One especially vicious truth about professional upholstery is that quality and speed are two infuriating sides of the same coin. To do a good job, we must slow down. To make any money, we must speed up. This is a challenge for most upholsterers, but especially for NEW ones. It takes thousands of hours to bring our speed and quality into a comfortable working relationship. So what’s an upholsterer to do?
First, let’s NOT advocate for rushing – we all know how that goes. Especially as a new professional, establishing a reputation for quality is the most valuable investment we can make. Take the time to do it well.
Ahhh, but luckily, there IS one thing you can do RIGHT NOW to raise your bottom line. Meet your new profitability best friend: BATCHING.
Batching means grouping your tasks together. This is a given concept in manufacturing, where speed is king. One person stands and cuts all day. One person sits and sews all day (or several, each sewing a single part) etc. But can we translate that to a small, custom workroom? Yes. Look at your transition time.
This week, track how often you change tasks. Bench to cutting table. Cutting to sewing. Sewing to phone. Phone to customer. Customer to ordering. Believe me – you’re going to see room for improvement. According to at least one random internet article I found, switching tasks can make us up to 40% slower. I don’t know where they got that number, but I have first hand time studies that agree.
Though batching is trickier for a small custom workroom, here are viable ways to start:
1. Batch days
Isn’t it annoying when you have a client meeting EVERY DAY??? Doesn’t that just destroy your deadlines? Somehow, a one hour client meeting always manages to cost me two hours, usually in the middle of prime shop time. Stop what I’m doing, straighten up, get prepared, make the small talk, do all the follow-up paperwork, clean up the fabric books, remember where the heck I left off . . .
While we want to be accommodating, we can ABSOLUTELY set parameters that work for our whole business. Try this out in the bathroom mirror: “I’d love to look through fabrics with you – Mondays are set aside for appointments, what time works best for you?” (For more on directing the conversation, check out our blog post: How to Train Your Client.)
2. Batch hours
Okay, let’s try another affirmation together: “The easiest way to get a quote is to send a photo – I generally answer emails in the morning, so just a heads up that you won’t get a response today. I’m excited to see what you have!”
About a year ago, I felt like I was underbidding everything – why was I so slow??? After several time studies, I figured out that it wasn’t my speed at the bench. It was stopping constantly to respond to phone calls, emails and direct messages. We can’t always get away from answering the phone, but that doesn’t mean we have to put out every fire right this second. Shop hours are sacred – you are allowed to protect them. And if you can? DON’T answer your phone – put it on airplane mode and batch messages to morning, lunch and evening. Nobody ever died because they couldn’t talk about their sofa right this second.
And in truth, you’re probably delivering much better service when you’re able to be patient and present.
3. Batch Tasks
One of the FIRST things I like to teach serious students is how to batch their cutting. You can lose a LOT of time walking back and forth, taking out fabric, rolling up fabric, checking direction, looking for scissors… OH MY GOSH ARE YOU ANNOYED YET??
The best thing I learned working in a multi person shop was how to batch cut. The lead upholsterer did all the cutting, often before the chair was even apart. By the time I got ready to shoot staples the fabric pieces were sewn, labelled and ordered for me.
Though it isn’t always possible (in the case of a complex pattern match, for example) making one trip to the cutting table is deliciously efficient. That is still how I prep work now, even though I’m often both cutter AND stapler. Taking an hour or two to plan and cut is a gift to my future self.
(For an overview on how to batch cut for a chair, watch our YouTube Video, “Layout and Cutting.”)
What other tasks can you group together?
One of the best parts of batching is that it likely increases our quality along with our speed – Keeping like tasks together allows us to focus effectively, raising the bar for overall consistency. Faster AND better – what more could a professional upholsterer want?
4. Batch tiny tasks.
I recently had a massive sewing task for a commercial project. Ridiculously long strips of fabric, in different, uncooperative weights, that had to be baste stapled, sewn, and top-stitched. It was a wrangling nightmare to lay the pieces out and drag it from cutting table to sewing machine and back.
The first time, I was as efficient as I could think to be. There were no major errors, no unscheduled interruptions. But the whole time, I considered where I could gain a few seconds. On the second set, I did tiny things. Reduce the number of times I walked the length of the table to staple and fold. Take my staples out in one step, instead of sewing two feet, picking up a tool, taking out staples, throwing them away, setting down a tool and repeating. Fewer trips to the garbage can. These were itty bitty things, but my second set was 30% faster than the first. Pretty significant.
Where can you put tiny steps together? Where can you take tiny transitions out? It’s a satisfying challenge to see where you can tighten your approach. There’s ALWAYS room for improvement.
I’m a terribly disorganized person, but I love batching. It’s like time in the bank, and when you’re self employed – time is definitely money.
When we improve efficiency, we give ourselves a raise on the hourly rate. It’s worth thinking about – but it’s not like flipping a switch. Give yourself patience and grace. We’re all in different places on the curve and some weeks are better than others.
My current personal focus is better managing the multi headed monster of social media marketing, BARF. Right now, I see something inspiring, pick up my phone and lose 30 minutes mini blogging about it. An hour later, I remember that I haven’t posted about something important, so I pick up my phone AGAIN and lose 30 minutes. (And maybe I’ll answer a couple emails while I’m here . . . ) THIS MADNESS MUST END!!!! This woman needs a planning day.
By giving myself a dedicated window to focus on batching that work together, I’ll not only save time – I’ll do a better job of communicating important information at regular intervals. Most days, I can’t even find my car keys, so believe me when I say: If I can batch effectively, you can too. The only question is, what are you going to batch first?
Want to learn more? Read this: How to be more efficient in your business with batching