Do sewing operators refuse to change?

As long as I can remember, the idea that sewing operators refuse to change the ways they work has been an immutable fact in the apparel manufacturing process. Everyone believes it. This creates a lot of problems in dealing with what are considered to be vicarious whims and personalities of sewing operators. Supervisors and production managers say they’ve struggled for years to make any positive changes on the sewing floor, even minimal ones such as sewing and machine assignments. I have come to believe this is not as true as we think. Rather, between sewing operators, supervisors and production managers, I think it is the latter two who resist change most with sewing operators getting a bad rap. [I know some of you have legitimate problems with given operators but I have an explanation of what is driving that tomorrow.] I’m writing this today because Lisa wrote something in her post last week that brought this issue to a head. I sent her some links of previous material and she agreed the subject deserved another airing.

Regardless of whether you are producing in house with a traditional batching system or using a sewing contractor who is, this is about understanding work psychology, not a production system. Understanding the psychology of work dynamics can help you prevent or manage production sewing crises. Here’s the context from her entry (snipped):

It’s one thing to read about how lean manufacturing works, but it’s another to see it in action. Americas 21st had a cluster set up to make tote bags. I wanted to see what happened when something went wrong. Len Egan explained the operators came from one of his customers in the Atlanta area. None had previously worked together and their day-to-day job was not making tote bags. In other words, three operators familiar with sewing in a cluster, but not with each other, were making a product they hadn’t made before.

I asked Len how transitions go when a cluster is first set up. I had expected him to explain that operators were resistant to change. Instead, he said that operators transition completely in 3-4 weeks and actually prefer the new system. Len said those most resistant to changing to the lean cluster system are supervisors. He said that under the batch system, supervisors run around putting out fires. They have to find ways to make things work when conditions aren’t optimal, which leads to a feeling of importance. Without them, work would stop. Under the lean system, supervisors are trained to watch how things are going, to look for weaknesses, and to find ways to overcome those weaknesses. While the supervisor still has a role to fill, some may perceive it as less important because they have fewer crises to solve.

Pod or cluster set ups in lean manufacturing work well because they force behavioral changes of sewing operators (change behaviors and attitudes are soon to follow). Supervisors make the change less successfully than operators because their needed behavioral changes are not scripted so definitively as operators. Most of their work duties are eliminated -they don’t know what to do with themselves, they don’t even know what their job is anymore. More importantly, they feel they lose value and esteem because the work situations for which they’d been getting lots of gold stars (putting out fires) no longer exists. All of the sudden, they don’t have a job anymore, at least in terms they would currently describe. Based on personal experience, I would say they’re also missing their “fix”. Putting out a fire involves an adrenaline high, adrenaline is a drug like any other.

The difficulty with implementing this kind of change lies in that the supervisor’s job has evolved from heroic fire-fighter to the mundane task of clearing underbrush which anyone with a strong back could do. Meaning, they’re not as special as they once were and readily replaceable. That doesn’t have to be true but they will need to learn a new skill set. Before, their tool kit consisted of  experiences they used to solve problems quickly. Now they are required to finesse, to put a fine patina to a system that largely runs trouble free on its own. Applying a fine hand wax to a lovely piece of furniture is less valuable than putting it out if it catches on fire but that is exactly what they are called to do once the possibility of fires have been eliminated. Some supervisors may not make the transition, they may not have the needed cognitive profile to do it. They won’t be willing or happy to do it because you’re asking them to give up a well rewarded job they knew how to do for this other one they don’t know how to do and for which they won’t get as many pats on the back. Before, they’d been the heroes. Now, it is possible they’ll be the failures because their old tool kit isn’t needed anymore. In sum, supervisors can be  the last person to agree that a problem solving change you’ve come up with is going to work.

Previously I’d written about two core problem solving strategies described as first and second order processing. Sounds boring I know. First order processing is fire fighting, solving immediate problems by whichever means necessary; supervisors are rewarded for this class of thinking. Second order processing requires analyzing the cause of the fire itself and figuring out ways to prevent it from ever happening again. Since many supervisors are never required to do this, their second order processing skills are weak plus they don’t get the workplace kudos -and that’s assuming they have the time to figure it out considering all the crisis they’re handling in a day’s time.

I wrote an entry five years ago called Problems in problem prevention that explains why a seamstress will rarely if ever tell you there’s a problem. I realize the title is boring but the content is pretty good. Reading that will help you get the most out of your hires. If your sewing contractor can’t seem to resolve the quality problems you’ve had, this will give you a better idea of why the traditional sewing system is set up to prevent problem solving.

The second entry in the same series is called On becoming a lean manufacturer, again a lousy title and you may skip it thinking becoming lean is too much to grasp at this stage and you’re not sewing in house anyway but it explains the workplace dynamics and psychology to help you to get people to change and evolve their problem solving abilities.

The last entry of the series is called The perils of D.I.Y. and explains how you or another manager may unknowingly be contributing to the problem bringing this full circle because as Len said and as I’ve discovered in my own experience, resistance to change is less true of sewing operators than it is of managers and supervisors. And you don’t intentionally or deliberately circumvent problem resolution because you don’t care or are irresponsible. It’s because your time is limited and that the very things that have helped you to become successful (perseverance) are simultaneously, the flip side of the same coin. It’s a double edged sword.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you about a profile worker I call the “investment employee” who creates the worst damage in the smallest of businesses, those operations too small to have a supervisor. The post will describe the havoc they can cause and what to do about it. I dread these people. I think many of them are just evil and should be fired but that’s another story.

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  1. Hi Kathleen,
    Len Egan got me in touch with GoodGlove, Inc., which set up cells to manufacture baseball gloves in Massachusetts. They are successfully beating offshore competition, much more responsive to retailers, incorporating some advanced leather die-cutting technology, and adding jobs. Most of their employees were new to sewing and other leatherworking operations, but adapted will, took to cross-training, and are proud of their quality. He helped me write about the company for AME’s Target magazine in last month’s issue (shameless plug). It was nice to finally get an article about lean in apparel manufacturing after learning about it from you too many years ago!

  2. Kathleen says:

    Heya Karen, so good to see you’re still here.

    Your shameless plug wasn’t shameless enough. Care to drop a link?

  3. Kathleen says:

    I knew this story sounded familiar so I searched my desktop. Goodglove (I know them better as Valkyrie which I read in the article) bought my book back in 2008 and I have a whole passle of emails going back and forth mostly with Rob since 2007.

  4. Marie-Christine says:

    Once again, sewing is the example but the application is much wider than that. I can’t tell you the number of managers like that I’ve met in IT. Higher management only cares about putting out fires, so the zealous manager sets them in order to look good. Employees who try to do real prevention are whacked over the head. Others cooperate by deliberately setting fires too. I’d be surprised if there was a single US business that wasn’t negatively impacted by this sort of thing..

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