Are you being overcharged? Call the sheriff

I used to drive a taxi. I made a lot of money doing it. I learned very early on to never drive someone to their destination if it was a route they drove themselves, say to their home from the airport, or from their home to work or vice versa. Everyone prides themselves on driving the shortest route but they rarely do. Often people develop a route that is based on need -say going by the day care, or avoiding an intersection where they once had an accident or to avoid driving by an ex’s house or skirting road construction long since resolved- but as they become habituated to it, they fail to reorganize their strategy when their needs change. When I first started driving a cab, I drove the shortest route –always, I’m ethical- but people would accuse me of taking the long way because it wasn’t the way they drove. So, I learned to go their way ending up with a lot less grief and a lot more money. If you’ve ever wondered why a seeming professional cab driver will ask you how to get to your destination, this is why. Going your way means they’ll make more money and they won’t be accused of ripping you off. Not to say that in the beginning, I wasn’t stupid. I’d try to show the customer the route on a map but they’d usually be offended that I was contradicting them. It was to their house, if I’d never been there, how could I possibly know better than they did? In the end, experts they consider themselves to be, people are a tangle of unexamined emotional impulses and illogical responses.

All of this is a preamble to a yet another of my lectures. In the new year, you might want to consider an overhaul to your usual processes with a product review. A lot of this might sound like a whole lot of goobley-gook but a product review should be a fresh perspective on ways you’ve become habituated to working. Sometimes without realizing it, you’ve elevated a temporary workaround you needed to solve a temporary problem into a standard operating procedure. People don’t realize they do this. Besides, why would you? If it saved your butt before, why break something that’s working?

A product review is a structured analysis according to established criteria from an uninterested third party with no axe to grind. Ideally, these are conducted by someone or a team of somebodies who embody various perspectives. Such would include usability, durability (value), materials engineering, manufacturability, allocation (waste reduction) and industrial engineering (elimination of process waste). Like I said, people who are *most experienced* with their own product (the cab example) are often blinded by their own process.

Product reviews are big business, many consultants charge thousands of dollars and some I’ve seen done for apparel companies amount to a huge waste of money because the teams that have been hired don’t even specialize in apparel; few of these guys even know how to turn on a sewing machine. If you don’t have my book, you can’t read the example I wrote of in “The Big Dirty Secret” in which one consultant recommended solutions that cost over ten million dollars. The solution I recommended didn’t cost them a penny and saved them 20% of their sewing costs on every unit they put together and the final result looked better and was of higher quality.

This is the thing that no one understands: For most people at this level, a good product review will save you money. It should not cost you anything in equipment upgrades or whatever. A well targeted review will be pegged at your level, to get you to a higher level without incurring more costs. Of course suggestions should be provided as to how to invest those cost savings for future productivity increases. If someone is saying you need to spend X to get to Z, they are not truly appreciating the constraints of where you are, to get to where you need to be and more likely, have partnered with whatever business they’re recommending you spend money on to get their commission. It is precisely with smaller businesses that the greatest savings are realized.

There are several barriers for entrepreneurs to consider a product review. It’s kind of scary to hire someone to barbecue your product, you’re exposing all your foibles and courage is required to take that step. Then there’s the cost. Some consultancies charge thousands of dollars. I don’t recommend that. Most of you are best served by hiring a pattern maker with a lot of production experience. I can give you some referrals if you like. It could be this could be done via mail, email and phone. If you’re satisfied with the results, you might arrange a more in depth review by having the person visit your work place. I can’t imagine this would take more than a day’s time.

Sometimes people are held back by their investment and commitments to existing service providers who are ostensibly providing this sort of guidance. It’s hard to admit or question that someone you’ve relied upon to help you grow your business could actually be one of your biggest problems. It all seems so …well, disloyal. You have to learn to emotionally separate. Just because they helped you doesn’t mean they can’t learn a thing or two themselves and it doesn’t mean they don’t make errors -often at your expense. I was appalled to see one of our DEs had a photo of her garment on her website made by a pattern maker that was so bad that I wouldn’t have dared to show it to the client, much less allow photos to be taken of it for marketing and selling purposes. Not coincidentally, my estimation of that pattern maker was diminished quite a bit. Just because a client doesn’t know any better, it’s a matter of ethics and integrity to keep their interests first, even if it means you lose money on the job.

Sometimes owners are held back by someone I call an “investment employee” and for intangible reasons, can’t break from it. When I’ve consulted with companies, one of my first steps is to ask who’s been working there the longest and I follow the process to see their influence on the enterprise. Often, through loyalty, they’ve been promoted to their level of incompetence and they’re gumming up the works. At one plant I worked at, the investment employee was put in the least obtrusive position possible -sweeping floors- (management was long wary so kudos for that) but she still had the freedom to go about from station to station to prattle, distracting people (moi) from their tasks of concentration.

At another company (the same one above with the ten million dollar consultant), their investment employee was again, their first employee, a sample maker. Now don’t misread me. She was fastidious but too much so. I don’t mean a crappier stitcher was needed but this woman was a very nervous person and she was terrified at the prospect of moving up to an industrial machine. She resented it. Remind me sometime to rant about how people’s emotional health cause havoc in the workplace. She was an abused woman governed by fear. I felt so bad for her. But anyway, this company was doing 50 million in sales and their big hold up was their one sample maker who sewed on a home sewing machine. As a consultant, you can’t be stupid. Her job meant everything to her, having such a lousy home life, it was the only joy she had. My suggestion was to get her out of the situation and transfer her to another function. It ended up working okay. Officially, they got her an apartment, lent her money for a car and a new start and paid for an attorney to represent her. Unofficially, the corporate body of the company and select spousal units went to visit the stitcher’s husband with baseball bats and shotguns prominently displayed in pick up truck gun racks. And no I’m not kidding, you can still do this in a small Texas town, especially if you bring an off duty Sheriff along with you when you make your social call. The stitcher was moved into a newly created position as supervisor of quality control where she was better suited, and they got two new industrial machines and two new sample makers they’d needed.

Anyway, other than my proclivity for telling stories of people I’ve worked with -small companies are so much more interesting than large ones- you might consider giving your product and process over to someone for a look-see in the new year. Consider a product review. If there’s sufficient interest, I can draw up a list of things you should consider in both simple and more comprehensive reviews.

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  1. sarah says:

    Agreed. oooh the stories you must have from driving a cab. Personally, I solve all my problem with gun racks mounted on my truck. I stock mine with salami’s and baloney’s though. Like the giant ones you see hanging in NYC delis windows. People give me whatever I want for fear I will release a tirade of flatulence their way.

    And to bring this around to sewing I once worked in a costume shop with a draper who had pet sheep. At Christmas everyone would get socks knitted from wool she spun and dyed herself. The best part (and most entertaining) was the tag on the socks reflected which sheep provided the wool. “With love, Bob the sheep.” As if he did it without her involvement.

  2. Donna says:

    Sarah. I loved your story. One of my first endeavors was selling custom-designed hand-crocheted sweaters at craft shows. Folks loved my business name which was “Sheep Appreciation Week”.

  3. Anir says:

    This is a very timely post–I won’t go into detail but I am helping a friend with similar stocktaking, although in a different industry, so your suggestions will be useful. The stories really make the difference–especially when you talk about trying to find the best situation for all involved. Baseball bats indeed. Would love to see the lists of things to consider when doing reviews as well.

  4. Dennis says:

    Also drove taxi years ago in a small town (32K) using the zone system. Got paid the same (min wage + tips) if I took the long way around or the short cut. Sometimes had multiple pickups. Never worked in a factory, only a hobby sewer.

  5. Very timely (finally computer is working so I can read this). I now have a manufacturer lined up and was thinking he could give me suggestions for streamlining my operations to make them more efficient. Maybe he’s the wrong person, although he hasn’t yet produced for me yet (only a sample) so he’s not really close to my operation.

    Anyway, YES, please put your list out for us. This is something I’m committed to since we’ve lowered prices and must produce volume to survive.


  6. Miss Jess H. says:

    The last part of this post struck my funny bone – mainly due to the fact that the ‘enforcement policies’ mentioned are also used quite effectively in small Indiana towns. ‘Spousal units’ got me too!

  7. Marie-Christine says:

    I learned to drive from someone who put herself through law school driving a cab – you wouldn’t want to piss her off in a dark alley either :-). But it seems to me driving cabs is an excellent training for business – the instant feedback certainly teaches you to recognize deadbeats and slimeballs quickly, and to trust the intuition you develop.

    As to part 2, businesses would do well to recognize the huge loss of productivity from so many women living in fear. They guys get away with it because they know the women don’t have any support – they’ve always seen to it to drive away her family and friends right off. It doesn’t take a gun rack to let a guy know that you know what he’s up to and you’ll follow through with whatever practical help is needed. At my first job the head librarian helped organize the getaway of a coworker and her seven children, and it was done so well and thoroughly… we lost one great worker, but everyone gained in mutual respect and freedom!

    And finally yes, an outside eye can always be helpful. I forget where I read something that really struck me ‘nothing is as permanent as the temporary’. You do something because it’s expedient this week, and 15 years later you’re still at it. I see it everyday. We could all use that other point of view in our personal lives too :-).

  8. Valerie says:

    man alive-you have some stories kathleen! So, perhaps i have been staring at the computer screen too long and can’t see it, but forgive me for being the 5th person to request said simple/comprehensive product review list. Where might i find it?

  9. Wednesday says:

    “Remind me sometime to rant about how people’s emotional health cause havoc in the workplace. ”

    I would dearly love to hear these rants.

  10. Kathleen says:

    ugh, I’m sure everyone has stories. What I would like to know is, what is the cost of emotional fragility in business? Collectively, psychologically unhealthy people must be costing billions.

    Re: list. I went looking for it ~sigh~ it’s a whole folder with 15+ spreadsheets to cover the various kinds of assessments. I thought to work on it today but I just have too much going on. I do have it open on my desktop tho. Hopefully I can queue it in for this week.

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