What is Kaizen?

In my continuing series of lean manufacturing, I need to explain the concept of Kaizen. While Kaizen literally means change (kai) and good (zen), Kaizen refers to continuous incremental change as opposed to radical innovation. I just mention the difference as it seems that US culture is enamored of radical new things -which can be buggy in early stages of development- versus a key focus on improving what it is that you already do well. For example -in the apparel industry- it seems there is an almost pathological avoidance to reworking a style that is already selling well. The overwhelming sense I get is the perception that reworking a “good” product would jinx it. While I can readily understand management’s reluctance to avoid investing more time and resources in an existing product that is performing well, my experience is that the potentiality of still greater sales is lost. Here in an example of Kaizen in the needle trades.

Below you’ll see a photo of style #21117 (for those of you still naming your styles, I have no problem recalling this style number nearly 15 years later). Hands down, this was the number one selling style of this company year in, year out.


Unfortunately, the pattern was horrible and the stitchers hated it and I didn’t think it fit particularly well either. Many of the notches were off, pieces fit together poorly yet the company continued to run the style as is, not wanting to “waste” the money to correct it since it was already selling well and sewing costs remained “within range”. In my opinion though, the sewing costs were not within range because the costs of sewing this coat remained at what it cost to run new styles. This is significant because new styles generally cost a tad more to sew because the operators aren’t as experienced with them. Now, while the costs of sewing the 21117 were within “acceptable parameters”, I felt the costs should have been lower owing to operator experience. As it turns out, costs were higher with this style because operators could not rely on notching and piece matching as they did with other styles. They had to rely on their memory of its idiosyncrasies to recall that the collar notches were off by 1/4″, that the sleeves did not fit and you had to stretch the under portion of the sleeve to get it to fit in rather than pattern and piece notching. While experienced operators could construct the style within parameters, there was always the problem of adding new sewing operators into the line, that although they were experienced operators, their skills could not be used to advantage in producing this style because individually, they had to “learn” the style and errors were a constant problem.

Over time, it got to the point where fewer and fewer operators could make this product. As a result, I was finally given this project for clean up. My instructions were “fix it but don’t change anything”. Please do not ask me how one can fix anything without changing anything because it will make me scream out loud. If I ever hear that phrase again, it will be too soon; I’ve heard that enough. Anyway, long story short, I fixed it (and became quite popular with the stitchers afterward). The attitude of management was relief over reduced complaints but that was all -for about six months. Then much to their surprise, the 21117 became an even better seller. Retail buyers began to inquire whether the style could be made in more varieties of fabrication, styling and colors. About the same time, the production manager realized that the time (cost) involved in sewing it was down by nearly 25% (!) and consequently had to re-cost all of the piece work tickets (I almost believe she didn’t want me to fix things because it’d make more work for her). Anyway, the 21117 was reintroduced in other styling options and fabrications and became an even greater success for the company. Here are some pictures of the subsequent styles:


Above is the 21117 in blue with my friend Tara. She lives in Austin now. I’ve lost track of her so if you know her, drop me a line. I realize the style above isn’t such a dramatic departure but consider this one:

and these

and this one

and this one

and lastly, these

I think I forgot to mention that these styles all came out in the same season. I didn’t want to bore you with photos of styles that came out in subsequent seasons but let’s just say, the original 21117 became enormously profitable -all through the power known as Kaizen. The lesson is -even if something is working well for you- it can still stand improvement, the results of which will amaze you. Slow and steady change is the key so stop hopping around for the next new great thing and fix what you’re already doing.

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