Think of your company as a rocket ship poised to blast off into outer space. Sure, it’s a cliched business visual, but bear with me.

Your shop in this scenario is the mighty engines strapped to the rocket. These powerful thrusters are engineered to achieve a designated mission and purpose. All of the equipment, people, inventory, processes…everything is there for one goal in mind, to achieve your financial moonshot.

So what is the Fuel for the Engine?

It’s the leadership and culture that you set that powers everything. Likewise, without that leadership/culture fuel, your shop isn’t going anywhere fast.

Think of your shop’s success formula this way:

  • 1/3 part – Your Product or Service (Engine)
  • 1/3 part  -Your Sound Business Strategy (Direction)
  • 1/3 part – Your Intentional Culture and Leadership (Fuel)

While we can go into depths about building a better Engine or focusing on an efficient Direction…this article is going to discuss creating the high-octane rocket fuel that will power your shop. Let’s outline what I mean by Intentional Culture and Leadership.


Leadership must be on purpose. Have you ever heard of accidental leadership? No.

There are thousands of books on this topic. You’ve probably read some, or at least an article or two somewhere. For me, leadership is all about making the right decisions by leading intentionally. With integrity. Accountability. Empathy. Even humor. You want to create the meaningful direction that ensures your team is effective and efficient. This means painting an absolutely clear picture of the standards and expectations that should happen.

Peter Drucker has a great quote that ties into this thought, “The most common source of mistakes in management decisions is the emphasis on finding the right answer rather than the right question.”

How your leadership team operates is mission critical to your success. When your shop culture is built on accountability, teamwork, craftsmanship, communication and efficiency, that puts high-octane fuel in the motor.

Are you asking the right questions?

Real Scenarios

Creating that culture is hard work. It takes a lot of time and effort. In your shop, do you accept any of these from your staff?

  • Your day shift ends at 5:00 pm, and there are 23 shirts left on a job on Press 2.  The press operator shuts down the press and says he will finish the job tomorrow. In fact, your entire staff looks like the beginning of the Flintstones cartoon with everyone sliding down dinosaurs necks to jump into their cars and speed away. Regardless of what is due on the schedule, people just drop what they are doing and walk out.
  • In embroidery, you set the specifications for placement when hooping shirts. One of your embroidery operators resists that direction, as he likes to do things “his” way. Despite the fact that the placement is clearly already communicated to the client with your approval form, he does what he wants anyway. Any deviation means you aren’t doing what you specified to the customer. Trouble is brewing.
  • When printing on dark shirts, sometimes the press crews have a hard time hitting the Pantone color. “Close enough” rules the day. Despite customers rejecting orders, nothing is ever changed. You just take your lumps with chargebacks.
  • Orders are routinely entered without shipping information, including rush orders. Your production schedule is overbooked this time of year. After production, jobs sit in an area while the customer is called again and again for the information. You realize you could have finished three other jobs while you waited for this information to be gathered.
  • The screen room images the next job on the work order piled on their desk, but not with any sort of priority to what is being produced on the floor. They just grab the top one. The production crews suffer as they can’t get the screens they need to start on time. Production is held responsible for the late jobs.
  • Sales will routinely enter jobs that will be impossible to produce on time, or within the parameters of what’s technically realistic in production. When questioned the response usually is “Hey, you figure it out, you are the production manager!” It’s a finger pointing bonanza.
  • At the beginning of the day, after breaks and after lunch it takes an average of 18 minutes before the first shirt is produced. Often, some staff members are still in the bathroom, parking lot or break room fifteen minutes after these break times end. People move at a snail’s pace, and about an hour a day is wasted just getting everyone back in place to work. Hustle isn’t a word that is used much.
  • Shirts are counted at the press prior to running the job, as nobody has the time to do it when UPS drops them off. If the counts are off, it creates complete chaos. Nobody knows what to do. When you inform your customer that the order has a problem, their response is “You’ve had those shirts for two weeks!”
  • The CSR gets new shipping information while the job is being produced. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make it to the order in time and the job gets shipped to the wrong address or with the wrong ship method.
  • Your production manager forgets to order black ink. “Been too busy” is how he responds. Six jobs tomorrow will be late as they can’t be printed.

Setting Expectations

What if instead your shop’s culture was different? Would a higher grade of fuel make that motor hum a little faster? Here’s a comparison to the challenges written above:

  • Your day shift ends at 5:00, and there are 23 shirts left on the job on Press 2. These are finished, boxed up, marked complete and brought to shipping so they don’t have to go looking for them. The press is broken down and cleaned, and the first job for tomorrow is set up so that’s ready to rock and roll in the morning. This is possible, as everything the crew needs is staged by the press in the sequence that the jobs need to be produced. In fact, things are so dialed in your crews look like they belong on a NASCAR track as a pit crew.
  • In embroidery, you set the expectations on placement to hoop the shirts. These are expertly followed by your production crews. They even suggest ways that the mockups can make improvements with the center points for easier production.
  • When printing on dark shirts, sometimes the press crews have a hard time hitting the Pantone color. A special log book has been created with production hacks to help match the colors. This is reviewed constantly and updated by the production crews. “What if” scenarios are outlined including shirt color, Pantone color, and whether the color is underbased or not. Suggestions to help hit the color include changing the underbase to tan or gray, possible squeegee durometers that might help, different ink bases to use, mesh counts, even whether or not the underbase screen should have an extra coat of emulsion for a better EOM. Nothing leaves the building unless it matches the Pantone color. Your shop is known for its craftsmanship and dedication to quality. This brings you new business, as new customers come onboard that have been burned by other shops that can’t handle the task.
  • Orders are routinely entered without shipping information, including rush orders. All things considered, while this practice is always discouraged, it happens sometimes due to the nature of the work. A special notation is made from the CSR staff, and if the address isn’t entered the following day after order entry then the customer is notified that the ship date could be changed. After two days the job is put on hold pending the information.
  • The screen room always reviews the production schedule and routinely communicates with production on the priority of jobs to image. They triage everything, just like production, by Rush, Late, Today or Tomorrow’s jobs. Their mandate is to have 100% of the screens ready for production one business day before the job is set to begin production. They are self-scheduling and will stay late to ensure that this happens.
  • The sales staff understands the production capacity of any given day on the calendar and is required to ensure that jobs can meet the time or technical specification before agreeing to the order. Both sales and the CSR staff routinely are trained on production tasks, how long they take to complete, and the shop’s capabilities.
  • Employees are at their workstations and ready to go at specified times. An audible bell sounds to indicate appropriate intervals. Equipment is fired up and working immediately without loss of time and shirts are being produced just moments after the bell sounds.
  • Shirts are counted the same day they are received by a team and checked against orders in the system. These are staged in an appropriate area and arranged in rows by the last digit of the order number for easy location by production scheduling crews.
  • When the CSR has any updates to the order after it has been entered, the requirement is to change the information in the system and replace any work order documents immediately. This means they get up out of their chair and go find the work order on the production floor. This is notated in the system with a time stamp that it was completed and why.
  • The production manager delegates shop consumable inventory levels to a trained staff member.  They receive training on what the minimum levels for each item should be, and have access to order from the shop’s suppliers when that is reached. Any item received is checked in by the receiving team against what was ordered.  Purchases are reviewed by the financial team in the front office.

There are thousands of things that happen in a busy shop each day. This is only a list of ten.

Effective leaders train their staff to make decisions and do the work, so they can spend their time involved in higher level or more important priority tasks. If you find yourself micromanaging smaller day-to-day operations, it may be worthwhile to take a step back and consider changing the way you are fueling the engine in your shop.

Empowered employees that are trained to handle tasks and trusted to make decisions can contribute a higher level of overall effectiveness for the shop. In these stories outlined above, the lowest common denominator in each is how the employees are taking care of the situations themselves without managerial involvement. This is culture driven. As a matter of fact, one of the questions I ask shop owners or managers is “If you take a day off, does your shop suffer”?

It’s amazing how many people tell me that they haven’t had a day off in years. Yes, years.

Is that you?

Fuel for the Engine – Leadership Traits

In the long run, the time you spend upgrading your culture will definitely pay off as you will change the fuel that you are putting into your shop’s engine. So what are some leadership traits that could make a difference in your shop’s culture?

  • Ability to Delegate. You don’t have to do everything. Generally speaking, handing off tasks to others means you can get more things accomplished in a day. This also can include technology instead of people.  For example, I automate my social media posts using an app called Buffer. I have these usually scheduled out two to six weeks in advance, depending on what I’m working on. Most of the posts you see from me were handled weeks ago, not when they were posted online. That way I can focus on what is important.
  • Accountability. Can you admit your mistakes? We all make them. Including me. Being accountable for your actions as a leader drives home that same trait in others. Passing the buck has the same effect. If you want accountability in your shop, you have to demonstrate that you can do it first. Leaders lead. Be the example.
  • Big Picture View. You have it. Or at least you should. Can you disseminate this to everyone so they can understand it too? If not, is there any wonder that your staff doesn’t know how to handle that crazy situation that happened yesterday? Equally important, what about tomorrow’s problems? Are they trained to deal with it so the solution aligns with your expectations?
  • Commitment. Leaders own the decision. They are fully vested in the success and will do what it takes to ensure expectations are met. For a lot of smaller shops that means owners printing shirts at 1:26 am on a Tuesday to hit that pickup date. You know what I mean. Does everyone on your team have that same level of commitment? After all, if they are just “clock punchers” that don’t care, ask yourself if your shop can do better?
  • Communication. One of the best traits effective leaders have is the ability to communicate their thoughts and ideas. Expressing the expectations and intentions regarding important topics is a great way to get alignment with your staff. Keeping everything trapped inside your skull and only discussing the plan with a limited amount of people can doom your idea from the start. Remember, studies have shown that most people have to hear the same message an average of seven times to sink in and fully understand it. Seven. So when you get frustrated with Fred because he doesn’t understand the new cell phone policy and you exclaim “Fred I’ve told you three times about this!”, remember you might have four more to go. Which begs the question, why are you putting up with the Fred’s of the world anyway?
  • Confidence. Strong leaders are in charge. Be brave. It takes a lot to lead a group of people when everyone is looking to you for direction. Take a deep breath and make the decision.
  • Creativity. Not necessarily in an artistic sense either. Leaders think of creative ways to solve a problem. Similarly, can you think of a better way to solve the challenge?
  • Empathy. Can you see the other person’s point of view? Ruling with an iron fist is a great way to create a toxic atmosphere. Remember, most people don’t leave companies because of compensation, they leave because of bad managers or leaders. Put yourself in your employee’s or customer’s shoes. How would you like it? Be firm, but fair. Give crystal clear expectations. Ambiguity creates problems.
  • Honesty. For some this is difficult. Leaders are not afraid to speak up. Your mom was right, you know. It’s always the best policy.
  • Humor. Maybe the most important trait on this list. Not in a wise-cracking comedian sort of way, but finding humor in things can help ease the tension. Sometimes just being silly can help.
  • Integrity. Do you do what you say? Customers and staff alike will follow people that have a high trustworthiness aura. Trust is earned, not given.
  • Organization. Many people struggle with organization. Think things through. Work smarter, not harder.
  • Positivity. Want to motivate others? Positive people are inspiring and uplifting. There is a cumulative effect around them that affects the performance of others. Negative Nancy’s can take a hike.
  • Timely. Here is one of my favorite phrases: “If you aren’t early, you are running late.” Getting things handled on time is critical to success. Yet, you don’t get a pass because you are in charge. In fact, you should be held to a higher standard. Your troops are watching. When you slink in an hour after your staff clocks in and state some lame excuse about the line at Starbucks or leave early on Friday to hit the links with your golf buddies, you are setting the tone that time doesn’t matter. Is that the right fuel for the engine?

Again, for your company to grow, you’ll need to constantly work on your culture. After all, putting in the best fuel for the engine is what is going to get you to achieve your goals faster.

It all starts and ends with you.


“A leader is one that knows the way, shows the way, and goes the way.” – John C. Maxwell

“Only the guy that isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat.” – John-Paul Sartre

“Better to be three hours too soon, than a minute too late.” – William Shakespeare