Creating a Continuous Improvement Culture

How’s it going with your shop these days? Everything perfect?

Chances are there are a few knots that need to be untangled, and probably some processes that could be shored up.

This article will give an overview of how to build a culture of continuous improvement and why that is important. Let’s start with some basics:

Start With Why

There probably is some reason why you need to improve. Did you just eat $7,000 worth of shirts because your artist didn’t use spell check when creating the file? Are your orders running late because you can’t get a production schedule to work? Maybe you are losing a customer or two because of poor quality in your craftsmanship.

Nobody likes talking about this stuff, but it is the elephant in the room.

The best way to implement a culture of change is with a continuous improvement program. Companies that build a continuous improvement program know that these efforts strengthen their quality, customer satisfaction, shop efficiency, productivity, and profits.

Four Areas to Start

There are four mental areas that you can concentrate your efforts on continuous improvement.


Continuous improvement efforts when targeting processes look to identify and improve inefficiencies and bottlenecks with how your shop operates.

Remember your shop operates at the speed of the slowest part of the process.

Can’t get production started because the embroidery isn’t digitized yet or the screens aren’t ready? That sounds like a good place to start. In your shop, what is the weakest link in your process?

Diving in with a process-oriented continuous improvement effort will affect your production cycle times, production labor, scheduling, and waste.


How are you helping your customers?

Sure, you do screen-printing, embroidery, DTG or maybe even dye-sublimation. But are you serving your customers with what they need?

Instead of focusing on simply the production application and selling that at a marked up cost, try digging into your customer’s pain points. What drives them crazy? Can you solve their biggest problem and make their lives easier?

That experience is entirely different than peddling ink or thread on cotton.

Start by measuring customer satisfaction. This can begin with a simple “How did we do?” survey. From there engage with them with some one-on-one dialog and find some opportunities for improvement.


In your shop, this is the end result of what you ship. It could be that screen-printed t-shirt or hoodie. Maybe it’s an embroidered polo.

Are you doing the best job you can? Winning any awards for your work lately? Oh, too scared to enter the contests?

Spend some time devoted to improving the “craft” in your craftsmanship. This is a holistic endeavor. It starts with information and communication. Look at your art. How you digitize or build your screens. Set up, run and takedown procedures.

Literally everything.

People notice superb craftsmanship and will seek you out if you can deliver what other shops can’t.


How are you on improving your people?

As you probably have read here before I’m a big believer in what I call the “Rule of 3” – which means that for every core job position in your shop, you have at least three people that can competently execute those tasks. Most shops don’t have this. Not even close.

That’s why when your screen room guy quits, or your embroidery operator is out with the flu, everything comes to a complete stop. It absolutely doesn’t have to be that way.

Building a cross-training program is the basic level management function. Where the real growth happens is when your staff is excited to learn “beyond” what they need to know. That’s where advanced skills live.

Are your staff reaching for the gold in trying to learn how to do things that today might seem impossible?

When you invest in your people, you invest in your success.

Getting Started With The Deming Cycle

So let’s say you want to improve something in one of the four areas I mentioned above.

How do you get started?

Let’s us a standard in process improvement that W. Edwards Deming coined many years ago. It’s a solid concept.

Plan Do Check Act

Lots of smart folks in the manufacturing world also shorten this to PDCA. This is a continuous circle with no beginning or end. Let’s break it down.


It’s the thinking part. Identify something that needs improvement and then develop a plan to change it for the better.

For example, let’s say you want to improve your print quality. Your t-shirt prints come out rough and have a grainy texture to them. After consulting with experts, you realize that your screen tension is the culprit. For better prints, you need to be above 18 N/cm for one color jobs and 20 N/cm in tension for multicolor for your screens. This is where you want to start.

Your Plan is to buy a tension meter and after you have reclaimed and degreased the screens, measure the tension of your screens.  In the lower left-hand corner, you will write the tension average and today’s date.  Afterward, you coat the screen with emulsion and proceed normally.  Any screen under the 18 N/cm rule will not be used and staged for remeshing.


This is the action part.

If you want to see what results you might have if you implement the Plan, try out your plan with a sample set. Measure the results for a day or a week and compare to the existing results.

You want to have easily measured results either with data or by observation. This should not be difficult. Make it easy to tell if something is working out or not.


What happened?

Are the results better? Worse? The same?

If things didn’t go according to plan, what happened? There could have been something that prevented success that you didn’t think about.


If everything checks out, it’s time to push it to become a standard operating procedure. Improvement happens this way.

You will need to train people on the new method, and demonstrate the results. Teach them “why” the improvement was needed, and show them how much better the results showed.

Note: the new way can be updated and changed too. That’s why they call it continuous improvement.

Kaizen Events

Here’s another term for you to learn, and it is in Japanese.

That’s right! Who knew you were going to learn foreign language words today?

Kaizen is a term that means “change for the better”.

This is part of the process of Lean manufacturing that Toyota implemented for their gigantic leap in quality that lead them to become a leader in the automobile industry.  The idea with Kaizen is that anything can be improved, even if it is in small incremental amounts.

A Kaizen event happens when you gather a team and investigate something that isn’t quite working right. As they say, “many hands make light work” or “two heads are better than one”. Getting a team involved with process improvement is smart because your crew will all approach things differently.

You want folks that don’t actually do that work because they will ask “why do we do it that way”? Also, you need people that do the work, because they are the most familiar with it.

Get your team together, have a Kaizen event, and work your ideas through the Plan, Do, Check, Act system.

You can do it!