Getting things done when you’re not in charge pt.4

I meant to post this last week but obviously did not. If you need to catch up, see part two and three. Other related links appear at close or within the text.

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.

Related entries:
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
Workplace Management
Do sewing operators refuse to change?
How to get people to change
Leadership and implementing change

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  1. WendyB says:

    “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” — story of my career, girl! Right now I’m experiencing it with a nonprofit that I work with. They’re all arguing with me as I try to save their asses and I know when I’m gone they’ll act like it was always my way….

  2. Jody says:

    Very insightful. In my day job, I see fundamental disconnects such as those you describe as occurring in your earlier style meetings all the time. It’s always puzzled me b/c it seems like a no-brainer that you would want to get input from the folks who are closer to the work, “in the trenches” so to speak. I think this boils down to different management/leadership styles.

    What you described is a very traditional style of management characterized by a top-down approach which emphasizes a clear separation between lowly staff and management elite. I think this style of management has continued to survive, despite its fundamental ineffectiveness, b/c it serves the ego (but that aspect of corporate culture is a whole other topic).

    Lately though, I’ve been encouraged by what I see as a large-scale shift in some organizations to a more collaborative form of leadership, in which management seeks the input of staff. In for-profit enterprises, I think this shift is less driven by management changing its philosophies as it is by its recognition that collaborating with staff on can improve the bottom line. In my organization (state government), taxpayers are demanding results and if we can’t provide them, funding will be cut. Necessity is the mother of invention after all.

    I’ve always tried to practice “management from the bottum up” – my way of getting around the instituional barriers to effectiveness that I deal with in my organization. But, as Kathleen confirms, I’ve always had to be very careful about taking credit for the changes I foster. Even though it’s irksome, she is absolutely correct that if you are going to practice this subtle style of leadership in your organization, you have to do it for the greater good, not for your ego. There’s plenty of other egos out there that bruise very easily.

  3. Barb Taylorr says:

    I have a similar story, and though I was later let go during some serious downsizing (& never did know for sure if the changes I implemented played into that decision or not) I still count the experience as one of the highlights of my career. It feels good to help make positive change, even when you are not personally rewarded for it.
    I was a pattern maker for a slipper / footwear company. They were getting into more and more complicated styles (which was part of why I was brought in). The sewing staff was having increasing difficulty assembling these new designs. Entire batches of samples would come in twisted and distorted. The product on the store shelves often looked embarrasingly mis-shapen. It was clear to me that this could be helped by a better system of notches. Many uppers had only a toe and heel notch to allign with the insole. Materials were stretchy, and uppers had shirring & several seams, but nothing on the insole to show what they needed to line up with. There were also no notches to differentiate the right and left upper, so it was not uncommon for the wrong sole to be put on the upper. To make matters worse, they loved to reuse old patterns, but that meant it was also common for there to be notches that never alligned with anything.
    I couldn’t change the other pattern makers, but I made sure to notch all my patterns so it would be impossible to sew a left top to a right sole. I added a notch to the insole for each seam on the upper. My sample makers loved it and had very little issues with even the most complicated styles.
    However, when it came time to send my patterns into production they removed all my notches, leaving just the toe and heel notch. I fought this for months, and watched my production come in looking like crap. When I asked why, the pat answer was “Notches cost money.” I wanted to see the math on that and continued to ask on every occasion. Finally I found a manager that understood what i was trying to say and he researched why there was a policy to remove notches. After a long goose chase he discovered that it was a hold-over from when the pieces were die cut. Notchs used more metal. In those days all our uppers were interchangable lefts and rights anyway, so there was little need for anything more than toe and heel notches.
    Well, fast forward 25 years, and our factories were no longer using any dies. It cost the same to cut a piece with no notches as it did to cut one with several. He also let me time my sample makers and we found that they could sew faster when they had better notches (within reason).
    Eventually I was allowed to send patterns to production with more than the toe & heel notch. I had another fight on my hands making sure the notch placement graded correctly, but worked through that one too. It so felt great to see my styles in the stores looking like they were supposed to that season.
    I never did notice any other pattern makers follow my lead however. The companywas in the process of moving all their production to China anyway, and eventually they out-sourced their pattern-makers too. The manager who helped my prove notches were profitable got laid off the same day I did.

  4. Marie-Christine says:

    Quite right, if you advocate strongly for change or worse actually get some of it through, your ass will be the first one out the door. It’s good if you can recognize that, and arrange for it to be on your own schedule.

    I have to admit I was guilty of malicious compliance once, thanks for the bit of terminology :-). It was all I could do to obey instead of punching the bitch in the nose, which would have been worse for me. It cost them plenty, I enjoyed that, and I was gone in a matter of weeks.

    It’s entirely true that you’re much more likely to put up with abuse at home if you’re taking it at work, and conversely. I was fascinated when I hosted a couple sessions on domestic violence at my house for a local group, and found out that almost everyone there had first been harassed at work. I’ve come to believe these creeps do know who to pick on, and that being already vulnerable is one thing they look for most intently. Pick carefully who you discuss your work/personal problems with..

  5. sdBev says:

    I wish I could have had this advice while I was working. I never realized the anger and resentment directed towards me when all I wanted was to “do a good job.”.

  6. Re: collaborative group IQ from an article in the Boston Globe:

    researchers found that when a group had a high level of collective intelligence, the members tended to score well on a test that measured how good they were at reading other people’s emotions. They also found that groups with overbearing leaders who were reluctant to cede the floor and let the others talk did worse than those in which participation was better distributed and people took turns speaking.


    research suggests that group intelligence is highly malleable and that concrete steps — such as mixing newcomers into an established team or not allowing a single leader to dominate — could fundamentally alter the group’s intelligence.

  7. Wednesday says:

    I find your story more than a little chilling. I had a supervisor who routinely stole from me (at first I was fool enough to share every innovation I had at team meetings, (but isn’t that what they’re for?), then she took to observing me) and it grieved me a little bit to see my ideas implemented company-wide, without even being able to put it on my CV. Now I wonder if being more vocal would have drawn negative attention to myself. Is there a happy medium between shining enough to move upward and being too bright?

  8. Wednesday says:

    I know it appears I missed the point. And maybe I did. The fear of the unknown should not be more frightening than a reality you Know you can’t live with.

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