Batch product development

Something’s been bugging me. I’ve been rethinking my whole process of how we should do product development as I wrote in the Entrepreneur’s Guide. The thing is, in this business, we can generate complete product development -from sketch to approved prototype- in two days. I’m not saying that everybody does or can (depending on internal infrastructure and practices) but it’s totally doable. In this regard, apparel is distinctly different from any other kind of manufacturing and it’s a huge advantage. As I mentioned before, this is how ZARA does it. They’re producing two lines a week.

I’ve decided that traditional product development in the garment industry amounts to inventory. Intellectual capital goods inventory. Inventory that’s been stuck on a shelf, held off waiting for the market calender to ripen. In lean manufacturing, inventory is muda (waste). In other words, traditional batch product development in the apparel industry is inventory. Wasteful inventory. You’ve paid (in either time, money or a combination of both) in advance of need. Now you can’t spend that time or money on something else that could potentially generate revenues.

What do I mean by batching? Well, if you have the book (and you should), you know that all of the styles, patterns and prototypes are developed sequentially but in one big batch, then they’re pre-sold at market (another batch activity) and then they’re produced and delivered which are also batch activities. This is what it looks like:

Batch 1 Batch 2 Batch 3
Product Development Selling   Production

I mentioned this to GrimReader. He says other industries -well, Toyota- have figured this out already. I looked for a reference and couldn’t find it (I’m counting on him to correct me via comments). Whatever. In most manufacturing that I know of, the front end consists of teams working in advance of market dates. Most companies do not develop a product and as soon as it’s done, launch it. Well, except for software anyway. Everybody’s got lots and lots of money tied up in PD. Since we’re so skinny, I think we can do that differently too. By that I mean that there’s some lean concepts that don’t apply to us -and neither do they apply to agriculture or housing. Industries that are closer to the ground have a different set of constraints. For example while the saying “you can’t hire 9 women and get a baby in one month” applies to everyone, it applies to these three industries literally as well as figuratively.

What would this mean with regard to Retail? Well, retail’s been wanting to buy closer to season as it is so that’s a plus. However, they’d have to be checking in with whichever producer monthly to order. Maybe they’d like to order different styles each month? I think this kind of ordering could be done best over the web on a secure site. I can’t see how a sales force could cover this kind of ground on a monthly basis.

And not to say that in launching new products as they’re developed would preclude someone from showing at market on specified dates. You’d just show up on the specified dates with current product in hand. Ideally, you’d hook buyers on the order by month thing. I’d ask my blogging partner about this but she’s AWOL. Busy with kids and business (with 3 kids under the age of eight, she’s got a load). What say the rest of those who retail? Would immediate product launching work for you? What would the problems be? How could the process by managed to facilitate your business?

I’m thinking that batch product development is a bad thing. ‘Course, those of you who don’t run on a market calender already knew that, although you may not have known why. What do you think about this?

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  1. I have many questions:
    What would this mean in regard to reps? What does their job become? Are they out of a job?

    What would this mean in regards to samples? Do you still make samples for everything? how many pieces in your line? How long does a boutique owner need to carry something before they know whether it’s hot? 2 days? a month?

    Would this force you to stick to conservative designs (that don’t take as many iterations to develop)?

    If there’s only a matter of days between development and production, is that the only window store owners have to make orders in?

    What would this mean in regards to fabric/notion supplies (those don’t arrive instantaneously, or in small quantities).

    And if you outsource the labor, are they fine with such quick turnaround?

    I think you’re right about the inherent waste, but I think the entire fashion system needs overhauling. Unless you do absolutely everything– from weaving (or spinning!) to selling. but maybe I’m wrong.

  2. christy fisher says:

    I see this working with companies like FLAX, where they basically use only one fabric source for everything…or with a T shirt/sweatshirt company, where all they do is change graphics..
    Frankly, I would be bored stiff as a designer if I was limited to one fabrication…or “dumbing down” my designs to the point of “basic box, just change the color”.

    I agree that getting down to the most vertical type of operation possible is central key for growth and survival (this is also one reason I applaud young designers having their own online shops.. it gives them a test market, you don’t have to warehouse styles, and you can add or pull as much as you’d like as often as you’d like (like Zara).

    I also agree that pretty much the entire industry needs a whopping overhaul.
    Donna Karan refused to do the last batch of catwalk shows in NY because she was fed up with the “fast marketing” of seasons to consumers at the same time as the wholesalers.
    “They are starting to show Spring to the consumer in October, when we are trying our best to sell them Fall/Winter on the floor at full price”.

    Houston, we have a problem.
    The industry has PR’d itself to death (literally). Consumers now want instant gratification and then want to throw it away (oh, that is sooo last week).

    I think we are all moving waaay too fast already.
    Pretty soon we will be showing all the seasons at once.

    I prefer the European way of working on a collection 6 months ahead of showtime. It makes for a lot more creativity than what I see with most American companies.

  3. Diane says:

    I had this same idea a couple of years ago because I liked the idea of quick turn arounds and I thought the retailers would be delighted to have a fresh supply of the hottest styles on a regular basis. However, I lacked the skills to work out the process. It would require quick sourcing but it could be done.

  4. I could spend hours in a follow-up comment to this very important post. All manufacturers are trying to compress product development time.

    There is no market calendar. Model year in the auto business is just a marketing fiction. New products flow into the market throughout the year.

    Have you been to Target lately? Aside from the fact that most of their goods are imported, they have new collections coming in almost monthly, in much smaller quantities than you’d find in Sears or K-Mart. You don’t have to worry about running into someone wearing the same thing as you are, with the exception of T-tops, perhaps.

    A seasonless refreshing of styles is perfect for a boutique. Can you get your end customer to check out what’s new monthly rather than quarterly? If she has money, help her spend it more frequently!

    Yes, you do need retailers and suppliers to change their ways, but that’s what is known as the extended value stream. Value streams compete against other value streams in the real market, so develop those relationships starting now!

    Good job, Kathleen!

  5. Mike C says:

    This is essentially how we operate.

    As soon as we have an approved prototype and the pattern is fully graded, we move to photography and start selling.

    2006 will see us get a lot more aggressive about moving styles in and out of our line. Of course, we’re also moving to contract out most of our production which is going to add a huge amount of complexity to the problem. Right now, I can walk back on the floor and have pieces cut, sewn and packaged in a couple of hours. With contracting, its at LEAST two months from when we send initial patterns up until we can hope to receive finished goods.

    Our sales are primarily direct (both to customers and to wholesale accounts) so we don’t have to coordinate a lot of actions in the field.

  6. Eric H says:

    While Toyota has certainly seen development as a process worthy of making lean, I don’t think that they batch process the way you describe the apparel industry. They simply see it as another process to be kaizened. They have knocked their product development time down to ridiculously fast times, and they completely overhaul the entire line every few years. Meanwhile, GM takes longer to develop and then rides that line for 10 years or more. As a result, Toyota has the Prius and is preparing hybridize the Camry, the highest selling car for something like 6 of the last 7 years.

    The two main kinds of muda are people waiting for work, and work waiting for people. The latter is manifested as inventory. Your observation that batch-processed product development, as practiced in the apparel industry, is right on the money. Designs, just like material inventory, are assets that are not returning a profit, to use the accounting frame. They are waste, to use the Lean/JIT frame. Flow should be introduced to eliminate them, and that means more rapid product line turnover, or production leveling. For one thing, you will receive feedback on both good and bad designs much more quickly, so you can fix your design process faster.

    Better designs, less expensive manufacturing processes, higher returns at lower costs, easier assembly and higher pay for stitchers, faster inventory turnover for retail, better value for the customer, everybody wins. It does require a radical overhaul of the industry, but there is no reason not to do it except inertia.

  7. Joe Ely says:

    So, Kathleen, you are on to something here. Why not make some money with it, while you learn??

    Find a retailer interested in the experiment.

    Find a supplier who will make what you design.

    Sketch out a path to turn some quick designs. Say in two weeks, from thought to window.

    Spend some time in the retail establishment to see, for yourself, what the end user wants.

    Don’t consider “speed” to equal “boring”. Put some “edge” on the design. If you have minimal inventory in the pipeline and can turn it around quickly, you have little to lose.

    And see if you can’t make some money doing this. All the principles are right…you will learn more by doing it than by talking about it.

    Who will learn with you??

    Keep us posted!!

  8. Eric H says:


    Did you actually suggest that Kathleen spend time in a retail establishment? At this time of year?? Kathleen??? Bwahahaha! With that threat over her head, I’d have to pour a six pack in her and lie through my teeth just to get her to the car. Getting her out while parked in the mall parking lot would be even more challenging. I suspect that I would witness SMD (single minute devolution) as her shoes would probably pop off and she would become quadrupedally prehensile.

  9. La BellaDonna says:


    Hee! “Quadrupedally prehensile” – and hanging onto the car doors for dear life? I have visions of Kathleen hunkering down onto the tarmac and sealing all her edges to the ground, the way the cat does when he doesn’t want to be picked up and taken to the vet’s.

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