In today’s post, we will talk about turnaround time in mill production. It’s not just a matter of working longer and harder. It is a major issue that almost everyone in the industry faces. In a survey we are currently conducting with farmers in the United States, only 3.7% of the market responded saying they have received their fiber back faster than expected. In fact, 57% of the market voted that turnaround time is a major issue!
If you haven’t taken the time to voice your opinions about custom processing in the US you can take the survey here. While we only have 81 responses so far, I believe that 1000 responses would reflect about 10% of the market and be a good representative sample. Thanks in advance for sharing your opinions on the current state of the market.
What causes a long turnaround time?
Most niche textile mills in the business today have six months worth of backlog. Some are out 18 months or longer. Typically the mills which are able to produce the highest quality products struggle to keep their turnaround time under six months. Turnaround time directly impacts cashflow, markets, team morale, administration, customer loyalty, even one’s ability to sleep, just to name a few.
But it’s not just a matter of working harder and longer at the mill level. As we shared in our last post there’s plenty of true grit when it comes to the owners and operators who are providing these custom processing services. It’s easy to see when you visit these mills that they have great courage and resolve – a true strength of character – to start, continue and finish what they have put their hand to.
What is the long term effect of this reality continuing?
Should we double the number of mills we currently have in the US to meet demand?
Does the market look for other options to meet their needs?
Can the current mills develop quicker more efficient systems to serve the market?
Our turnaround story…
Morning Star Fiber faced turnaround issues as well. Even after four years of working harder and longer to decrease our backlog, it seemed that we had little to show for our efforts. So I want to share our personal story of what that looked like for us. How did we go from processing 75 pounds of fiber a week to 150 pounds? More importantly, how were we able to accomplish an average of a 45 day turn time for farmers when they used our system correctly?
Back in 2008, I had just started managing Morning Star Fiber. We used a “first in-first out” approach to orders getting processed. Anyone who wanted to place an order could do so and ship their fiber into us along with a deposit. We put their orders into our database and stored them on the main wall that ran down the center of the mill dividing the office/retail section from the workshop area.
The wall was about 50 foot long and was designed with a series of shelves that went from the floor to the ceiling – I think there were four shelves in total. We had it categorized so that we could easily find a customer’s order and pull it when it was time to put them into the process. We operated like this for about three years. In time, not even the wall could contain all the orders. Our turnaround time was getting out of control!
Turnaround can spin you into the ground
We were always challenging ourselves to work harder and create higher quality yarns. The team of people that we had assembled was really talented and dedicated. But the amount of incoming fiber just continued to grow, and we were getting pretty stressed out. At one point I remember watching a tractor-trailer backing up to drop off an 1800 pound run of Icelandic fleece that we were going to make into lopi. The business was really starting to grow, but we couldn’t keep up with the workload.
I wasn’t a college student anymore but I was consistently pulling all-nighters. The weekend would come and I would be back in the mill to catch up so that when everyone else showed on up Monday things would be ready for them. So many things suffered: my health, my family, my business, and my personality. There was nothing inspiring about what we were doing, and there was less and less that was joy-filled.
Bringing in a consultant…
We decided to bring in a local business consultant friend to come into our workshop for a day to have a look around and give us some advice. We were convinced there had to be something that would allow us to process fleeces faster. But no amount of effort we had tried had solved the riddle.
After giving him the tour I asked him what his thoughts were and the question he asked me threw me off guard. He said, “How much work is represented here on the wall? Is it like 1 month’s worth, maybe 6 weeks? I laughed and said, “Oh heavens no, there’s way more than that.” I didn’t really know the number off hand so I had Dave figure it out based on the spreadsheet. He looked it up and gave us how much was there.
Making your turnaround time tangible
Then the businessman asked me, “How often is that wall empty?” To which I said, “Never, we’re always busy.” He said, “That’s good! That’s job security.” He then asked me, “How does having all that work waiting to be done sitting right there staring you in the face every day make you feel?” I told him it was a little unsettling but that’s the way it had always been so I’d gotten used to it. Then he asked, “And how do you other employees feel about?” I said, “I didn’t know cause I had never thought to ask them”. He said, “I’m not sure how they feel either but if I was working here that would bother me.”
Then he asked, “How do you know that you’re getting things done in a timely manner?” I responded with something about the spreadsheet letting us know how much we were getting done, and from time to time I would sit down and track how we were doing. He interrupted me at some point and said, “The point I’m getting at is your team never gets to see progress. If that wall is always full, no matter how hard they work they are never going to see much of a dent in that wall, and you’re having to store more than 2 months worth of inventory – that is a HUGE liability risk!”
Building a turnaround system that scales
Then he said something that has stuck with me for the rest of my life, “What you need is a system that is easy to track and that shows everyone in a very tangible way the progress that you are making – they want to feel accomplished – they want to celebrate their finished work. The more you can do that the more you will improve your employee’s morale and I’ll bet you’ll be able to get a whole lot more done in a much shorter amount of time.” Then he said, “You seem like a pretty smart guy, and it seems like you’ve got a great team here, I would talk to them about this and see what kind of solutions you guys can come up with that would fix that issue. When you get that figured out let me know.”
The next several Mondays we pulled the team together and did just that. It was through that discussion process that we established a plan that fixed that issue. It took us about 6 months to figure it all out and get things configured right but it made us almost 2x faster. If he would have told me that we could double our production without adding any staff or machines or hours worked, I would have rolled on the floor laughing.
Let us help you work on your business…
I share this story because there are many things we’ve learned over the years that I want to pass on to you and others. I truly love processing fiber, but for health-related reasons, I’m no longer able to do it on a week in week out basis. I hate knowing that there are other hardworking folks out there who are stuck in the same situation. Like us, they could use a second pair of eyes that would help them to see where they could make improvements in their business. And more than that, I want to help them make those changes.
As always we’d love to talk with you and find out more about your business and how we might be able to help you. Working on your business is more important than working in your business. It allows you the opportunity to work more effectively and efficiently. Use the link below to schedule a free consult at a time that works best for you. We are here for you.