Tips for Getting the Work Through Your Shop Faster

Okay, here’s the understatement of the month: The pace of our lives is getting faster.

Ever see how a teenager hangs out these days? She’s got the cell phone in one ear, 12 friends instant messaging on the computer screen, VH1 music cranked up in the background, and is somehow managing to burn a “totally sweet” techno CD – all at the same time. She may even be able to manage to grunt in your direction at the same time.

It’s a busy life, and the expectation of “instantness” is growing. It’s becoming a point-and-click world, and if it hasn’t done so already, this expectation of speed will affect your shop.

So get with the program, shoppers: If you want to keep up, it’s critical that you manage multiple tasks and get your work out quickly.

There are three key areas you should concentrate on to make this work: your pre-production systems, your shop floor and your people – not necessarily in that order of priority. It’s all about getting the job done as efficiently as you possibly can.

Pre-Production Systems
It starts with your estimating – and you’d be well advised to computerize this part of your business. It doesn’t have to be complicated; you can go with a simple spreadsheet that you make up yourself, with boxes to fill in basic take-off – linear footage of cabinets, square footage of doors, number of drawers, etc.

This should increase the speed and accuracy of the beginning of the work. And, it may be able to really help you down the road, at the end of the job – when you want to compare what you estimated to what actually happened when the work went through the shop.

You may want to consider moving to CAD (computer-aided drawing), as well. This would be a big step, especially if you yourself are drawing up all the work yourself – and a new and steep learning curve may not be something you want to do.

However, as many shops are moving in this direction, you may want to consider it – and it may mean that it’s an employee who engages in this particular activity. CAD is increasing productivity – that we can safely say – after witnessing the last 15 years of smaller shops gradually embracing these systems.

With CAD, not only can your shop drawings improve – they’ll look better, and it’s often faster to change things with an electronic drawing – but you can improve your throughput if your drawings are part of the methods you use to actually engineer your work. There are several excellent software programs out there that will both draw and then provide you with fast, organized and accurate cutlists. Some will produce optimized cutting schedules and barcodes if you want to go that far.

The last part of a good shop throughput system, especially in the office, is how you figure out your schedule. This is often the hardest (and most frustrating) thing you do. Things are always changing – supplier to employee issues, jobsite delays, mistakes and so on. It’s key to have a central place where the schedule is updated; this can be a push-pin board, a white board with dates, or a computer program.

The Shop Floor
A few tips for the shop floor – at least as far as being more productive there, too: First, put a good clean-up system in place. Keeping things clean and tidy is one of those hidden ways you get more work done, so institute it and stay on top of it! At our own shop, we use a lot of moveable carts, which really help us to stay flexible and organized.

You may also want to consider being hard-nosed about not keeping inventory around. Have your suppliers stock things for you. Your scraps and cut-offs take up valuable space, so give them away to the local high school, or get rid of them with the occasional Saturday shop/yard sale. How about splitting up your production activities? It boils down to three basic areas: machining, assembly and final build-out. We’ve found that it’s often different types of people who do better in these areas – especially with the advent of the Big Three Machines: the beam saw, the edgebander and the machining center.

And incidentally, you don’t need to rush out and buy these three right away. You can get there gradually. Get a better sliding table saw, perhaps with a motorized digital fence. Or maybe upgrade to a better drill.

But even if you’re still cutting on an older slider, applying tape on an inexpensive bander, and using basic drills and routers to machine your parts or pocket screws to put thing together, machining is still a different mindset to assembly – where your crew is hanging doors, adjusting drawers or making those tricky fluted cherry columns your client wants on the kitchen island.

So you may want to think in terms of separating your shop into smaller “departments” – and work on faster throughput on a very specific level within those departments, even if there’s only one person in each.

Your People
Let’s face it, though, ultimately, it’s your team members who can really improve how fast you get the work through your shop.

You can have the coolest equipment around – a shiny point-to-point machine, the fastest computers in the neighborhood – but if you don’t have the right staff on the bus, all of this stuff isn’t worth much.

Your team is what it’s all about, and it starts with your connection with them.

You need regular feedback from and to them, and this may mean a healthy amount of contact with your staff. Weekly meetings can help, and at our shop we’ve found that small groups work the best.

This may mean more meetings, and you may want to set up some kind of regular time slot with your key people, where you go over the schedule and workload. It’s also a good time to encourage them to tell you what’s going well and what’s not.

Your key people – the detailer, your foreman, the folks who are running jobs for you – all need to be in the loop as far as understanding your own attitude to getting work done quickly. So this will need constant attention on your part.

Nothing beats praise, encouragement and recognition, and if you are to create that winning team that will kick butt for you, this will need to be done on a daily basis. You’ll probably find that a good and motivated crew can improve your throughput beyond your wildest dreams.