Lean Dream Teams

When teams are successful, people -and managers- have the idea that it’s either a happy coincidence comprised of amiable personalities with unparalleled drive and skills -happily motivated to produce miracles in 80 hour work weeks; or that the successful team is due to the recruitment of highly paid gifted individuals and consummate professionals. In my experience, neither is true. Rather, most of the successful teams I’ve seen are staffed by very ordinary people.

The best product development team I ever knew was comprised of 5 people; the designer, pattern supervisor, pattern maker, pattern grader (CAD operator) and one sample maker. In the 3 years I knew them, the team came to provide the backbone to a company:

-who’s sales increased 39% -and at a time the industry was waning;
-that produced a a 10% increase in the number of styles;
-who’s returns went from .07% to a rate so low it was statistically insignificant. The defect rate wasn’t zero but the 4 women in rework lost their jobs and were absorbed into the sewing lines.
-that went from 3 pattern makers down to 1;


And that’s all I can think of right now. Most managers out there are convinced that this must have been a singular group of outstanding individuals but nothing could be farther from the truth. Or you be the judge. This lean dream team was comprised of:

A designer who couldn’t draw. He photocopied past sketches and used white out to replace lines. No, he couldn’t sew, didn’t go to design school and didn’t have the sense to add zippers into a fitted pencil skirt. His mind remained blissfully unaware of the nuances of one-ways, repeats and nap. He had the hots for a woman whom he later made the fit model -in order to curry favor.

A pattern supervisor was so psychologically disturbed she wouldn’t date a guy unless he beat her. She actively undermined her own staff, broadcasting staff salaries (the pattern maker made more than anyone else), arrived at least 30 minutes late every day; she hung out in biker bars, sang karaoke and drank heavily. She couldn’t sew either. Also the VP’s occasional lover.

A grader and CAD operator who hated everyone else in the department. Her digitizing was sloppy and she wouldn’t have known a good grade rule if it bit her on the nose. Incapable of making a decision, she often hid behind the curtain separating the plotter from the rest of the room. Miss Digitizer couldn’t sew if her life depended on it. She really hated the pattern supervisor.

A pattern maker who ran 50 miles a week, smoked like a chimney and never stopped eating. She often left work at least an hour early and spared no feelings if someone -including the owner!- made the mistake of chatting her up while she was working. Singularly responsible for an impromptu protest in the parking lot attended by most of both sewing lines. She did sew well.

A sample maker was five foot square and very religious meaning she took a lot of time off for feast days (she was Pueblo Indian). If she wasn’t giggling, she was laughing or visiting with the pressers. She was afraid of the pattern supervisor, designer and owner, and resented the pattern maker. She undermined the department with the sewing line supervisors.

And lastly, as far as I can recall, they didn’t put in one single hour of overtime between them. Now that I’ve established the very humble origins of lean dream teams, we can talk about ZARA. I’m not suggesting Zara is this dysfunctional but I am saying that Zara is not a miracle and anybody can do it. Pretending that the leaders are somehow better than everyone else is a cheap-shot way for followers to abdicate their own responsibility and controls in the matter but I’m not so nice as to allow you all to do that. Let’s demystify the leaders before we start, eh?

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8 comments

  1. Jan d'Heurle says:

    Maybe you should turn this into a novel; it sounds steamy enough. Do I recognize you in there anywhere? Jan

  2. Josh says:

    LOL Kathleen, you had me roaring this morning. I love your description of the lean team. I’m always saying that people in this business are the equivalent to (and I mean this in the most loving way) circus freaks (myself included). I could give you some funny stories of my past employers, all characters and a half. I love em to death though.

  3. Josh says:

    Let me throw out a theory out about your lean team. And it’s just a theory, I’m not saying I’m right. I love debating and disagreeing so I can’t help myself here.

    I think one of the things that could have helped the company in question was the trend of line dancing. I’d have to know the exact dates of the events that took place in the company until it’s ultimate demise to test my theory however, so I’m guessing here. I’m guessing you have the line dancing trend really hit around 92? And this trend lasted until 96-97? Could have been later. It’s 92 and while you have other companies struggling with the ghastly task of trying to keep up with the grunge trend (oversized ill fitting on purpose) and dealing with the upswing in goodwill chic. I remember shopping for clothes back then and the sizes were literally on the tags exactly like this; LARGE, LARGER, LARGEST. You have rich ubranites and regular folk boot scootin and needing western gear to do so. This could be why said company did better and other companies were struggling. Company appears to be a lean machine but is really just riding high on a trend, and blindly so.

    The new hot to trot fit model could have been hired just about the time that the western wear bubble was about to burst. She would have appeared to be the problem, but in actuality no one is line dancin’ at the clubs anymore.

    A company that rides a trend and has no backup plan will ultimately fail and fail big. A truly lean team would have had a back up plan.

  4. kathleen says:

    Josh, extraordinary teams are made up of very ordinary people; that’s the reality. Your theory doesn’t cover the 10% increase in number of different styles produced and it doesn’t explain why all the people in rework were sent back to the sewing lines. And, it doesn’t explain the near zero defect rate. It was a good team. period.

    oh, and the years in question were slow in western wear. We made no line dancing apparel at all. Just coats and sportscoats. The company went under after the owner died because the succession was poorly executed. That product line at those price points is still profitable today.

  5. Josh says:

    Well shoot, there I was thinking I had outsmarted you with my little crackpot theory and you shoot it down. : ) lol There is only one thing wrong with what your saying, I don’t see you as ordinary I think you’re extraordinary.

  6. Eric H says:

    Josh, don’tt let her get you down that easily. I liked the Line Dance Theory so much that I think you should try to work it in whenever and wherever possible. In fact, you should just shorten it to LDT and assume that we will all know what you are talking about when you use it in the future.

    Or are you really Jess logged in as Josh?

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