Recap of key points:
- You can’t change anyone other than yourself.
- You can’t persuade anyone to change.
- Change behaviors and attitudes will follow.
- You must be committed; existing conditions are no longer tolerable.
- You are willing to pay the price (sacrifice) for change
Before I go into this case history of change, it would help to know I didn’t have a grand visionary plan to take the company by storm or anything crazy like that. The company I worked for was doing one specific thing very wrong. While my goal was modest, it ended up changing the entire company, its culture, dramatically improved new product launches (up 25%) reduced product development costs by half and our defect rate was so low as to be immeasurable. Suffice to say that the 4 person repairs department was reduced to only one person doing repairs one afternoon a week.
If you think the resulting company consensus was that I was great, you’d be wrong. I would have been fired if I hadn’t quit first. It was only a year or so later that they (and I) realized the value of all I had done and tried to get me to come back. In other words, don’t be delusional and do it for the sake of being a hero because no one is going to appreciate it in the short term. Only pursue your course because it is the right thing to do, not because anyone is going to love you for it because they may resent you instead. That’s life.
A case history of change
Background: This company held style meetings without the pattern department being in attendance. Instead, the meetings were attended by the owner, production manager, sales manager, VP, designer, designer assistant, pattern room supervisor (who was not a pattern maker herself) and VP of purchasing. I’m not suggesting these people should not meet to discuss worthwhile topics but they are far from being the people qualified to determine fitting and or sewing problems -the whole purpose of a style meeting. Worse, not one member of this group was qualified to direct explicit changes to pattern makers.
It worked like so: They’d have their meeting and then my supervisor would come out with a list of very specific changes we had to make to given styles. For example, I had to shorten the shoulder line of style 12345 by one inch. The problem was that this style was long sleeved, a “boyfriend” drop shoulder style popular in the early 90’s. Meaning, shortening the shoulder line one inch would also make the sleeve shorter by one inch. So, I asked my supervisor if I should lengthen the sleeve an inch to compensate (because the sleeve would be too short). She became angry with me and said I should not because that is not what she said to do, I was just supposed to shorten the shoulder one inch.
Maybe this is a good time to talk about the culture of this place. A question like mine was considered insubordination. You were supposed to do what you were told and to shut up. The strategy was motivation by fear. Fear of losing your job at all times. Like, you better not die or they’d go to your funeral and fire you there for missing work. I bought into the mindset for awhile but got out of it once I realized that I’d never gone from one job to a worse one so the best thing that could happen to me career-wise was to get fired and I’d have to find another job. Anyway, it was dumb. I knew that shortening that shoulder line would make the sleeve too short and since I wasn’t allowed to correct it, I would be seeing this pattern cross my table again. And again. And again. These people were stubborn -but not as stubborn as me. I did what they said. My colleague usually did a hanger fix so they thought he was great and I was incompetent. Caring that they thought I was incompetent would mean I was giving them power over me and I wasn’t going to do that. They couldn’t scare me anymore -even though I needed the job desperately. I refused to let them scare me because it felt too much like the abusive relationship I’d just gotten out of.
Point is, the result of not having the pattern department in attendance meant several things. First, the time and cost of getting styles approved was much lengthier and costlier than it needed to be. Keeping in mind the culture, nobody was allowed to talk to anybody else in other departments so there was no cross communication. We could not get feedback from the sewing department about subtle changes we’d made or would like to make in pattern design that could improve construction and eliminate sewing problems. As it stood, the only way a pattern maker could know there were sewing problems was by eating lunch with the line sewers -and hope the production manager didn’t notice you were fraternizing or she’d give you a dirty look and you could count on a lecture from the VP. But anyway, eating lunch with the stitchers helped correct future problems but not ones in the pipeline.
Back to the boyfriend jacket example. It was a lamb’s wool black and white hounds tooth (to this day, I hate black and white hounds tooth). I decided to do exactly what they said, when they said and how they said. Not exactly the same thing as malicious compliance since I had no power but you get the idea. Anyway, after the sixth or seventh iteration (shorten the shoulder one week, lengthen it the next, over and over) I was called into the style meeting to account for my “failure”. I don’t remember what I said but the lynch mob relaxed and I was called in to attend meetings more frequently after that.
The problem was far from over. The other pattern makers, sample maker and sewing line supervisors needed to be there too. Or at least the supervisors should be aware they could be called in for consultation. Anyway, the next week at the style meeting, I was elevated to “expert” status and asked to comment on my colleague’s work but I wasn’t going to do that. He needed to speak for himself. I thought he was a big fraud (see the hanger fix post) and slower than a glacier so he could hang himself without my help. So they brought him in which helped in making meeting boundaries more porous.
I remember when the big break through happened. They were having their meeting and there was some kind of crisis with a leather coat. The dies had already been made but the sales people were saying the fit was bad (pattern made before my time) and they couldn’t sell it anymore and they’d taken orders that were pending. So they brought me in to see if I could fix it. They always told me “fix it but don’t change anything”. To this day I have no idea how to fix something without changing it but there you have it. To me, it was dumb. I said they should just fix the pattern and make new dies. My boss said we couldn’t make new dies. I said why not. She said they just couldn’t. Well that didn’t make sense to me so I pushed it. She screamed at me “dies cost $5,000 dollars!” I screamed back “why didn’t you tell me!?” Everything was a big secret in this company. I don’t understand why managers don’t share this kind of information. $5,000 is a lot of money, they had a point but I had a flash of insight and said we could remodel the dies. Dies are pieces of metal welded together. All we needed to do was melt the weld and stick another larger piece on there. I said I could fix the pattern and limit the change to only two pieces (four dies per size). When I said to remodel the dies, everyone’s jaws hit the floor and you could have heard a pin drop. I thought I’d really done it then. The owner sent for the plant die-maker to ask him. When he was asked if dies could be remodeled, the die-maker’s eyes got very big and round because it had never occurred to him either. Of course it could be done but nobody had thought of it. Nobody thought of it because they didn’t have area experts involved in their meetings.
After that, I was invited to every meeting but all this did was create resentment from others in the pattern department because they rightfully should have been there too. But I had a strategy for that. I refused to comment on other pattern maker’s styles, I made them call them in. If the staff asked me if I thought “X” method could be done because it could lower costs and I pretended I didn’t know but suggested they could call in the sample maker who was a better judge. So she came in, so scared I thought she was going to pee in her pants but she stepped up to the plate and hit it out of the park.
And so it went. After a few months passed, the only people at the style meeting were the pattern department with employees from affected departments as needed. Things really changed then and we got a whole lot more done with direct feedback from the fit model, our peers, the designer and the owner. Like I said in the opening, we put out 25% more styles than before, our product development costs were cut in half and if we had a defective product, it was a rarity. We’d stand around and marvel at the singular item and think, “oh yeah, we used to have defects”. The company was privately held so who knows how much profit increased but the owner bought a new Bentley.
With direct accountability, we were even called in to review styles before they were issued for patterns. Some got tossed out. Others were made in a more streamlined manner owing to better organization. The whole department did more work, better, and with fewer people (attrition). But all was not rosy. The people who were replaced at the meeting (VP and the production manager) resented the changes and how. They did everything they could to undermine me but I devised a strategy for the production manager. The VP… I probably deserved to be fired for insubordination but I had zero respect for him and increasingly felt less inclined to conceal it. He was a sexual predator who forced himself on subordinates (not me). Not that anyone told me but how I knew is a whole other story.
The designer (a friend and later, a client) took me aside at one point and said I needed to leave. That I’d outgrown the place. That I didn’t belong in New Mexico anymore. That I should be in New York or Los Angeles because I was “a world class talent”. So I took his advice to heart and applied for a job with one of the most famous leather companies in the world and was hired over the phone with a six figure salary -and this was the early 90’s! With inflation, not many pattern makers in New York make six figures today.
I was excited but also… had misgivings. I didn’t want my life to change like that. I didn’t want to spend a week in China, the next in Korea and then back to New York. I was a single mom and my son was very young and disabled. I didn’t see how I could care well for him jetting around like that although the company said they could help me with that. I also wasn’t wild on cold weather. So, the day before the movers came to pack up all my stuff (they were going to move me too), I called to cancel the deal. And then I called up this designer I heard of and liked who lived in Texas and asked her if she’d hire me. I told her that the company I worked for had been knocking off all of her stuff so I figured if I was going to be paid to make her patterns, it may as well be her paying me. So she hired me over the phone. And then I went into work the next day and gave notice. Boy they were mad. That’s when I found out they had been planning to fire me. And it goes to show that if they were mad, it was personal.
My point being, you do what needs to be done because it’s in the interests of the greater good. If you think anyone is actually going to thank you for dramatically improving their bottom line, think again. They will not realize it was you who did it. It will only be in hindsight, after you are gone that they realize the pivotal contributions you made. Now obviously I have all the social skills of a pot hole so maybe your experience will be different but I almost don’t think so. Nobody talks about that. Most people who have advocated radical change are either marginalized or ostracized -at least in the short term. That has always been true be it social, political, business, personal or familial. Trust me on this. If you know what you’re doing and are willing to sacrifice (this takes bravery!) and don’t expect or need the acclaim and adoration you are due, you have a promising career ahead of you in any field you choose. I only know that you must be brave. If you are fearful, you are less flexible and less creative. You cannot ever make change from a position of fear. Never. Like I say, Slavery or Bravery. Pick one.
Getting things done when you’re not in charge
Getting things done when you’re not in charge pt.2
Getting things done when you’re not in charge pt.3
Do sewing operators refuse to change?
How to get people to change
Leadership and implementing change