With increasing costs offshore, many companies have determined it is becoming more cost effective to bring production back to the U.S.. Unfortunately, many find this is easier said than done and for several reasons.
The first problem for some operations is that manufacturing for themselves is something they’ve never done so they never had the needed skills in house. Others may have once manufactured domestically but once they went off shore, key people were let go and the firm lost its institutional knowledge base. Thus, while many firms are quite successful, they find themselves at odds. Where does one go? How does one start? How does one learn what they need to know? Since I’ve done a lot of this work and increasingly more lately, I have some ideas for the ground work of a successful initiative.
Once the decision to migrate back has been made, many companies pursuing this option are stymied by not being able to find what they want. Like many start ups, they’re surprised to discover that skilled workers and competent service providers are in short supply and the domestic supply of talent is too small to meet increasing demand. Human capital being the crux of the matter, here are 3 steps to developing competencies without going off the rails, keeping existing projects in gear and without alienating existing partners.
1. Break it off into small chunks by starting with product development.
While domestic manufacturing is the goal, competencies in product development such as patterns, sourcing and fitting will be the critical first step. As such, it will be critical to survey existing staffers for desirable skill sets as many employers have been chagrined to discover there is a mismatch between people they have on staff versus the demands of a new model. It will be important to gauge existing competencies against internal requirements (much of this is in my book). For example, while technical designers are critical in an offshore company, pattern makers will be more valuable in the new one and these days, many TDs can’t make patterns. Focus on skills, not data compilers.
2. Pick a project or product; start another label, brand or division.
In some respects, it is best to start over with a new label or brand and build a new product line from the ground up in much the same way a start up would. This is advantageous for at least three reasons. First is that the new product line needs its own image to capitalize on consumer sentiment towards domestic production. Second, there needs to be a somewhat cloistered environment in which new team members can gain competencies without any missteps perceived to be impinging on their performance. Perhaps most important is the third item; a new label is not likely to raise the ire of existing partners. A new brand amounts to expansion, not contraction. One isn’t pulling work from existing partners to get this going. Lastly, if worse comes to worse and the initiative lags, it won’t impact the standing of a company’s bread and butter brands.
3. Get help. The right help.
It will be tricky to find the competencies you need particularly if you’re using modern skill standards. It is more important to hire for core skills than peripheral ones. For example, it is better to hire the most experienced pattern maker you can find than it is to compromise by hiring someone less experienced but who has CAD experience. Unfortunately, most people with less than 20 years of experience haven’t had the opportunity to work in production and that is precisely what you need. [I understand the need of cost effectiveness but that isn’t where key efficiencies lie at the outset. Over the long term, it will be smarter to train key people on new technology than the reverse.] Getting the best pattern maker you can afford will make the pivotal difference as they are most knowledgeable about the responsibilities and duties of other hires you’ll need. Consultants or trainers will also be of use but again, you’re better off with someone with years of production experience, not someone who spent years branding or marketing behind a desk. You need people who can sew -plain and simple.
Don’t overlook hiring contractors you’re using to develop your new product line either; the advice they can offer will be invaluable. Others who can help are fabric and machine suppliers -they know everybody. One last option is outreach, look beyond the industry’s stable of preeminent consultants to find factory floor trainers. Time is of the essence; our most competent and knowledgeable workers are approaching retirement if they’re not there already.