Becoming a lean manufacturer

Continuing the discussion of lean manufacturing and production and first/second order processing (first order being work-arounds, second order being troubleshooting the root cause of difficulties), the greatest barriers to improvement appear to be an inefficient problem reporting history. As previously discussed, it is insufficient to blame workers for failing to report the need of work-arounds owing to a myriad of causes ranging from individual (heroic tendencies) and organizational strategies (discouraging communication, fostering heroism). For now, here are the main contributing factors to reduced error reporting in sewing plants:

1. Altruism-Heroism. The individual “rescues” the product with a work-around. The plant (including peers and supervisors) foster short order problem solving by rewarding these behaviors. Indeed, US culture is defined by self-reliance and boot-strapping.

2. Jobs are structured to encourage first order processing by

* Reporting barriers; no access to those who can make second order process changes (pattern dept).

* Status; just as nurses are “inferior” to doctors, as are stitchers to supervisors and pattern makers.

* Communication; in all its forms. These amount to logistical barriers and language barriers, both written and spoken.

* Lack of testing; sewing plants that routinely test inputs and processes remain quite rare, promoting a culture that reacts to problems rather than structured preparedness of managing problems.

Below are concepts that I have either implemented or have seen being used in sewing plants to encourage the reporting and prevention of problems. Other than a drastic change in management philosophy, applied solutions leading to increased reporting will depend on policies designed to encourage participation. I’ve covered each of these solutions below in sometimes painful detail but I’ll start with a short bulleted introduction. These include:

Altrusim: Teams are responsible rather than any single individual (team sewing).

Reporting barriers: Put the pattern department directly on the factory floor -immediately.

Status: Cross training and cross job sharing; permit employee “ownership” of work areas.

Communication: Sanctioned/supported written reporting, adoption of industry conventions and weekly troubleshooting sessions.

Testing: Recognition of the value of testing is an imperative requiring the allocation of time, materials and equipment.

Team Sewing
Product integrity is the responsibility of work teams rather than individuals. As it stands, individuals are held accountable for the given operation of a bundle, their completion of it affecting other stitchers downstream in the process. I’m certainly not the first to suggest that TSS (Toyota Sewing System) is the most likely solution but this requires fundamental changes in equipment and equipment reorganization (U-shaped work units) to say nothing of a total change in process. Briefly, rather than working on many products in various stages of completion, only one item is made per person at a time or for example, eight per unit of eight stitchers. Groups any larger than that don’t seem to work as well. Think small nimble units. This sort of production is a marriage blending craft manufacturing with the controls afforded by mass production.

Moving the pattern department
Of all the solutions I recommend this is the most important, the most controversial and necessarily, the most detailed. First of all, it is insufficient for the plant to dictate that all work-arounds (individual problem solving on the fly) be reported as a matter of policy because the system design doesn’t permit easy transmission of information. Rather, it is more appropriate that the plant makes some critical reorganization of both people, departments and equipment on the factory floor, allowing departments to converge. Unfortunately, many plants will be unable to make these transitions at all. For example -returning to the issue of work-arounds (that which is driving this solution)- if a work-around is needed it is due to (nearly always), failure in the pattern department.

As a pattern maker, I know that the number one reason requiring shoddy work-arounds is failure in the pattern department. Now, while it stands to reason that “it was the pattern maker’s fault” -I believe a core difficulty with improvement lies with the blame-centered management philosophy of our culture, find a scapegoat and find that person responsible- initially, the entire department failed as that pattern was tested by no less than three people before it got anywhere near a sewing line. Therefore, it is the structure of vetting work in the pattern department that led to the failure. Now, while it is impossible for a pattern maker to be perfect, the department serves checks and balances. First the pattern had to be laid out and cut. An initial failure regarding inordinately high utilization (contractor unlikely to report a difficulty like this until a relationship has developed) would be evident by the cutter. However, the pattern should have been checked beforehand. An example of this kind of failure would be a facing cut all in one with the bodice as you’ll see in a lot of pattern books (see page 178, Kopp et al, 6th edition).

Similarly, failure in the pattern department has its roots in the mistaken idea that the department’s expert in residence should be the boss but very often, the department expert -the head pattern maker- does not have the social and executive functioning skills to say nothing of the multi-tasking ability needed to manage a department. The pattern supervisor -while not necessarily a patternmaker themselves- (remind me sometime to give you arguments for/against)- was responsible for walking the seam lines of the pattern along with required seam specifications and the like. Lastly, the pattern department failed if the sample maker constructing the prototype failed to note problems. It is not the failure of one person -if a prototype is sampled and approved for production and a work-around is required, it’s a symptom of system failure. While it is incumbent upon the sewing line to suggest continual improvements aligned with production practices, they should not be forced into rectifying the errors made in the upstream process. Most tragically, it is unfortunate that the sewing line is blamed for the lamentable results of the shoddy work-arounds. In other words, as it was only then that the poor results were manifest, it is there that the blame is usually lain.

As the pattern department provides the equivalent function of engineering in a sewing plant, I believe a company’s best interests are served if the pattern department is situated directly on the factory floor. Just as communication is impeded through departments, walls and doors, having the pattern maker visible and working right along side the sewing lines can only provide opportunities for sewing operators to communicate suggestions of improvement, mostly in passing. Casual contact must be encouraged as formal communication mechanisms don’t exist or are routinely discouraged. In most companies, the pattern makers have an office with a door that closes, carpeting on the floor, their own telephone etc and while that leaves them accessible to others further upstream such as design, it effectively removes them from those who’s work they most impact. Those working downstream do not have telephones or an email terminal. Rather, they’re lucky if they’re permitted to have even a single photograph in their work areas. I do not believe it will be functionally possible for a company to be lean if the pattern department is not working the factory floor alongside stitchers. While it is possible -through facilitated communication strategies- to reduce errors between contractor production and patterns, it will always be less efficient and more error prone. This is one reason I say there’s still some slop in Zara’s shop. Greater reductions in these factors is possible if pattern makers are assigned to given contractors. Stitchers are well known to learn the given style of a pattern maker allowing them to anticpate which further reduces production errors. This is why stitchers are known to rebel if their preferred pattern maker is fired or transfered. This is why a company can’t fire certain pattern makers. While said pattern makers may be a thorn in the side of management, the ultimate judge of their efficacy is the sewing line. Likewise, companies that are regarded today as “successful” apparel producers won’t be able to make a lean transition because it is rare that the design, pattern and sewing units are in the same building -much less the same country. I suppose if you’re only producing commodities, it doesn’t matter. Still, producing commodities is a race to the bottom. China will have all of the commodities soon if they don’t already.

Cross training and job sharing
Cross training is given little attention except as it relates to emergency fill-in. People are typically assigned restricted duties with little variance. While each plant has light duty stations in which to place workers, this is insufficient. Ideally, people rotate varying duties affecting processes both up and downstream of their usual positions. With shared duties, it is less likely a stitcher will be treated with less respect if she works in patterns some days and vice versa with the pattern maker in the fusing department. While most managers are bellowing at the suggestion of a pattern maker in fusing (if the pattern maker isn’t already), through my fusing experience, I was able to institute a system process that dramatically reduced errors and ambiguities in fusing. The fusing supervisor couldn’t have been more thrilled. A simple schematic of fusing layouts on mini-pattern pieces per style was all that was required. Performing work in other departments is an unrivaled way to see how one’s work can affect other processes that are up or downstream of one’s usual position. Lastly, with shared job duties, everyone becomes more responsible for everything. It becomes more difficult to avoid responsibility regarding errors in “others” work if one also shares that job duty.

As workers in most sewing facilities comprise a gamut of nationalities and languages, the issue of communication is more complex. Many errors result due to the failure of having uniformly applied standard practices. By this I mean that it is an imperative that all patterns be labeled and marked according to established conventions of color coding and schematics. The continual degradation of this practice cannot be sustained. With accepted practices, the barriers of language cease to have impact. Regardless of language, all supervisors, pattern makers and stitchers must know black marked pieces are shell, blue ones are lining etc. Similarly, notching and drill holes impart instruction to which there is no variation. Training of accepted traditional conventions for pattern makers and stitchers is mandatory.

Other than having pattern makers within speaking distance of stitchers, a second solution to improving communication is having a worker assigned writing duties. This does not necessarily need to be a supervisor although it should fall under their control. Groups must have one person -preferably peer level- that is given the benediction, opportunity (and pay) to write the concerns communicated to them by other workers so that the information can be forwarded to those most able to affect second order processing solutions. The use of a “suggestion box” cannot replace this as many people cannot write well enough (in English presumably) to convey the issues that concern them most.

Lastly, weekly style meetings to discuss prototypes is an absolute requirement. Most companies have these but they are largely ineffective -and useless! The reason is that the most appropriate parties to be included are never invited. The reality is, you cannot -cannot- discuss the fit or structure of a prototype unless both the pattern maker and sample maker are in attendance. I continue to be dismayed by the number of companies who fail to include these two key people. Most companies mistakenly believe that the pattern supervisor is an adequate representative but that is rarely the case. It is more likely that the pattern supervisor isn’t even a pattern maker; many companies do not realize their pattern supervisors aren’t pattern makers. Similarly, the prescriptives dictated by those in attendence are inappropriate. For example, I was directed to “shorten the shoulder 1 inch” of one style which I did. The corrected prototype didn’t pass either because the sleeves ended up 1″ too short. Had I been in attendence at the meeting, I would have noted to shorten the shoulder one inch but to commensurately increase the sleeve length to cover the shortfall. That was just one issue regarding this particular style; it was one of the biggest wastes of money and time and I couldn’t have been more frustrated. I’ve covered the issues and structure of style meetings at length in the Entrepreneur’s Guide.

Recognition of the value of testing is imperative requiring the allocation of time, materials and equipment. By this I mean that each piece of elastic, each button, each fabric should be processed -according to the way it will be ultimately tested by the customer, either by washing or dry cleaning. The tragic reality is that not only do well-established companies fail to have required standardized testing procedures, they actually subvert them! It is absolutely ludicrous in my opinion, that if a pattern maker wants to have some fabric test washed for shrinkage, that they are compelled to steal the fabric in order to do it! I wish I could lie and say I’ve done this a time or two but the truth is, I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve had to steal fabric, take it home, go to a laundromat (I didn’t have a washer/dryer) and sneak the goods in the very next day. If you’re a company manager, I’ll bet you’re thinking this doesn’t happen in your plant but don’t be so sure. The production manager in this particular plant also “tested” goods but she never had them dried; so the effort was useless. Companies should not induce employees to risk firing in order to prevent problems. It is difficult to respect management in companies like this.

Another mistake companies make is failing to allow employees to test processes. Not the engineers but the pattern makers and stitchers. You have this problem in your plant if your pattern makers don’t have access to a sewing machine if they need one. Most companies will not permit pattern makers to operate machines, much less test new joining methods they think may save the company some money. Yes, I know that the sample maker is supposed to render all samples but sometimes you can’t explain the process. With a sample, you can illustrate the concept to the sample maker who can then assist in tweaking it for production. Lastly, sewing operators also need time experimenting with new methods. There is no way a company can upgrade the range of products they produce -cost effectively- if stitchers are not permitted structured time to upgrade and learn new skills.

If you’re still reading, all of this (other than specific incidents) and a whole lot more was written in The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing. Maybe you should consider reading it. Even things like lowering transaction costs -and I didn’t even know what those were until yesterday- is also in there. Lean manufacturing is the only sane, sustainable and economically and socially responsible form of manufacturing. Unless you’re racing to the bottom that is.

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  1. damnit, this only makes me feel even more like I’m going to have to run my own factory. I’m overwhelmed by the chasm between my present situation and what I want to be in the future. Sigh.

  2. Apparel are like any other assembled products … multiple value streams (representing a range of components, such as fabric, buttons, etc.) must be synchronised in delivery, and produced using a Point-Of-Use cellularly organized factory. Never having focused on the apparel industry, except having a belief that you could be improved using the same ideas and methods that we have used to improve other complex high-variety low-volume jobshops, could I ask if yours is a high-volume low-variety industry, with products going through various sequences of steps, or a low-volume high-variety industry?

  3. I had not seriously thought of buying your book till today.

    When I read an article, and followed the link, at the end it said, if you are reading this long, consider buying the book.

    Thank you again for putting the suggestion in a very appropriate position.

    I am quoting some of your material at a productivity improvement program where 30 factories are participating. So you might get more visitors from Sri Lanka hopefully.

  4. kd says:

    We, are about to put on a fashion show and I’m about to talk to production companies on producing my pieces. I only have experience on the creative and merchandising end of this industry. Any advice on contracting? I’m concerned about filling orders etc. I can currently do small orders out of my home/office but for other things I need to outsource them.

  5. Carol Kimball says:

    1. Read the comment immediately above yours.
    2. If you’re at all serious about your business, go to the photo of Kathleen’s book, upper left on this page, click on it and buy it. She has laid out, clearly and precisely, everything you need to know (and then some). That will also give you the format and language to understand what the successful businesspeople who post on this site are talking about.
    3. If that seems like too much money, then you’re not ready to run a business. You will throw away ten times that flailing around.

    Getting going is scary – so much to learn, so little time (and money). Contrary to how you may feel and what many people believe, this is not a closed group unwilling to help newcomers – go to the Discussion Forum (first link under the book photo) and skim through Danielle’s section of “If I were to Produce a Line”. That’s one example from at least a couple dozen.

    kd, do your homework and come join us. We’re ready to welcome and help you.

  6. Jane says:

    I am very intrigued by the TSS production method. Go figure 100 years later, Henry Ford’s assembly line is not working any more.

    However, Kathleen, if American manufacturing follows your opinion of putting patternmakers on the factory floor. Soon there will be no more patternmakers in the United States. My job will move to the factory floor in China, Sri Lanka, Costa Rica, etc.

    Whereas, good communication is vital to be able to create a pattern that works with all the problems that arise with certain types of equipment, fabrics, etc. Not all of a patternmakers job is related only to the factory floor.

    We are the link between the product’s concept and is production. I have spent much of my time developing fitting and sizing standards, intrepreting designers sketches and solving those subsequent design problems. If those things are done at the corporate level, then when it is necessary to have mutliple vendors to keep from being held hostage by a single one, the product produced by one patternmeaker and product produced by more than one factory will have a shot at being consistent.

    The key is wherever the patternmaker is located, whether the factory floor or the product development offices, there needs to be a good open communication to work together as a team that has a common goal of producing the best possible product at whatever the price point. This boils down to your staff….A company is only as good as its workers.

    The TSS method will attract workers that are more thinkers than the old ‘bundle’ worker. Because they are doing a variety of tasks that require not just one trained repetitve skill, but the ablity to multi-task. Taking a product from its beginning to end seems in itself to promote more personal involvement and thus accountability in the product and the quality of its production.

  7. Kiran Bindra says:

    Really enjoyed the article. It reaffirms our (me and my business partner) philosophy on product development. We both left our IT software development careers to venture into the land of apparel manufacturing. Having spent a few years in India and Hong Kong, on the floors of our partner factories, it became increasingly clear that the same principles of software lifecycle development had to be applied to manufacturing in order to create a repeatable, successful process.

    As we launched our Dallas operation, same processes came in handy – where the factory has all departments under one room. Regular communication, team accountability, cross-function tasks, and TOP quality approval for every lot (sampling and production) are some of the items discussed above that have helped us sustain a Lean Manufacturing Operation.

    Kiran Bindra

  8. Tara Lynn says:

    I bought your book months, maybe even a yr ago
    I haven’t had time to finish it, and I should.
    I receive your emails and they live in my inbox as far back as July, and 61 of my favorites are saved in a fedbiz folder so I can read them when I have time!
    But when I get a chance and a title grabs me I find them so valuable!
    I forwarded this one to my assistant. Even though there are only 2 of us it is all relevant.

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