Be corrigible

I don’t think many of you realize this but many of my ideas are not popular with established apparel manufacturers or consumers so I tend to draw heat from both ends. I’m just trying to get people to think in new and different ways, and trying to get people to understand that we really do not have a handle on what our problems are and if we don’t know, we can’t fix them. Everybody thinks they know what their problem is and conveniently enough, it usually requires the cooperation of their irritation source to be successful. If that doesn’t work in healthy psychological relationships, it won’t work in business either. The mutual blaming game that exists between manufacturers and retailers -for example- has always been counterproductive and it’s not improving. For those who don’t know, their relationship can be euphemistically described as antagonistic. I’m not suggesting I have any answers but I try to ask a lot of questions. I read a lot. I read a lot about things I have no business knowing or even caring about. Anyway, I read the Stanford Graduate School of Business newsletter. There’s a lot of interesting ideas coming out of business school research programs. Not everything is tested or known, these are just ideas and useful things to think about.

For example, I was sold on Deming years ago but people still aren’t talking about his ideas. If there were a Nobel prize for manufacturing, Deming should have won it; he’s considered to be the progenitor of Japan’s miracle. I’m old enough to remember when ‘Made in Japan’ meant junk and Japan has moved so far beyond that nobody even remembers past history anymore. Anyway, Deming was responsible for that. He was teaching in a university and American manufacturers wouldn’t give him the time of day but the Japanese did. And they applied the lessons. One such idea gestated from Deming’s experience, appears in the most recent newsletter from SGSB. Jeffrey Pfeffer says people assume that lower wages lead to lower overall costs but that’s just not true.

“I use an exercise, for example, where I ask participants to associate various pilots’ wages with various airlines,” Pfeffer says. “People generally assign the highest wages to the airlines that are having the most trouble. Their assumption is that lower wages lead to lower overall costs-and thus greater financial stability and profitability.”

Deming always said that you don’t have to motivate or otherwise intimidate the help. He said you didn’t need to watch them to make sure they’re working. He said you needed to listen to them and respect them enough to follow their advice. He said you could be a good clean business, making things without harming a community or the environment, you could be a good corporate citizen and get involved in worthwhile activities that benefit the community and he said you could pay your employees fairly and honestly and for it all, you’d make more money, not less. And don’t get the idea he was the touchy-feely type; although he was also a composer, his first degree was in Electrical Engineering and both his MS and PhD were in mathematics and mathematical physics. He considered himself a statistician, the numbers -not humanitarianism- led him to develop his 14 points of management.

That’s why I keep saying that you don’t need to export jobs in order to turn a profit. I’m not sure that exporting jobs in anything other than staples (blue jeans, tube socks etc) really is profitable enough to be worth the hassle (other than brand companies). In fact, the word in the business is that the people who went abroad, are now trying to get back in the US but because so many people went broke during the crisis, can’t find contract facilities to take the work. I know that manufacturing sewn products in the US -or any community- can be sufficiently profitable but things have to be done differently, we have to think in new ways -going back to my first paragraph. You can find some useful tools to implement these ideas in project management by visiting the Project Management Resource Center (formerly hosted by Columbia University). If there’s a better site for project management, I have yet to see it.

Deming’s thinking lives beyond Lean Manufacturing; it’s exemplified by Good to Great, Lean Thinking and The Machine that Changed the World -I love that book. It’s even led to books in our industry such as Birnbaum’s Global Guide to Winning the Great Garment War. By the way, I thought I’d hate that book because I thought it was a how-to manual for push manufacturers but it wasn’t that. Birnbaum’s book will do more to convince you to manufacture domestically than not. I think it’s a great book. And if one of you buy it, can you please scan the 100+ steps insert and send it to me? I lost mine. Or it got lost for me more likely.

Anyway, that’s the lesson for today’s blog. Think about things bigger than yourself and read more. We need to define our problems first and I don’t think we have. Expanding the parameters of our discussion in unpopular ways can lead to breakthroughs. And lastly, you can be good people, produce better products and still be more profitable rather than less.

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  1. Carol says:

    Utterly fascinating. It’s gratifying to have concrete justification that decent wages and working conditions don’t have to be buttressed by stupid tariffs to keep manufacturing safe here at home.

  2. Susan McElroy says:

    It’s funny, I think I found your book by looking up Birnbaum’s book, and I don’t remember what linked them. Yes, I have the steps sheet and I’ll try to scan it today. This book was fascinating–I read it while sitting with my dad in his last weeks–and I would tell him “you know, I don’t know why, but somehow this book makes me encouraged about the return of manufacturing clothes in the US”. But not knowing the industry, I figured that what was encouraging me was seeing this massive tangle of international shipments going back and forth across continents, mountains of paperwork, lobbyists, contractors, politicians, mills, etc. I kept wondering how much that cheap Chinese shirt REALLY cost in terms of environmental pollution, returns, waste, etc. One thing that struck me especially–he would describe moving mountains and searching the world to find the cheapest and best supplier of a particular specified grade, color, type (pardon my not knowing the terminology) because it was specified that way, and it struck me that locally, the end consumer (which I don’t think he mentions much) might actually not care; they might actually pay a few bucks more for a slightly different fabric type or color run or whatever if they knew it meant less long-run harm to the environment or keeping local jobs. Also a local manufacturer might know more about local climate and lifestyle, especially if they had close contact with their market. Is this naive?

  3. Susan McElroy says:

    Two other books that have affected me greatly in this line are _The End of Office Politics as Usual_ which sounds like a touchy-feely book but in my opinion should be treated more as an organizational optimization study, and _The Divine Right of Capital_ which explains to me why we’re doing so much manufacturing overseas in the first place.

  4. Grace says:

    Thanks for this post. I was just chatting with two colleagues yesterday about failure analyses.

    It appears that in both her case and mine, the scientific/engineering consensus was reached in about 40% of the study time. The rest of the time was spent discussing how to best package our findings and recommendations so that people do not reflexively shut out our comments and recommendations. We need people to act on them.

    Finger pointing and shouting are not going to get all of us where we need to go. In any field of endeavor.

    I would also like to add the importance of reading literature just for its own sake. Sometimes, fiction gets at the essence of life better than nonfiction.

  5. Laura says:

    I’m bookmarking the Project Management Resource Center. I’m so glad to see you wrote about Deming. The company I last worked for was trying to implement many of Toyota’s ideas, but the resistance from middle-management was huge. They constantly undercut Lean Manufacturing principles and every time a problem in manufacturing arose, they would revert to their old habits of dealing with it. Workers were very pleased to have input into making processes run better, but invariably, some supervisor would put the kibosh on their ideas.

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