Project Kaizen: Tuesday

Today’s entry is making improvements for sub-team members performing the same type of work. In other words, I’ll be writing about troubleshooting in the pattern department.

One of the clearest example of this is when I worked for an American ex-patriot who was (is) manufacturing apparel in Ecuador. While I’m ambivalent about this experience -it was both one of the worst and one of the best experiences I’ve ever had- no one could ever describe her as a sweatshop owner, she had a tremendous amount of social integrity. The plant was located on the same lot as her house. To give you an idea of her social commitments, a hot breakfast and lunch was served to employees -free- but you had to bring your own plate and utensils. She contracted with private bus companies to provide worker transportation to and from work -again for free. She was extraordinarily accessible to anyone in the plant and I hesitate to tell you this because I don’t want you to get the wrong idea but she was accessible to the extent that she’d delivered no fewer than 5 babies -in her own bed (she used to be a mid-wife). It’s not a situation where she worked women to the point of labor, it’s that the trust in her was so great that women would go to work if they were in labor so the boss would deliver their babies. Now that is trusting your employer!

Back to her plant, the critical issues she expressed to me were:
1. Sewing times were very slow. Even the stitchers agreed that it took too long to sew products. She’d calculated that even with her low labor costs, the cost per unit were equivalent to that of an efficient state-side operation.
2. That the stitchers had formed an ad hoc “averiguando y igualando” (checking and even-ing up) department.
3. Products lacked uniformity, for example -button placement was uneven.
4. There were big problems in the cutting department with lots of waste. The cutting department failed to cut all portions of garments, the biggest problem being with the lack or mis-cutting of trims (contrasting pieces).
5. Products didn’t look professionally finished, somehow lacking body.
6. She felt her pattern makers were lazy.

In short, all of these problems had their root in the pattern department, not that she realized it at the time. For example, the reason why the stitchers had set up the “even-ing up” department is because pieces did not match corresponding pieces. In effect, patterns were being vetted after the fact; the seamstresses were re cutting the garment pieces upon arrival to the sewing room. In effect, garments were being cut twice. It was a wasteful mess. Accordingly, as you can’t even up something sufficiently after the fact, this is why it took so long to sew products because people were having to do constant work-arounds via first order process (see Becoming a lean manufacturer).

Second, the biggest problems were a lack of standardization of process (see The perils of DIY) originating in the pattern department. If products lacked uniformity in button placement, this meant that there were no guides made for placement and the button sewers were eyeballing placement. Again, this blame rested in the pattern department.

Third, the problems of the cutting department did not originate there; it was only manifest there. The cutters can only cut what they’re told to cut but there was no mechanism by which they were informed. They simply cut the pieces that arrived. In this case, pieces were being lost in transit and without an inventory of the style, there was no way to prevent incomplete cutting. Again, these directives needed to come from the pattern department.

Fourth, the products lacked body because they didn’t have any internal infrastructure -no guts. Even light sportswear garments require interfacing in key areas such as the neckline, cuffs and button stands. Of all the problems, this was the most easily rectified (and really bears no merit in the topic of this discussion).

Fifth, I don’t know that her pattern makers were lazy but I would agree that they weren’t as productive as they could have been. In my opinion, their work area was abysmal to work in. By that I mean ergonomically because the plant itself was the most beautiful factory I’ve ever seen (nice large windows, brick facing walls, wood floors…quite lovely). Their tables were far too small to work on comfortably, and the tables were too low to stand at comfortably (tables should be waist high). The pattern materials they had at their disposal were awful (heavy cardboard, not oak tag), they were using handmade rulers made of cardboard that they’d made themselves (I kid you not) and they had some learned perceptions that needed reworking and lastly, they needed to be taught some professional standards to ensure quality controls through out the plant such as vetting and what not.

Now, these problems weren’t anything I haven’t seen before; some of them are fairly typical. The first issue in working with the pattern department was that pattern making is still very much a man’s job in Latin America. Resultantly, the older of the two pattern makers was nearly impossible to work with. The younger one and the production supervisor (who was female) were very open to change although they didn’t understand how they could work any harder or with any more diligence and dedication than they were already doing. It wasn’t an issue of working harder; they needed to work differently eliminating duplicative efforts and instituting simple visual controls. As is usually the case, the biggest problems in the department were a lack of standards, vetting of work, and lack of a pattern block system.

One of the easiest things to correct was having the pattern makers write up a cutter’s must. Previously, patterns were made and sent to the cutting department without an inventory of which pieces to cut! There was no way the cutting department could cut all pieces if they didn’t know what needed to be cut. At first the pattern makers denied needing to make a direction card or cutter’s must so I walked them into the hallway where there were many small, lost pattern pieces abutting the floor boards. These were pattern pieces that had fallen off the hooks in transit to the cutting room.

Second, I trained the pattern makers to color code their pattern pieces because while they could read and write, most of the people working in the cutting department could not. Since the cutters were not innumerate (I did check; I’ve seen that just as often), I trained the cutters to use the color coding system to lay out shell pieces by number with trim and contrast pieces accordingly. The cutters were thrilled with the new system. The production manager was beyond thrilled and decreed that no pattern without a cutter’s must was to be cut. Everybody was happy.

The third biggest problem to deal with was vetting the quality of the patterns. Now, this will surprise the professional engineers in our midst but pattern makers are not taught to check their own work when they’ve completed it. It is ground into you that you follow the measurements in the book exactly and then it is right (even I learned this in school). This was probably the issue that raised the most objections with the pattern makers. They felt that if they followed the book exactly, they didn’t need to check their work. Other than the fact that errors are rife in pattern books, the most obvious thing I could think of was that they weren’t using real rulers, just home-made cardboard ones. I compared their rulers with rulers I’d brought with me so they could see they didn’t match up. I really hated to do that because pattern makers are supposed to supply their own tools and these men had limited funds and access to buy professional tools. It made me sad that I had to disprove their handmade tools that they’d obviously made with a lot of integrity. Before I left, I filled out an order form from a supplier to make sure that the plant owner ordered them the right tools and supplies. Anyway, once I got through to them the need to check their work, I explained that they should switch off -one checking the work of the other- to make sure all seam lines matched up. Lastly, I explained that the production supervisor was to spot check the patterns before they were delivered to the cutting room.

The fourth biggest problem with the pattern department is that they were not using a block system. If you review the example I used in The crisis of Kaizen, you’ll see no fewer than 6 different styles generated from one “parent” pattern -the style 21117. Now, while not all of the pieces from 21117 were used -exactly- to render the child styles, many of the same exact pieces could be, such as the collars, under collars, all of the linings, facings, button guides etc. Re-using the same pieces from the 21117 into subsequent styles saves a lot of time. At this plant, they weren’t making styles as complicated as leather coats but still, they didn’t need to waste their time remaking the same sleeves over and over again but could recycle sleeves from one style into another. Using a block system would also free up their time to do the things they needed to be doing -such as making cutter’s musts. Anther way the block system saves time is in vetting or checking patterns. If you’re using the bodice and sleeves of a style that’s already been proven accurate, you’ll spend that much less time proving the pattern of any styles made from it. A final benefit of blocks is in reduced fitting problems as I’ve discussed to the point of exhaustion in this blog.

Anyway, this ends my example of making improvements for sub-team members on the factory floor.

I do have a personal anecdote that has no bearing on this topic but I like to tell this story because it illustrates how provincial we all are in terms of our own experience. For example in the US, people in the needle trades look to France as the arbiters of quality. In Ecuador their perception is that the finest pattern makers come from Columbia so the first thing I had going against me (other than being female) was that I was from the US. However once they met me, they refused to believe I was from the US and tried to trick me into admitting that I was really from Columbia (that I speak Spanish with a Columbian accent wasn’t helping matters). The idea that I’d come from the US was laughable to them. I don’t know that I ever convinced them of my nationality although they were very impressed that I could speak English (I actually had to prove it!).

Please visit the other participants in today’s project. They are:
Hal Macomber Reforming Project Management
Mark Graban Lean Manufacturing Blog
Bill Waddell Evolving Excellence
Joe Ely Learning about Lean
Chuck Frey Innovation Weblog
Norman Bodek Kaikaku
Jon Miller Panta Rei


  1. Kathleen says:

    Lol! Actually, it really depends on the situation -and/or how much I’ve had to drink, lol.

    You’re aware that in the US we have “TV english”, an accent void of regional variations. Well, they have that in Spanish too; it’s the Columbian accent. Most of the language tapes etc are made using Columbian speakers. It’s “clean”, void of regional nuances.

    Now, if I’m excited or had a glass of wine, I’ll use colloquilisms from Mexico and Central America. If I’m really mad, I’ll use expletives common to Argentina/Uruguay. I was married to an Uruguayan so that should be sufficient explanation for that!

    Kathleen–the multi-lingual potty mouth

  2. Oh, that makes lots of sense (says Jinjer, wandering further off the subject)–my husband lived in Columbia briefly (Columbian ex-fiancee), and says Columbians pride themselves on their beautiful, almost European Spanish. I remember noticing it in “Maria, full of Grace” (really good movie).

    Hey, and as long as I’m off the subject–with all this discussion on uniformity of product, I was struck by a display o 5 neon M’s outside a local McDonalds. They were simply formed of one long tube. I couldn’t help but notice that the twist in the middle leg was sometimes to the front and sometimes to the back, as were the electrical boxes at either end of the M’s– and those two features were unrelated. They were clearly not mass-manufactured, or made to very precise specifications, which I thought odd for a Mcdonald’s. I assumed they were made by a local craftsman. “Only in San Francisco,” as they say.

  3. Eric H says:

    Precise specifications? For a McDonalds? Absolutely. I remember reading that Mickey D’s goes to great lengths to develop suppliers in every country they enter, showing them how to make bread, bringing them seeds for the onions, etc., which is why there is surprisingly little variation in their food from one country to another (is that a good thing? depends on your tastes, I suppose). Further, if you have ever seen a McD’s in a historic setting (and you usually do), they try to conform to local standards.

    Check out this sign in Rothenburg (I’ve been there, didn’t even notice the sign at first because it blended so well).

  4. Carnival of Lean Leadership #4

    Welcome to the fourth Carnival of Lean Leadership. There’s a lot of material to cover this time, so we’ll get right to it… The highlight of the past week has been the blogfest on project kaizen by The Gang of

  5. First Anniversary!

    Today’s kind of been a weird day what with the funeral and all and I didn’t really get to post what I’d intended either but the big news to share with you is that Fashion-Incubator is one year old today!…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *