Fit Couture: Lean manufacturing implementation

Mike and Amy Cerny of Fit Couture have recently installed a lean manufacturing module at their small factory in Houston! I don’t want to steal any of their thunder at this amazing accomplishment but I am so proud and gratified to have been involved with their company over the past three years. I first met them in 2004 when they hired me to consult with them, having decided they wanted to get serious. Amy had inadvertently started the company when after joining a gym, had decided she didn’t like available fitness apparel. So, she decided to make her own. Doesn’t seem like a big deal but she didn’t know how to sew at the time. Being a quick study, she learned fast. By the time I caught up with them, the business had taken over the second story of their home. Mike cut garments on a 8’X6′ table that Amy’s father built and Amy was sewing on home sewing machines.

They were quite a challenge, especially Mike. Anytime I made a suggestion, Mike always had a contrary opinion. At one point I looked him in the eye and said “why did you hire me if you’re going to contradict everything I say”? A particular sore spot at the time was I didn’t like their use of clear plastic to cut out their patterns. I remember telling Mike that if he wanted to make it, sooner or later, he was going to have to do it my way, regardless of how much he argued (they’re using real pattern paper now). I learned some lessons from them as well, particularly about stubbornness. Stubborn people make it. New ideas just take time to meld in their brains almost to the point that they have to own them, become them, reformulating to the extent that they originated the concept. I don’t care who’s idea it was, just as long as it gets done. Which brings us to today. Fit Couture is my first baby to go lean -officially! Not to say they hadn’t already been practicing its principles. From day one (before I met them), they’d been cutting most of their products -onsies and twosies- to order, so lean fit right in with their existing experience.

Here’s a picture of their sewing mod:


Mike has started a thread in the forum explaining their lean implementation, there’s also more photos of their shop there as well. He explains the system (installed by America’s 21st) in part by saying

The basic concept of the system is that you want a continuous product flow of garments in the system. For each operator in the cell, you want to have one garment in process.

The garments get started on one side of the line (the right side in the pictures) and then move through their production stages via machines to their left. At the end of the line, pieces are packaged, scanned, and dropped into the finish goods bucket.

When a garment is finished, the worker who completed it moves back towards the start of the line until she reaches the other worker. She then takes the work-in-progress from that worker and handles all steps required to complete. The newly “bumped” worker then goes to the beginning of the line and starts a new piece. The process repeats itself every time a piece is completed.

Mike describes the set up as “mesmerizing, I spend a lot of time back there just watching it”. All of us who saw the demo at the Spesa show can relate (entry). There’s a beauty to watching the flow of construction, it’s addicting. You can’t help but stand and watch until your legs get tired. It’s amazing to see cut pieces being formed into garments right before your eyes in a matter of scant minutes.

Mike was very pleased with America’s 21st, the US franchise for TSS. He said they didn’t work as he expected. They gave him a price and afterward during the implementation cycle, the consultants decided he didn’t need certain attributes of the system so they pulled these out and adjusted the invoice accordingly. In most of our experiences, consultants look for ways to pad a system, not subtract from it. He had a lot of good things to say about the company. Still, I think we have a lot to teach America’s 21st. There’s a lot of small companies running bigger than expected numbers and can afford a system like this. They said Fit Couture was the smallest company in which they’d ever installed a system. I have every confidence those numbers will increase.

Treat: Mike has graciously agreed to host an orientation to lean manufacturing implementation at his facility in Houston for those interested in adopting the system. This will be held on Friday November 2nd, bright and early, all day so fly in the night before (I’ll arrive Wednesday evening). A $100 fee will offset expenses and a catered lunch. Space is limited! Email me if you’re interested in attending. Mike will answer any questions -including costs- that you may have. If you can’t attend, there’s still the thread in the forum.

In closing, heartiest congratulations to Mike and Amy!

…and I nearly forgot. Mike and Amy are adding another person to the Fit Couture team, due to arrive on or about the first of next March, so double congratulations are in order! Mike says they plan to put “him” on cutting before he gets out of short pants. I guess child labor is okay, as long as they’re your own…

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12 comments

  1. Helen says:

    That’s amazing news. It’s much harder to implement Lean once a company grows past a certain size. As an industrial engineering student working in a large apparel factory, it can sometimes be disheartening to see how un-lean a process is. I suppose that’s why I have a job!

    So, congratulations on making the switch. I hope you enjoy success and inspire others to do the same.

  2. Hi, Mike & Amy,
    I just went to your website and I’m so thrilled that you make pants with a long inseam that I ordered a pair! Now if you would just make longer sleeves an option on your jackets.

    Shipping time is 24-48 hours. How you can anticipate demand and guarantee that shipping time? Are you doing push manufacturing? What happens with excess? I guess it goes on sale!

    So, in conclusion, thank you for taking the time to write on this board and answer questions when people like me are waiting for their pants!!

    Marguerite

  3. Kathleen says:

    Marguerite, they’re *lean*. They don’t anticipate demand, they cut to order. That’s the whole point. You order, they cut, sew and ship in 24-48 hours and it’s amazing because they have over 160 skus. They have a small buffer of stock (less than 5pcs) per style in the same way a restaurant has tomato stock and preps for the day’s customers based on daily demand. They never have to discount excess because there isn’t any.

  4. Mike C says:

    Marguerite, they’re *lean*. They don’t anticipate demand, they cut to order. That’s the whole point. You order, they cut, sew and ship in 24-48 hours and it’s amazing because they have over 160 skus. They have a small buffer of stock (less than 5pcs) per style in the same way a restaurant has tomato stock and preps for the day’s customers based on daily demand. They never have to discount excess because there isn’t any.

    We actually have over 1000 SKUs now and rising.

    Kathleen is correct in that we don’t really try to forecast demand. When we launch a new style, we make a small set of inventory and then just wait and see. We have a little in-house application that keeps track of how much of something we have in stock and how fast its been moving over the last month. Based on those rankings, we decide what to cut more or less on a daily basis.

    On some styles, we keep a small set of semi-finished garments in stock and then complete them individually as the orders come in. On others, we maintain as small an inventory as we think we can get away with.

    Kathleen is also correct that we don’t try to discount excess. If we have a style that doesn’t move well, we just let its remaining inventory sell out and then take it off the website. Everything eventually sells and part of our business strategy is to maintain our price points. (Discounts have amounted to less than 2.5% of our gross this year, the vast majority of which have been loyalty discounts to existing customers.)

    One of the goals of going to TSS is to allow us to sew ever smaller runs of clothing, perhaps eventually getting to a zero inventory situation. The America’s 21st folks have definitely been advising that we go that route. The gating factor right now for that is cutting – our line can handle short runs fairly well, but our cutting cannot. At some point, we’ll have to invest in auto-cutting infrastructure – perhaps next year. Even auto-cutting won’t completely solve the problem – I think there are some technology hurdles that have to be overcome.

    Right now, my inventory room has far more goods in it than I’m comfortable with. Part of that is because of the seasonality of our business. November through May are far busier than June through September. Even with letting our people take their paid vacations in the summer and giving them extra days of paid furlough, we still had too much capacity.

    In the busy season, we’ll be slightly under – but we think that we’ll be at nearly perfect capacity for 2008’s slow season and then we can put in a second mod for the 2008-2009 busy season. We’ll have workers to staff that line only for the busy months.

  5. I’m having a hard time getting my head around how you can cut to order and have 24-48 hour turn around. I mean if you get 1 of a whole bunch of things, then you’re basically cutting 1-offs and sewing them, so how can you do that in 24-48 hours?

    I’m not expecting an answer, and I don’t what to hijack this thread. Mostly I’m just impressed with what you’ve done.

    I’m not at this level right now, and I can just put galleries/boutiques into my production line and let them know individually how far out they’ll have to wait.

    But to promise as many orders as come in that they’ll ship in 24-48 hours…wow, you amaze me.

    I wish I lived near Houston and wasn’t already booked on your tour day because this is fascinating to me!

    Marguerite

  6. Mike C says:

    I’m having a hard time getting my head around how you can cut to order and have 24-48 hour turn around. I mean if you get 1 of a whole bunch of things, then you’re basically cutting 1-offs and sewing them, so how can you do that in 24-48 hours?

    We don’t cut every single piece every time someone orders. We keep a thin inventory of pieces on hand for many styles. The website knows how much we have in stock and won’t allow customers to order something if it doesn’t think we’ve got it.

    For other styles, we keep pieces partially complete. For example, on the pants that you ordered, a barcode printed out this morning which instructed the cutter to pull a partially completed pant shell + waistband and send it to the sewing room. The waistband was sewn on, the legs hemmed, and then it was cleaned, bagged and put out for shipping.

  7. Marian says:

    I read this article a couple of times – I find it fascinating. I run an embroidery shop and have just been griping about overseas sourcing. I have a customer who likes a certain brand of shirt. I am able to get most of the shirts in the colors needed, but the company has the Navy Blue extra small on backorder. They will not be avaialble for at least 3 months I am told. They are manufactured in Bangladesh. I am looking for another source for a comparable shirt and if I find a reliable one I will mover on. What they save on manufacturing overseas will be lost on the defection of customers I am sure. I hope this type of occurance will spark a resurgance of the American apparel industry. I love to see what lean manufacturing could do for this industry.

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