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Regaining control over job scheduling

Getting a handle on job scheduling can seem a frustratingly elusive goal but taking a calculated approach, building in room for the unexpected and getting real with customers about what’s possible can keep you breathing easier and the shop running smoother.

Feature | January 1, 2022 | By: Pamela Mills-Senn

For Canvasworks Inc., located in Cokato, Minn., moving projects like this bimini top with front and side windows out the door as promised depends on a detailed understanding of how long jobs realistically take to complete, employee skill sets and strategic scheduling based on staff availability. Photo: Canvasworks Inc.

Moving projects out the door when promised is key to keeping customers happy and sanity intact but getting a handle on job scheduling can be tough. Although setting production priorities and communicating these to customers has always been important, this need has become even more urgent as shops continue to deal with staffing and supply shortages. A look at some of the job-scheduling tactics others have deployed may prove helpful to those still struggling with this aspect of their operations.

Understanding how long jobs realistically take to complete is a good first step, which is something Canvasworks Inc. has calculated, says Jennifer Smith, business manager. Located in Cokato, Minn., the company fabricates products for the marine industry, as well as producing commercial building awnings and original equipment manufacturer (OEM) products and offering two of its own lines—SnoCaps Trailer Enclosures and Dogs-Up Ramps.

“We’ve broken it down to the various components of a job based on average employee times to complete that component,” says Smith. “For example, on a pontoon cover I know it’s going to take my fitter four hours, my sewer three hours and the installer one hour to complete that cover,” she says. “I know how many work hours I have available for each of these components in a week by each employee’s skills, so I can avoid overscheduling.” 

Who goes first?

Then there’s the matter of scheduling the job order—should it be first come/first served, by when the project is needed, customer importance or something else, like staffing or materials? For Canvasworks, it depends, but generally staff availability—there are 14 employees and two owners—is the biggest determinant.

However, customer priority counts the most for Tecsew Ltd., a Lee-on-the-Solent, Hampshire, U.K., manufacturer of boat covers, marine upholstery and garden canvas products with 16 employees.

“We service many trade contracts, and these are always about deadlines,” says John Bland, managing director. “If a dealer sells a new Beneteau, they want the handover as quick as possible; as such, first in/first out doesn’t work. The trade side of the business is very important to us, so we need to be able to react, to change schedules, slot projects—the whole process is fluid.”

Custom Boat Covers LLC customers get appointments on a first-come/first-served basis, says Heather Shaw, office manager for the Aurora, Ohio, manufacturer of custom boat and heavy machine covers, upholstery, pavilion enclosures and outdoor kitchen covers. The company tries to arrange the workload by what is easiest to complete in a day, preferring not to rush the bigger, more painstaking jobs. 

Crew availability is among the scheduling drivers for The Canvas Works LLC, says Christopher Mader, owner. Located in Sausalito, Calif., the company fabricates custom canvas covers for the marine, residential and commercial industries. However, customers paying the required 50 percent deposit for big jobs do achieve first-come/first-served status. Still, there are other ways projects can jump the queue.

“We have customers we’ve worked with for years that if they need something quickly, we make it happen,” Mader says. “We attempt to turn repairs around quickly. We have a slip which is scheduled out with a three-month lead time at the moment for larger jobs, so that schedule is dictated by availability.”

Custom Boat Covers schedules projects on a first-come/first-served basis, combining a big job with a smaller one. The company prides itself on completing jobs efficiently, like getting this 42-foot sailboat dodger made with taupe Sunbrella® and 40-gauge Strataglass, out within a week. Photo: Custom Boat Covers.

Getting it down

In addition to Mader and his business partner, there are eight employees at The Canvas Works. Although the shop has different departments (covers, enclosures, dodgers/biminis, cushions and repairs) most staff can work on nearly any project. Jobs are scheduled on whiteboards—a large one is in the upstairs office, two are in the main sewing room—with jobs broken out by the project manager/crew member responsible for work. 

Custom Boat Covers, with a three-person staff, uses a calendar, says Shaw, who schedules all the work for the shop.

“We try to schedule a big job with a smaller job in a week,” Shaw says. “We pride ourselves on getting jobs out within a week, meaning the customer can drop a boat off on a scheduled Monday and pick it up by that Friday. Larger jobs usually require more materials and with COVID happening last year, getting materials in has been our biggest issue.”

Canvasworks schedules projects by the order they’re received within their product class—boat covers, awnings, custom products, SnoCaps—with products classed by difficulty.

“For example, boat covers are scheduled for a one-week turnaround,” says Smith. “Customers drop off their boats Monday morning before 10:00 and they pick up their boat Friday between 4:30 and 5:00. This is a big selling point because customers don’t lose weekend use of their boats. [But] a custom SnoCap is a more complex job. So it will be scheduled out further and we’ll generally have the trailer longer if it’s being installed at our shop.”

The Canvasworks shop includes a metal fabrication team and a sewing team. Employees in the former are cross-trained to run the fabric welding machines during the spring when the marine season hits. Consequently, during that time, metal shop jobs are scheduled further out. The sewing team is divided into production sewers who fabricate the majority of the OEM products, and custom sewers who handle the marine and custom jobs (cross-training provides some scheduling flexibility to meet customer time frames).

Customers are given drop-off and pick-up dates after paying a 50 percent deposit. OEM and repeat customers order 30-to-60 days out, so scheduling around them is fairly straightforward, although they’ll take occasional rush jobs for these customers, Smith says.

“Otherwise the schedule is what the schedule is; no amount of urgency on the customer’s part is going to create more hours in the workday,” she says. “Work scheduled for the week is our priority. If we can squeeze in a rush job we will, but it doesn’t happen that often.” 

A paper schedule, in conjunction with a wall calendar, is posted in the office listing each project/product and due dates. This is used mainly for jobs being written up. The weekly job board notes all jobs due that week and which production staff is responsible for which project that day. Four wall folders holding each week’s worth of work and divided into files based on general job type enable Smith to easily grab all the jobs for a week and review her ordering (Excel) document so she can ensure supplies are on hand.  

For scheduling, The Canvas Works LLC, Sausalito, Calif., relies on a master whiteboard that shows date due, customer and project type. It’s also used to schedule the slip. Two other whiteboards in the main sewing room break the schedule down by current project and the crew member responsible for the project. Each project has a clipboard with a work order that is assigned to a specific crew member. Photo: The Canvas Works LLC.

Kicking it old-school

“It isn’t pretty, but it has worked well for us,” says Smith of her system at Canvasworks. “At some point we’ll be able to [implement] a more electronic approach, but at this point we haven’t found anything that truly meets our needs.”

Mader says The Canvas Works looked into project management software a couple of times over the last five years but hasn’t “taken the plunge,” partly over the feeling the staff on the floor wouldn’t use it. Custom Boat Covers doesn’t rely on software either.

Until recently, Tecsew used an MRP (manufacturing and resource planning) system but dropped it, finding it too inflexible for the company’s requirements, says Bland. Now, Tecsew utilizes Xero and Excel.

“Xero is a very powerful accounts package and there are add-ins for any reporting, CRM [customer relationship management] or similar item you may need,” Bland explains. “Any business coach will tell you that you need a CRM, MRP [material requirements planning] and to get away from Excel. But nearly everyone has a good understanding of Excel. If learnt properly with all the functionality and if good templates are created, it’s
very powerful.”

As for scheduling, Bland says every work order has a delivery date with important notations included, such as when a boat is leaving the country, making this an “absolute deadline.” Still, the order due date the staff is working on will have several days, even a week, deducted from the real deadline as a buffer.

Tecsew services many trade clients who are given priority when it comes to scheduling. The company uses Zero™, an accounts package, for work orders, and Excel for creating templates, among other functions. Photo: Tecsew, The Boat Cover Company.

Tecsew builds in capacity for urgent trade work in part by giving extended lead times for private one-off clients when busy and adding a two-week buffer to its standard lead time—which varies depending on season, job complexity, etc.—on non-trade, tight-deadline jobs, consulting with staff before accepting the work, particularly if overtime would be required.

“I always leave a caveat on tight deadlines,” Bland says. “There is much that can go wrong outside of our control—material shortages, equipment breakdowns, staff illness. It’s either accept this and know we will do our best, or accept our standard lead time, which will have the buffer added in.”

Canvasworks gives a wider time frame for larger jobs, providing a cushion in case, for example, an employee is unable to work a shift. The company’s schedule is arranged so that all big jobs for the week are completed by Friday, filling in any available time with repairs, stock orders and working ahead on jobs due the following week. Immediately communicating any delays to customers is imperative, says Smith.

“We’ve found customers tend to be more understanding if they’re informed of an issue right away,” she says. “This also allows us to identify which customers are more flexible with their project’s time frame and whose project is more urgent.”

Bland’s best advice?

“The buffer,” he says. “And don’t be bullied. Offer good service and know your most important customers. Look after them first. The problematic ones should never be above the most profitable customers on your books.” 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a writer based in Seal Beach, Calif.

SIDEBAR: Customer management advice

Apprising customers of project flow and (realistic) delivery dates can help avoid scheduling angst. Chris Mader, owner of The Canvas Works, Sausalito, Calif., says providing a visual of the schedule is helpful. He’s considering creating a spreadsheet to use when communicating with customers as a way of illustrating project time frames.

Honesty and never overpromising are essential, says John Bland, managing director of Tecsew, Lee-on-the-Solent, Hampshire, U.K. “It’s better to give an extended lead time and surpass expectation if you deliver early,” he says. “Importantly, learn which clients and jobs add the greatest value. This has to be repeat, long-standing customers; then it’s the work that’s easy to facilitate. Learn to shun the unprofitable work.”

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