Getting things done when you’re not in charge

Working for entrepreneurs can be frustrating and fun. Frustrating if they’re pulled in too many directions, minimizing the importance of what they don’t understand (the technical aspect) at the expense of that which they do know well. And it’s fun because you can have -sometimes- learning opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise get. By way of example, here’s part of a message I received from a pattern maker recently but it’s very typical of emails I’ve received over the past several years:

I have been trying to suggest ways that they can improve their product quality to match their price point, but they have been a bit stubborn unless I physically show them with a sample. They want to stick with the way they have been doing it. [I don’t feel their reasons for doing it that way are valid.] I also get frustrated when I feel like I’m not being listened to and the only person around who gets what I’m complaining about is my mom.

You’re not alone, this is very typical. It may be helpful to develop a multi-prong approach consisting of:

  1. Documentation
  2. Permission to work on projects (samples of improvements).
  3. Validation

You need formal documentation of what you’re doing, what you’ve been told to do and what you think needs to be done -instead. You need a 3 ring notebook. In it you need a copy of the sketch and paper for note taking. Or maybe you prefer to do it electronically. I prefer to do it manually at the table (which is where I do all my thinking) and then summarize it on the computer if it’s something I will be sending the client. For the record, all of these work notes belong to your employer or customer.

Put all your thoughts and recommended changes about a given style (and date), one sheet per style. Be specific about given issues and the problems you think it will cause. Update your notes when you’ve spoken about it to your boss (date it) and note the decision. Later on when you have a fit meeting, that will give you ammunition for changes. For example, they say an edge is too floppy or whatever and you’ll have it in your notes you recommended doing X on X date and that you brought it up with boss who decided to do nothing or something else instead.

22601_photo I learned the necessity of doing this the hard way. Here is a pdf file of all the notes I took that pertain to this very simple skirt (22601) which ended up being a comedy of errors. The first problem was, I was not given a sketch. The VP (really the head sales guy who had no experience beyond having owned a boutique) described the garment to me. He said the skirt has three “layers” (tiers) and that each layer had pleats sewn into the layer above it. From his description it sounded like a broomstick skirt -which it ended up being. He denied that (never having heard the term) so I made up a very ugly lame skirt (not shown) that had a multitude of tucks sewn into each layer as he requested. It was a disaster. I ended up having to make it contrary to his instructions by sneaking it home (technically stealing, a firing offense) to broomstick it and bring it back. People, if your staff needs to steal your protos to do them at home on their own time to do it right because you won’t listen, you have a problem.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. Based on the width they wanted for the top layer (and the elastic that went into it) along with the shirring proportions that couldn’t be modified too much (machine limitation), it made for a very poor marker cutting it on the straight of grain. I said they had two choices. One would be to cut it on the cross grain (not a problem if the whole thing were cut that way) or they needed to break up the seams differently to fill the marker. The production manager said no, she wanted it on the straight of grain with as few pieces as possible. I made note of all of this along with my objections. Come four months later when the cutter got the marker, the production manager accused me of incompetence for making a pattern with such poor utilization. However, I still had the marker I’d drawn (included in the notes pdf) well before I made the pattern and where I’d noted she did not approve my suggested changes. Can you believe she still tried to blame me? She said I should have “made her” listen to me. So, it was after that incident that anytime I had a disagreement with her, I would ask her initial my notes which was the only way I could “make her” listen to me. As a practical matter, she never did sign anything not wanting to be tied to it but ended up actually listening to the content of my objections and we negotiated from there.

But enough about me. You can use one of those input control forms I include in the book to track notes about any given style, adding on sheets as needed. You can get the form in pdf here.

Permission to work on projects
This can be difficult but you need to negotiate for permission to work on projects that your employer may not consider to be real work. These projects should be opportunities to experiment with processes or changes that can result in big savings. Not all of these will pan out but I guarantee that you’ll end up using what you learned in future projects. You need to document these exercises in the same way. The goal of course is professional development and continuing education. I can’t say that no company invests in this just that I’ve never worked for a company that did. This is time you’ll need to carve out for yourself in the quest for your (and your employer’s) professional development. If this only means you get X project to work the way you think it should be done even though they disagree, that is still ideal.

Another thing to keep in mind is that it is entirely possible they have no idea what you’re talking about. Pattern makers tend to be visual thinkers, you can see what you mean. Designers tend to be more abstract, they cannot readily form pictures in their heads of what you’re describing. Making a sample (the project) to illustrate what you think are necessary changes, is the best way to get their approval which is why I recommend that if you feel strongly about needed changes, they should give you the opportunity to prove why it is to their benefit. Be sure to document all of the advantages of your method much as I did with the marker I drew of 22601. Nail it down by calculating the cost savings per unit. I found the latter to be very effective.

Validation is the last thing. Unfortunately, this is something you have to do for yourself. I realize that pattern makers by nature, are not the sort of people to trumpet their own horns but you must. Any time you run up against resistance, you need to drag out an example from your mental tally of successes at a moment’s notice. Mention you recommended X, that it was done and everybody was delighted. Having a track record gets you what you want which is for them to get better.

This is good advice for any employee. I know everybody likes to think their employer is a really awful person who ignores their contributions but seriously, it’s hard to remember what people have accomplished when they’re actively butting heads with you at that moment so reminding them is a very good thing. It reminds them how smart they were to hire you in the first place. It reminds them of how smart they were to take your advice before which is grounds for taking your advice again this time.

Here is a situation that happened to me, an example of the opposite which conversely makes the point. I used to have an employee named Stephanie. I don’t think a day went by that she didn’t tell me what a lousy employee she was. And you know what? I believed her. I think it took me two or three years after she stopped working for me to figure out that she was the best employee I ever had. She always came in early to drink a cup of coffee and jumped up with much fan fare at precisely 8:00 (again stressing that being so lousy, she wouldn’t want to accidentally put in free work as she wasn’t dedicated to helping “the man”). That was the other thing she said, she wasn’t dedicated but in retrospect, she really was, very much so. Years later I searched for her everywhere. Her situation was a bit tenuous and I believed I could have helped her. I never did find her and I’ve always regretted it. In sum, be careful what you tell your employer because for good or ill, they will believe you. Don’t expect them to remember your successes, you have to remind them.

It is more typical than not that bosses will usually shoot down every idea you have. They will always say “we’ve always done it like this,” or “I like it this way” with no qualified reasons and in spite of the many problems they have because of it. The only thing that comes to mind is a book I read a long time ago called Getting things done when you are not in charge. I think this is a great book for even entrepreneurs to read because even they -although they own the company- are not in charge. Not if they have customers and not if they’ve hired talent to do work they can’t.

Culture also matters a great deal. If you’re working in a place that is very blame centered, there will be a lot of problems. I can only tell you what I did. In this one particular case, any time somebody started chewing on the sample maker or line seamstresses, I stepped in and reminded everyone that these people were highly accomplished, why did they make this mistake? I’d pull the pattern, go over the process and invariably, I found a way I could design the pattern that worked in concert to their process so no mistakes could (theoretically) be made. Maybe you don’t want to put yourself in the position of deflecting blame directed at others onto yourself but I just couldn’t bear to watch them do that to people I admired. In the end it was a wash. The stitchers were fanatically loyal to me because I never failed to stand up for them so in spite of being a thorn in the side of management, they couldn’t fire me. Management was convinced I was lousy but you know what, years later that’s all I heard. Any time I talk to my ex boss, that’s the first thing she says to me, that I was the best pattern maker they ever had. That VP came around too and tried to hire me for his operation after the company we both worked for went under (largely thanks to him). He gave me the willies so I never returned his calls.

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  1. Kathleen says:

    One other thing I didn’t include but speaks to the general dysfunctionalism in the industry is why I didn’t get a sketch. I didn’t get a sketch because the garment was a knock off. The designer was a very pleasant guy but he didn’t like knock offs (the skirt wasn’t his idea) so he wouldn’t do up a sketch if it were a knock off or not his idea. If the concept was brought in by another party (the VP in this case), it was up to that person to transmit the idea to the pattern maker. However, the VP wasn’t going to draw a picture and worse, because he didn’t want to admit to me that it was a knock off, did not show me the garment either. Is that amazing or what? I wish I could say this only happened once. I wrote about a nearly identical incident here, coincidentally enough, the matching blouse to this skirt. The stupidest thing of all is that the VP didn’t know the Navaho had been making broomstick skirts since the turn of the century so the days of this being a unique concept (and thus a knock off) were long past.

  2. John Hunter says:

    Great post. Everyone needs to think of how to move forward when they don’t have absolute authority. I have done a great deal of this in my career and I have found it is not nearly as difficult to get approval as people seem to fear. It is true you need to be sensible and ask permission where costs are low and hopefully where you can show big returns quickly. Then you will gain trust that allows you work on more experimental things.

  3. Lesley says:

    this is really funny… and frustrating at the same time. I have the exact opposite problem, wherein my patternmaker (and the one I had before) have no suggestions and actually re-introduce seams where they did not need to be to make the sewing job HARDER. aargh!! I will include prototypes with notes and even paid someone to do a technical sketch. I think he used these as toilet paper. Then he tells me he is confused and I re-send all my notes and size chart, which he always “lost” ie-flushed! I BEG for suggestions (and notches) but I have to come up with all my own fixes. I would love to have someone “challenging” me. These dummies don’t deserve you, Kathleen.

  4. Vesta says:

    Lesley, I have the same problem with sewing contractors. They almost never give me suggestions for improvement. I just started working with a contractor I worked with years ago, and I asked them to *please* make suggestions for efficiency or improved quality, because they didn’t last time we worked together (for a couple of years). She said it must be that the patterns I bring are already perfect. (snort) I mean, I work with good people, but really? No suggestions based on machines available or skill levels or ANYTHING? I’m better than I thought . . . or they don’t care enough.

    • Avatar photo

      At this late date, now that I own a sewing factory, I can respond to this. I DO give my customers feedback -oh how I do! But you know, most don’t listen. Just this week I declined to move forward with another (very nice) customer for this reason. The fork in the eye was their response, very graciously phrased, but did I have any feedback for them as they moved on? I said I had no further feedback. It was all I could do to keep from saying “listen and apply the feedback you’ve already gotten before asking for more.”

      I have found that if I give people a bullet point list of things to do, in order, they typically look at this as a list of options or choices. I don’t think they understand that these are closer to conditions that can determine whether we (or any other contractor) will continue working with them as they probably won’t survive otherwise.

      So, today, I rarely waste my time giving feedback no matter how much someone says they want it. It seems that they’ll only apply feedback if they’re paying for consulting separately but regular contracting customers do not.

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