Ann sends word of an article in this morning’s Wall Street Journal (sub req’d) entitled Louis Vuitton Tries Modern Methods On Factory Lines. It’s gratifying to see that LV has discovered that quality product design and craftsmanship doesn’t necessarily require long lead times.
For years, high-end fashion houses like Louis Vuitton…paid far more attention to product design, craftsmanship and image than to the mechanics of keeping their stores stocked. When new designs caught on, they often sold out and the companies were often ill-prepared to speed up production and distribution.
As is often the case, after careful analysis, LV found that the greatest cause for long cycle time was waiting, the work in process was mismanaged, being held as inventory on the factory floor.
Under the new system, it takes less time to assemble bags, in part because they no longer sit around on carts waiting to be moved from one workstation to another. That enables the company to ship fresh collections to its boutiques every six weeks — more than twice as frequently as in the past, according to one Vuitton official.
Ever wary that some will decry their recent industrial engineering advances in lean manufacturing, Mr Vuitton says “When the first electrical sewing machines arrived 30 years ago, people saw it as the devil”. The article explains:
Each factory had about 250 employees, and each worker specialized in one skill such as cutting leather and canvas; preparing, gluing and sewing it; making pockets and stitching the lining; and assembling the bag. Specialists worked on one batch of bags at a time. Half-completed purses would sit on carts until someone wheeled them to the next section of the assembly line. Because craftsmen were specialized, it was nearly impossible for Vuitton to quickly switch workers from one type of handbag to another.
The new system relies on cross-training, reducing the need of specialization by increasing skill levels among workers. Another key element is work organization itself, forming U-shaped cells typical of TSS strategies.
The factory floor was reorganized accordingly. Mimicking the small-team format used by Japanese electronics makers, Vuitton organized workers into groups of six to 12, depending on the complexity of the bags or wallets they are making, according to Vuitton officials and company documents. For maximum efficiency, Vuitton arranged the groups in clusters of U-shaped workstations that contain sewing machines on one side and assembly tables on the other. Workers simply pass their work around the cluster.
Implementing the lean initiative has increased product quality as well. Doesn’t it always?
The system also has enabled workers to detect flaws earlier. At one factory, under the old production system, one of every two $1,240 Tikal shoulder bags had frayed inside seams and needed to be repaired, according to a company document. Under the new production system, those flaws are recognized earlier and can be fixed more easily. Stitching problems on the credit-card pocket of Vuitton’s Viennois wallet used to mean that 4% of each batch of pockets had to be discarded…
According to the article, returns of defective products fell by two thirds last year. The company hopes to reduce returns by another 50% next year. If you are interested in similar initiatives, read an introductory post I wrote last year on becoming a lean manufacturer.