This is the third of a four (maybe more) part series discussing the pros and cons of batch product development as practiced in the apparel industry and the gravitation towards lean manufacturing. This particular post will deal with the questions posed in the comments section from parts one and two. If the questions don’t make sense to you, perhaps you should consider reviewing posts one and two first.
Responses to part one:
What would this mean in regard to reps? What does their job become? Are they out of a job?
I’m not entirely certain -I never said I had all of the answers. I envision sales reps following up with buyers on a monthly basis using a website and/or email (support provided by the label) to solicit orders. Sales reps would become more important, not less; it’s just that the nature of their jobs would change. I’d imagine that many sales reps might have a problem with this as they tend to be more social by nature and not as technologically savvy. Then again, as the job duties would shift, it’s entirely possible that we’ll see the emergence of sales reps that rarely if ever meet with customers who generate their commissions over the web. This would be ideally suited for people like me (in other words, people who have good online presence and can write well although they’re painfully shy in real life).
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?
Oh you’d still need to sample every style in your line, how else will you know whether the thing works? I’d think a store owner would know if something was hot for them if it sold according to whatever their usual time line was.
Would this force you to stick to conservative designs (that don’t take as many iterations to develop)?
I don’t know that would be the case although it probably would be at the outset until you had a range of blocks that were proven. It’s not true for Zara; they produce 14,000 styles a year. In my case (see this post), I’d be relying heavily on a standard body -just blouses- but just changing details. Once one had gained experience with lean manufacturing and had a developed dependable infrastructure, I don’t think repetitive iterations would be a problem anymore than they’re a problem in any mature company.
If there’s only a matter of days between development and production, is that the only window store owners have to make orders in?
Again, this assumes you’ve developed a selling relationship with the stores; it’d be a set thing. Zara store buyers order twice a week. In the smaller company such that I envision, I’d cut off monthly, not that that would prevent me from releasing new styles in the interim, only that the cut off for each were a calender month. Then again, according to my plan, I might (probably) would cut off the dates if I’d made my production quota.
What would this mean in regards to fabric/notion supplies (those don’t arrive instantaneously, or in small quantities).
Again, the trouble with lean manufacturing in apparel is supply of low minimums. Other than jobbers or using one staple fabric (again, in my plan), you’re going to have problems with supply unless you’ve found a supplier who can meet your needs. This is the greatest barrier to lean for a small company.
And if you outsource the labor, are they fine with such quick turnaround?
Again, you’d need to develop relationships, having a reputation with a contractor as a source of work. It’ll take time but if you’re constantly passing off lots to a contractor several times a month in consistent lots, not only will they be “fine with it”, they’re going to love you.
I see this working with companies like FLAX, where they basically use only one fabric source for everything…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 don’t agree that using one fabric means “dumbing down”. In fact, I’d venture that the opposite was the case. Anybody can design a garment using a pretty fabric to sell the product. Personally, I think it’s a whole lot harder to use just one fabric and come up with a myriad of styles that look good in it. But then, I’m prejudiced. My plan relies heavily on one fabrication with a myriad of details. However, there is some precedence for this thinking. Vionnet cut out of the same goods repeatedly, yet everything she made was prized and distinctive.
I prefer the European way of working on a collection 6 months ahead of show time. It makes for a lot more creativity than what I see with most American companies.
I think that’s what we’re trying to get away from. Product development that’s taking place 6 months ahead of delivery amounts to a lot of inventory of design and intellectual assets. We’re trying to shorten that cycle. I realize that most of the push manufacturers take 9-12 months to turn a product but that’s ludicrous. Ideally, we should be able to turn styles in a month. If Zara is turning styles twice a week, I think a month is a good goal for even a start up.
There is no market calendar. New products flow into the market throughout the year.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? 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!
I’m glad more people are realizing that market calenders are fiction. Regarding supply, at this point, it’s easier said than done but I haven’t given up hope yet. Supply is the biggest reason I settled on just one basic fabrication. Hopefully, suppliers in the chain will figure out ways to serve up smaller quantities. If not, domestic suppliers will continue to lose market share against imported fabric suppliers. It’s ridiculous that you can meet minimums for imported goods but not for fibers produced state side.
As soon as we have an approved prototype and the pattern is fully graded, we move to photography and start selling.
It’s hard to get any leaner than this!
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.
I think the key conflict with lean in apparel will be between being able to meet an expanding market yet keep your operation lean. Not everyone has this luxury. There’s always the issue of transaction costs; those costs literally mean new layers of complexity and increased time lines. Perhaps you’ll be able to gravitate backwards over time. Then again, maybe the two month time line works out just fine for you, all other things considered.
Your observation that batch-processed product development [is waste], as practiced in the apparel industry, is right on the money. Designs, just like material inventory, are assets that are not returning a profit or are waste, to use the Lean/JIT frame. For one thing, you will receive feedback on both good and bad designs much more quickly, so you can fix your design process faster.
I think the potentiality of a faster feedback loop is something we really haven’t talked much about but should. I agree that you’d be cycling through iterative processes much more quickly which can provide a central focus -assuming it’s a new or young company that hasn’t fixated that yet.
It does require a radical overhaul of the industry, but there is no reason not to do it except inertia.
I agree and disagree. I think it’s also fear too. But then, I guess you could reduce fear down to inertia. It’s hard to steel yourself to do things in new untested ways. Baby steps maybe?
Responses to part two:
It’s funny to be reading about this sort of rolling development and production, as that’s how we’ve always functioned (granted, not efficient, just rolling). And we’re just now making moves to more of a batch schedule (quarterly, seasonal) for two reasons:
1) marketing to brick and mortar retailers – we’ve sold primarily to online retailers until now, so our rolling introduction of new offerings was fine. Our retailers would just log into the website and see what’s new/available before they order. But as we bring on more brick and mortar retailers, we’re finding that they’re not so fond of online transactions, and prefer to have things in print, like catalogs or line sheets. So by batching a little more, we’re able to send out, say, quarterly line sheets and still give the retailers access to the newest offerings.
2) our sanity – quarterly batching of new style launches helps us plan more easily. We can look forward at our year and see when the major cash outlays will be, when we’ll need to have postcards and line sheets printed, when we’ll need to have photo shoots and meetings set up.
Rolling production has, I think, contributed to our feeling stretched thin and a little out of control. Now, I’m speaking for a micro-company here. There are a total of about 5 people involved from within the company. Perhaps if there were more people working full time, it wouldn’t feel so out of control.
I think this is a good comment and definitely reflects the range of experiences one can expect in this business.I don’t have anything to add to this except to say that this product isn’t one that is “high fashion”; it’s more of a utility item with little styling variation so I think it lends itself to batching.
I find cranking new stuff out every 2 weeks..or even every month..is just too much..plus I think the buyers would become numb and actually order less per order.
I agree that churning out new stuff can be exhausting, specially if you’re doing everything yourself. Your comments on retailer reactions is interesting tho. What they usually say is that they want new stuff continuously. It’ll be interesting to see if their talk matches their walk.
Most of us make the REAL money off of REORDERS..a base line is so crucial to keep a company going..The “new items”, in my opinion, should be icing on the cake, not the cake itself.
I don’t see how being lean would prevent a company from filling reorders. If anything, it’d allow you to do it more efficiently. I don’t see why reorders can’t be mixed in with new product offerings. As demand for reorders on styles dropped, you’d wean those out of the line.
…as a former retailer it drove me nuts when we would just get a roll going on a product and then it would be discontinued. When you bring in new, something has to be let go, or your line gets too large but retailers are used to the seasonal ebb and flow of product, so market seasons are the best time to “bring in and let go” rather than continuously. An occasional “new is fine”. but I feel a constant would be too much.
I don’t know where the truth of this lies. I’m quite certain there are many retailers such as you describe but at the same time, I can’t ignore the constant protests from retailers who say they want to buy closer to season. Maybe it’ll be a generational thing. My gut says tho that we’ll be moving closer to selling to season than not. I just can’t see anyway around this. With all the competitive pressures we’re facing, I don’t see how we can continue to sit on 6 months of product development (in the case of fall lines) as intellectual inventory and continue to remain profitable.
I envision that the last post in this series will deal with the limitations of product development since that’s really where we’ve got the rub. This aspect will be even more important if you’re having to job out pattern and sample making. I think faster product development can only be realized when you can bring these functions in house.