things go as planned?

For many shops, the ship date entered on the order is just wishful thinking.

This is a very common problem in this industry, and if you struggle with it as well, don’t feel that you are alone.

In fact, for a lot of shops there often are learned feelings of mistrust between the front office and production. This happens when orders are entered with fake dates to “pad the schedule”. The Sales team thinks that this will help nail the right date.

It might work, except for the fact that Production already knows the date is padded, so everyone does the math on the floor for when the job really has to ship. Until of course, one or two orders are entered with a real date and then all hell breaks loose as that order is now three or four days late and was for an event.

It is the production circle of death.

Nobody is confident or brave enough to draw a line in the sand and make the changes necessary to improve. Instead, you keep the status quo built on finger-pointing and the “Defend the Castle” mentality. Everyone blames everybody else. Accountability is a hazy, distant dream.

There is a better way.

What Is the Solution?

Solving this problem is akin to herding cats.

There are so many variables that influence how or why an order will ship on time that it is difficult to list them in a general article. However, it’s a good thing I’m willing to give it a shot. Would you be willing to make a few changes to improve?

That’s the real question.

If so, there a few ideas you should immediately adopt to begin to start building an effective production scheduling strategy.


Everything Revolves Around the Ship Date

For scheduling, the Ship Date is the one factor that should influence every department in your shop.

How focused on this fact for orders are your departments?

The Ship Date is the final day that the order has to leave the building. This could mean a customer pick up, you are delivering it, or it gets picked up by UPS or FedEx. The Ship Date is just the term used for the end result date.

By the way, this has to be the real and exact date. When you pad your system with fake dates you are creating an even bigger problem for yourself. Despite knowing this, moving away from this idea is very difficult for a lot of shops.

To me, any other way than using the real Ship Date is a crutch.

This screams you don’t have the processes, the training, the leadership or the trust in your employees to do it right. If you pad the Ship Date on your schedule with extra days I’d like you to list the reasons why you think you need to do that.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Ok, now solve them.

They are only excuses. It might be technology. Maybe it’s training. Language. Capacity. Equipment. It could even be you.

Do the work and figure it out. These reasons you’ve listed are the excuses that are holding you back.

Why the Ship Date Is Critical

When you use the real date, the processes each department employs will help them make independent decisions to prioritize their workload. Training allows work to be performed in the correct order, without leadership follow up.

To build this, the simplest method is to specify what has to happen. Decisions are based on how long things usually take for each step in your workflow process. Once those parameters are measured and established it’s fairly simple to predict when things need to start.

Below is an example of a simple workflow mindset that could work for a shop. Yours may be different. Remember, when we are talking about the production schedule, doing things early is always better.

Example Workflow for Shop XYZ

  • Order Entry – The customer approves the quote and all of the information entered into the system. This includes garment style, SKU, color, quantity, decoration method, decoration locations, thread or ink colors, pricing, shipping method, and most importantly the Ship Date. The real date is used. The Ship Date establishes when everything must happen for other departments.
  • Purchasing – Purchasing buys the goods on the same day as the order was entered. If Order Entry occurs after the daily cut-off time for ordering, the task happens early on the following day. Tracking numbers for the goods are entered into the system to show when the inventory should arrive. Inventory should be in the building 100% complete at least two business days before the Production department needs to start working on the order.
  • Receiving – Receiving counts in the goods and checks the packing list that was sent by the distributor against the information entered into the system. This should happen on the same day that the goods arrive at the shop. 100% of the inventory should be in the building at least one business day before production needs to start on the order.
  • Art or Digitizing – This creative group needs to schedule their work to be completed at least three business days before Production needs to start working on the order. This gives the customer time to approve or make changes to the art. The Art Department follows up with the customer to ensure approval in a timely manner. The art must be approved at least two business days prior to the Production beginning to work on the order.
  • Screen Room – Screens for jobs need to be burned and ready for Production at least one business day before Production needs to start working on the order.
  • Production – Regardless of the production decoration method, each Production group schedules orders to be completed at least one business day before the order has to ship. If there is Post Production work such as relabeling, poly bagging, hang tagging, bundling, special packaging or drop shipping, this may be needed to be completed even earlier.
  • Post Production – As this affects the delivery of the order, special time needs to be calculated for each post-production step and this is communicated to Production so jobs are finished on time. Understanding how long Post Production work takes is crucial to back out when the Production teams need to start and finish their end of the work.
  • Shipping – This task is handled on the established Ship Date. If there are dropships, special packaging or tasks that may affect the Shipping Department workload, these are communicated to Production so the necessary planning can take place to allow for extra time to be added. This includes complicated international shipments or special freight pick-ups.

Change Your Mindset

Stop blaming Production for your shop’s on-time problems.

The thing to remember is that every order is your company’s order.

Your sales team can not just shove more orders into the system and expect your production crews will handle the extra workload successfully. Do they have the time needed to complete the work? How do other jobs already booked fill the time needed to produce orders?

At the end of the day, either your jobs are on time or they are not.

Pass or fail.

The question you should ask yourself is are you willing to do what it takes to improve? I’d start with junking any “finger-pointing” mentality that seeks to blame others as to what isn’t working correctly.

Get to the “why” things aren’t working the way you want them to and solve that. Be open to change to solve your problems.

Rush, Late, Today, Tomorrow

Here’s the priority every department in your shop should adopt when thinking about building an effective production scheduling strategy: Rush, Late, Today, Tomorrow.

Just do things in that order.

When teams get in the habit of looking at their workload with that system, they can self-diagnose what needs to happen next. This is in every department.

Get your crews to always be watchful of their schedule, but also mindful of what’s going on in their area may affect others downstream. Teamwork multiplied with good communication can do wonders to help push more jobs downstream faster.

  • Rush is the first priority, as Rush jobs are usually paid for by an extra fee. Not hitting a Rush order ship date is disaster times ten. Rush orders have to scream “WORK ON ME FIRST” in every department. Train on this, but also add a visual indicator such as printing the work order on a special color paper, adding a sticker, using a special job jacket, or adding a searchable highlight feature such as a $ in the PO field in your system.
  • Late are jobs that are past the Ship Date. You can’t let those slide. Get them handled as quickly as you can because you are already losing money or reputation on them.
  • Today’s jobs are scheduled to be produced today obviously. Don’t start on these until the Rush and Late orders are completed.
  • Tomorrow’s jobs are all due to ship in the future. Don’t work on these until Rush, Late or Today’s jobs are handled. Getting ahead is always warranted, but not until the past or current jobs have been produced.

Common Sense

I know it might seem too simplistic to create a rule like Rush, Late, Today, Tomorrow but you would be surprised at the counter-intuitive way production managers will stage jobs. Mostly I’ve found that when a shop is struggling with their schedule, the shop has either booked more work than they possibly can complete or they don’t have a system in place for how they stage work.

As my Uncle Bill is fond of saying, “Act with some sense.”

Behind in your work?

Get a plan together to catch up, and that might include staying late, working on the weekends, or not booking new work in house for a week.

Don’t just dogpile on Production and then scream at them for being late. That isn’t helping.

Make It Easy: Building an Effective Production Scheduling Strategy

Your job as a leader for your shop is to make it easy for everyone to understand the expectations for what needs to happen.

Using Rush, Late, Today, Tomorrow method you can help your Production teams push more work out the door by doing their thinking for them. Simply look ahead to your schedule and pull all of the jobs for tomorrow by noon today and stage them by each machine. Have the rule that you can’t add to today’s production. Stage the inventory, work order documents, screens, ink or cones of thread for each order. Whatever the production crew for the job needs.

Line up orders by each machine based on the expected completion date. Everything needed for each order should be “kit-packed”. Work crews will then only have to set up, produce, takedown and then repeat.

Use the schedule to give each work crew the expectations on what they need to produce daily. That detailed schedule originates from the formula of the prior production history of the crew vs the work order priority.

Imagine the increased output when you stage this way and hold your crews accountable for the assigned workload!

Calculate Your Shop’s Daily Capacity

This starts with first understand exactly what you are capable of producing on a daily basis.

Do you know this?

Your machines are fully capable of cranking out a lot more work than you actually produce a day. Hitting your max level on production rarely happens. To really dial in your production schedule and have it as an accurate way to gauge what’s going on you need to understand your capacity.


The capacity of your shop is defined in two ways. One is the capacity for your staff, the other is the capacity for your equipment.

If you have never thought about this, read below and ponder how these items relate to what happens in your shop for every department. Remember, this affects more than Production.

Capacity = People

For your people, there are three things that you’ll need to understand.

  • Skill – Does the person have the skill for the work?
  • Desire – Does the person want to do the work?
  • Time – Does the person have the time to do the work?

All three of these points need to be in alignment with everyone in your company. If you think about it, this makes sense.

  • Maybe the worst employee hasn’t been trained properly in the task you want them to do. It also could be that they have the skill, but a crappy attitude. I’ll take a kick-ass attitude over skill any day. You can train for skill, but attitudes rarely improve.
  • Your staff might have the skill and desire to get everything on their plate handled, but they just lack the time. If that’s the case, are people staying to complete tasks? What happens?
  • That guy you just moved to the screen room might know how to reclaim screens, but he hates that job, so he works slower than other people that do the same work. Are people doing the work they enjoy? This has a bigger impact than you might think.
  • What about that young woman that is training on the DTG printer? She’s highly motivated and has the time, but hasn’t mastered using the printer interface yet. Therefore, she works slower than normal.

Ultimately, these points are predictors for performance in your shop’s departments.

Lack of skill, desire, or time with your people will always affect the workflow of your shop. Are you including this in your thinking as to how much you can actually produce a day? Most owners or managers really don’t.

Capacity = Equipment

Besides the people you have on staff, the other key ingredient relates to how your equipment affects your daily schedule. Similar to your staff, there are three points that you’ll need to understand:

  • Throughput – What is the daily average output for each machine?
  • Up-Time – Do you know the % of the time the machine is actually running?
  • Capabilities – What are the technical limits of the machine?

If your shop doesn’t track these three points you will have a difficult time not only predicting your available daily capacity but also how you can improve your production performance. For each piece of major equipment that you use in your shop do you know daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly averages?

Shops that struggle with keeping to an on-time schedule seldom do.

Use of a Production Log

The easiest method to do this is with a simple production log. Whether you are doing this every single day and shift, or just as a spot audit, it is a fantastic way to understand what’s happening on your production floor. Production logs are essentially the speedometer for your shop.

For a discussion example, the established industry averages for screen-print production are 5 minutes per screen for setting up. Manual presses average 60 impressions per hour for printing and automatic presses average 400 impressions per hour. An “impression” is just one complete decoration location. This has nothing to do with the number of colors.

How fast is your shop? I know many printers that set up well below 5 minutes per screen, and print at a much higher rate than 60 or 400 impressions per hour. Hopefully, you are in that group too.

Don’t Guess

But do you know for sure?

Comparing to industry averages is a great way to benchmark, but at the end of the day, you need to know what’s happening in your building.

You can create a production log for any work area in your shop. Embroidery, Screen-printing, Digital-printing, Heat Press, Sublimation, Polybagging, Hangtagging, Relabeling…it doesn’t matter. The work you spend measuring this determines your established average work rate.

Will they produce slower or faster on different days?

Most certainly.

However, if you use this rate you can determine the daily throughput. From there, you can work to improve this by solving challenges that impede performance.

Your Shop Jet Fighter

To tie everything together, think of the schedule for each workgroup in your shop as a jet fighter plane screaming across the clear blue sky. Can you picture it?

In the right hands, that plane can do some amazing things. However, put an inexperienced pilot in that same seat and the plane won’t be as effective or fly at the same speed. The same goes for scheduling the work in your shop.

Hiring and training your staff plays such a critical role in the final outcome for keeping a production schedule going. Sure, that jet fighter might be capable of flying at Mach 2, but with a rookie pilot on board that might be an unsafe speed. The same goes for people and equipment in your shop.

When you don’t spend time training or allowing other staff members to fly the plane the machines in your shop work slower.

Build the Speedometer

The challenges that occur with your production schedule revolve in not understanding the available capacity. Any work you complete to build an accurate shop speedometer for production will allow you to make important decisions to adjust for improvement.

Once you have a handle on your average capacity for every production workgroup, you then can build a schedule that makes sense. You’ll know in advance when you need over time, or if you can take that questionable job on the radar.

What makes your shop’s jet fighter go faster? Training. Technology. Added production time. Decreased downtime. Proper equipment maintenance. New equipment additions. Even organization and leadership.

You just have to think about what isn’t working right for your shop.

Then change it.


“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you on the highway is an idiot, and anybody going faster than you is a maniac?” – George Carlin

“It’s hardware that makes a machine fast. It’s software that makes a fast machine slow.” – Craig Bruce

“Let us train our minds to desire what the situation demands.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

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