That’s something that’s always needed in your shop.

For today’s article, I want to discuss something I’m calling the “Caveman Communication” strategy.

No, this doesn’t mean you need to work on learning hand signals for when you go out mastodon hunting.

But rather, the idea of simplifying things in your shop to smooth out the speed bumps.

When all of your staff are using the same simple words or ideas and trained on what they mean, the action happens faster.

Mainly because nobody will have to stop and ask “Hey, what’s this mean?”, or try to figure out the next steps in the process.

It’s already decided for them.

Caveman Communication is all about using short, standardized phrases or simple ideas to give specific direction to your staff members.

While this can be about any process in your business, below I’m going to outline four easy to implement examples that could make a significant difference in how you run your shop.

1) Using Order Numbers

Most shops have some sort of system that generates an order number.

Do you?

These are consecutive numbers that are assigned to a job based on the exact moment when they are entered into the system. One job will be assigned 23487, and the next one entered will be assigned 23488.

Most of the time they are used to just identify the order and that’s about it.

Nobody does anything with them. Here lies the opportunity.

Often, managers spend a huge amount of time looking for work orders. Usually, there is a large stack in a bin or an inbox.

It’s on a desk, or shelf too.

Do you have a mountain of work orders piled up?

Inventory can be a little disorganized, with boxes stacked in an area waiting for something to happen. Even after production is completed, anything in a “customer pick up area” is usually just a random pile of cartons.

I’ve been to shops where they don’t even label the boxes, and the workers are constantly squinting to read the shipping labels to identify what’s inside.

It can be a mess.

The challenge here is the time it takes to look for exactly the right work order, box of shirts, or completely produced job when you instantly need it.

How much of your time is wasted?

Sometimes, it is too crazy to even track.

Use That Last Digit

Instead, what if you segregated every work order, box or completed order by the last digit of the work order number?

Anything that ends with a 7 is placed in the 7 row. Jobs that end in 8 are in the 8 row.


To make this work easier, take special care that a 4″ x 6″ label with the order number and job name is always printed and placed in the upper left-hand corner of the short side of the box.

This allows you to stack boxes, and if they are stacked with all of the labels on one side, they can be easily eyeballed as the labels will be in a vertical row for quick scanning.

Looking for that 144 piece order for that school to stage by Press 2 and get them set up for tomorrow?

It’s order number 23649 and staged in receiving in the 9 row.

There are the two boxes right there. Each label states “1 of 2” or “2 of 2”, so you know you have them all. It takes about four seconds to find them.

Maybe less.

Did that PTO mom just pop in to pick up the order 23649 for that school and pay for the job? Your receptionist can simply walk over to the customer pick-up area and go to the 9 section and grab it.

They don’t have to wade through and sort twenty orders to find it.

How to Set This Up

Getting started with this type of organization doesn’t have to be difficult.

Many shops are organized by the day of the week that something is to be produced.

Here’s the Tuesday row, or here’s the jobs for the 22nd.

The problem with that is that jobs don’t go on time with 100% accuracy. When this happens, these shops actually spend time moving boxes to the next day’s staging row.

What a waste of time.

Instead, try cordoning off an area and dividing this up by these numbers in this order: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, & 9.

If you have enough real estate on your floor, do this in your receiving, production staging, and customer pick-up areas.

Mark this off with floor tape, and print some large numbers to hang so everyone can quickly identify the rows.

Then, just reorganize your stuff. Label every box and sort them by the last digit.

Stack neatly.

You’ll quickly find that this means that anyone in the building can easily locate inventory for orders with very little training.

Production Managers – Do This With Your Pile of Work Orders

Trust me, I’ve seen that gigantic stack of work orders on your desk.

Jobs get missed or overlooked.

That important job is always at the bottom of the pile. I know people who actually always start looking for things on the bottom instead of the top.

Instead, get some bins and label them with that same numbering system mentioned before. Sort by the last digit of the work order number.

As jobs arrive, divide them up into the bins based on that number. Then, modify that stack so that the jobs that have to ship first are always on top of that short stack in the numbered bin.

Use the Rush, Late, Today, Tomorrow way of staging.

Always push work out to the floor and stage it for your production crews. Don’t horde this stuff. Get it out of your office and staged as early as you can.

To me, unless there are at least three jobs at every workstation ready to go at any given time, the floor isn’t staged.

By lunch today, tomorrow’s work should be out on the floor ready to go.

2) Key Words

I love using Key Words in a shop to signify the start of a process.

A Key Word is a word or phrase that means a specific function has to happen. When you use these on an order, you don’t have to go into specific detail if you have trained everyone to know and understand what it means.

Do you do this in your shop? As much as you can?

An example could be the words “Full Front”.

That’s a common industry phrase, right?

But in this context, it could mean that the art is created to be 12″ wide, and the placement of the image is measured as 3″ down from the bottom of the collar to the top of the art on the front of the shirt.

You can even shorten this to “FF”.

What’s great about this is that the artist knows exactly how large to make the design. The production crew knows exactly where this should drop. The floor manager knows what to look for when approving.

All Locations

You could do this with every single standard location in your shop.

Full Front, Full Back, Left Chest, Center Chest, On Pocket, Above Pocket, Cuff Print, etc.

As a company, meet and decide on what makes sense for these dimensions and placements.

What is the standard?

Once that is created, this is what you train on and hold your staff accountable to when discussing quality. You should create a guide that shows this. Then you can post on your website, and even send to customers.

You are giving out the expectation for your production. “Here’s how we do it.”

Imagine the quality alignment your shop will have when everyone in the building thinks and executes the same way based on just using “FF” as the location message!

How awesome would that be for your shop?

But here’s the thing. Long time shop veterans may push back, and say stuff like “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and that’s not how I do it.”


The correct answer is “This is our shop standard.” To work in your shop, your staff has to do things your shop’s “way”. This means if the location is anything but the standard, then it’s incorrect.

Discipline equals freedom.

It Doesn’t Stop There

Key Words aren’t just for locations either. They can be used for just about anything you do in your business.

Think things through.

What are your common tasks in your shop that multiple departments need to understand, or having a set standard would make sense?


“Poly” could mean that you will need to use a specific ink for printing on performance or polyester apparel. It could signify that the order should be staged to a particular press, the dryer temperature lowered to prevent dye migration, that the shirts should be stacked in multiple piles on the catcher table, and that heat is a problem. It might mean a particular mesh count or squeegee durometer.

All of the actions needed to produce that type of work are rolled up into just using that one word.


“Rush” might mean that for every department in the building, that job skips to the head of the line. It screams “WORK ON ME FIRST” for every single staff member.


“Critical” could mean that for this order, special care needs to be implemented. Crews should work slower to ensure quality. Everything has to be double-checked, and in fact, two managers need to inspect the order before it proceeds to the next step in the process. Both have to sign the work order that they inspected the shirts or the process during the run. This could be deployed for a new customer, crucial event, or expensive garment. When it’s shipped, the insurance for the freight is checked “yes” and the route is guaranteed.

Just using one word, means more eyeballs on the job throughout the life of the order.


“Exact” is designated when exact quantities are needed to ship. After production is complete, if there are any misprints or defects these are instantly relayed to the customer service team. The completed order is placed in a purgatory area, while the CSR handles getting the replacement stock ordered. If this was a screen-printing job, the screens are automatically saved to a special rack. Once the new stock is produced, the order is sealed and ready for shipping.

Orders not labeled “Exact” that have misprints or defects are noted in the system, deducted from the order total for invoicing or a credit memo issued. They simply ship without any waiting.

What Could You Use?

These are but four examples.

Would Key Words make a difference for your shop if you used and trained on them?

What Key Words would you add to this list?

3) Colors

The use of Pantone colors in the graphic design industry is both a blessing and a curse. Creative folks love to pick out a unique color palette for different designs, as each one is like a brand new baby.

Artists want every design to be different.

A problem with that strategy is that soon your ink shelf will be extremely crowded with a dizzying array of half used buckets of color. This can get incredibly expensive quickly.

While you can’t curb this entirely, you can put a restrictor on it by designating a list of colors to use as your stock shop palette.

For example, unless otherwise specified by the customer, any job that requires a red will automatically be PMS 186.

Royal blue?  PMS 286.

Yellow gold?  PMS 123.

I’ll bet you can name about two dozen colors that you use constantly. The more you narrow down this palette, the faster your production teams can work.

That way you won’t have to mix PMS 2350 for one order just because the artist had an inspiration.

New ink mixed equals money. Tie those two ideas together.

Speaking of Ink

Another great idea to use with ink to signal what something is by the color of the bucket, or tape on the handle.

A good number of shops purchase their white ink in five, thirty or fifty-gallon containers. Usually, ink is scooped out and placed in a one-gallon bucket to distribute around the shop floor by every press.

Things can get a little crazy when your regular ink is carded off a screen and thrown in a polywhite bucket by mistake.

That contamination can be a problem.

A simple solution to that is to tape the handle of the polywhite bucket with blue painters tape.

From fifty feet away you can tell the difference between the two types of white.

Ink Bucket Color

Another use of color is the choice of color for the ink bucket.

While most shops opt for the translucent/clear, one option could be to use a black or another color bucket to designate a special mix, waterbase, or other difference.

Of course, you should always label any ink bucket with the color, additives, date mixed and the initials of who mixed the ink.

However, a bucket color strategy can convey the ink type and prevent mistakes from happening.

Highlighter Colors

A fantastic Caveman Communication strategy I’ve seen on work orders is to highlight women’s shirts in pink and youth shirts in yellow.

Yes, I know your staff should be trained to actually read the work orders.

I’ve said that myself. (At least once or twice!)

However, simply highlighting these two apparel differences on the work order can be a key signal to your staff that something is different.

“Hey goofball, these aren’t unisex. Watch out!”

In receiving, they will look out for the difference in the buttons, or the smaller sizes. Frankly, there are so many ways that distributors and manufacturers describe or use SKU’s with shirt blanks, that identification is difficult.

In the art department or digitizing, they can decide if the creative work will fit for that apparel blank. Youth sizes for orders are commonly missed, so this helps illuminate the need to check to see if the art will fit.

Of course, it only works if your staff is trained and paying attention.

4) The Power of Two

Do you buy inventory for your shop? How do you know when you need to purchase anything?

One strategy I heard that I think is brilliant is to just buy two of something initially to stock on the shelf.

Whatever it is.

Then, as products get used they will take one of the two items off of the shelf. Once or twice a month, someone goes through and simply notes what’s been used.

A list is made and the replenishment stock is ordered.

Just keep two on the shelf. You’ll always have a backup.


The strategy name, Caveman Communications, can be a little misleading. While what we are shooting for is simplicity, that might require some focused thinking.

Simplifying things is continuous improvement.

That effort can pay off when it becomes faster for your staff to make decisions or even the correct choices.

How many times has someone made a mistake because “they didn’t see that note”, or “forgot what to do”?

In Your Shop

When challenges surface what happens usually?

Are you digging in and working to uncover the solution to preventing the problem for next time?

Can you implement a Caveman Communication strategy?

Simple is best.


“Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practiced every day.” – Jim Rohn

“Success is simple. Do what’s right, the right way, at the right time.” – Arnold H. Glasow

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein