The crisis of Kaizen

Continuing from yesterday, in this post I’ll detail the time and costs of the Kaizen activity pertaining to style 21117. In addition, while everyone desperately wants increases in productivity, you have got to anticipate the potential crisis that a dramatic increase in efficiency can provoke. I’ll talk more about that toward the end of this post.

Here I will detail the total amount of time and costs it took to Kaizen this style. You may be surprised to see the costs are much lower than are typically expected but this is not a miscalculation. These costs were typical for redevelopment of an existing style at this company (we had a great lean team) rather than an anomaly. A comparison of production sewing times appear at the end of the discussion along with the production tooling costs.

Labor/Time/Wages can be broken down as follows:
First iteration:
Task Worker Time/Hrs Cost
Pattern cutting (pattern maker) 8 hrs = 120.
Pattern checking (supervisor) 2 hrs = 25.
Sample cutting (sample cutter) 4 hrs = 32.
Sample sewing (sample maker) 4hrs = 36
Fit testing (team time) .25 = N.K
Total cost: $ 213.00

Second iteration:
Task Worker Time/Hrs Cost
Pattern cutting (pattern maker) 4 hrs = 60.
Pattern checking (supervisor) 1 hrs = 12.5
Sample cutting (sample cutter) 4 hrs = 32.
Sample sewing (sample maker) 4hrs = 36
Fit testing (team time) >.25 = N.K
Total cost: $140.50

This style took me one day’s work to re-make (8 hrs x $15 ph). In my opinion -both then and now- it should have taken less time than that, perhaps only 6 hours but I do recall being extraordinarily cautious as I’d been given the company’s most sacred cow to slaughter and all due respect was required. I also remember thinking that if I did it too quickly, it could have been interpreted as insolence or insubordination.

The other thing is, the second iteration wasn’t necessary. I don’t know how to explain this but it is all too common that in style meetings, there tends to be an inability to pass things the first go round. Now, I’m not saying crappy work should be approved but it’s that it’s almost beyond people to accept that something is good on the very first try. I will say that first time approvals increased over the time I worked there and the style team became more accustomed to the idea that it was possible to get things right the first time -it’s just that hadn’t happened for them often. It wasn’t a common thing. As I used to tell them, don’t you expect your surgeon to get it right the first time? However, don’t you dare expect your pattern maker to get things right the very first time because it’s not typical. Depending on experience, materials and styling, two or three iterations are more common. I will also say that I was usually the one to bring up problems with the style; I was proactive in critiquing the results of my own work and usually brought up issues other people hadn’t noticed.

I’m digressing here a bit but I knew this pattern maker named Felix and he was one of the lousiest cake-mix pattern makers I ever knew (although the quality of his cutting was superlative). By cake-mix pattern maker, I mean a pattern maker who doesn’t really know how to make patterns, they just alter existing styles to conform to new requirements. Very often, that’s all a company needs but this guy deserves the pejorative because he was also lazy and I hate lazy pattern makers. Anyway, regarding unnecessary iterations, Felix told me the way he dealt with those. He called it a “hanger fix”. When he was told to correct something that he thought didn’t need fixing, he’d hang the pattern behind his table (where we kept all of our work in progress) and just wait. The next time he was asked if he’d corrected that style, he’d affirm and give them the pattern that he hadn’t done a thing to! I couldn’t believe he had the nerve but I watched him and I’ll be darned if he didn’t do it. I only did it once and I couldn’t believe how my previously “problem-ridden” style was approved in 5 minutes flat. :)

Anyway, regardless that the 21117’s second iteration could have been resolved with a hanger-fix, there were still other costs associated with it’s development, to say nothing of the savings. Regarding costs, when you’re manufacturing leather coats, you need to have dies made. Dies can be quite costly. This factory had the set up to make their own dies. Dennis was the die-maker and he was awesome. In the whole time I worked with him, I only found one mistake in all the thousands of dies he must have made there. Anyway, dies at this plant cost about $5,000 for a set in all sizes (6-16, approx 26 leather pieces). You can see pictures of some of my leather dies here. If you have to job it out, dies cost much more. I got a quote for a 8×6 leather fringe block (spacing of 3/16) for about a thousand dollars which I thought was highway robbery. I don’t think they really gave me a serious quote (I don’t think they took me seriously, long story). Now, regarding the dies of 21117, as it was, these dies were so old they needed to be remade anyway; that’s one of the reasons they let me re cut the pattern. The dies had been used under so much pressure for so long that they’d splayed and spread and many of the edges had dulled to the extent that the leather cutters often had to finish them off by hand with a pair of scissors. Anyway, the dies -which needed to be remade anyway- were $5,000.

Ironically, the issue of sewing costs for this style were a problem precisely due to increased productivity! Because things could be done better and more quickly than before, people were left without work to do. Speaking of, Lean is not Mean. Lean does not mean lowered costs by making people work “harder”.

Let’s start with sewing costs to operators; it’s only natural that sewing operators won’t volunteer the information that operations are mis-timed in their favor but an inordinate increase in sewing productivity although unusual, will be noticed right away so they won’t be able to keep it a secret for long. Other than excess pay rates, sudden increases in productivity are a problem because specific blocks of time are allotted to styles in production and if people -all of the sudden- are completing their work in less time than what was allotted, they’re standing around with nothing to do. Now, it’s not that this plant didn’t have other work for them to do -nobody was laid off- it’s that the other work they could have been doing wasn’t in the pipeline yet. The entire production schedule had to be reworked; all of the sudden, the issue wasn’t whether we’d deliver on time but would vendors let us ship sooner. And since we did everything JIT (just in time) there was crisis up and down the chain, mostly in supplies (everything from fabric arrivals scheduled to coincide with the production schedule to shipping boxes). The plan for this immediate crisis was to have the cutting department work overtime in order to feed work into sewing but we ended up moving those extra stitchers into cutting, marking and fusing so everybody was happy (I finally got an assistant too). Stitchers picked up the slack, got some variety and atypical job duties and nobody had to work overtime so it ended up working out okay but it was a crisis for awhile. People rarely talk about the crisis created by lean productivity increases but it’s something you’ll have to learn to manage too. I know I’ll never forget it.

The end result of working style #21117 ended up being pretty dramatic. I only listed 6 styles yesterday but I think there was a total of 10 of them which accounted for a nice increase in sales. Over the next six months, our work load was steadier and last of all, the company started a profit sharing program. I don’t know how to explain it…things were just steady, in flow. No rush, no drama, just steady and even but we put out at least 10% more product than we had the year before -and this at a time when everybody else in the industry was hit hard by imports.

Unfortunately tho, the owner died and proper succession of his company was not intact. He’d intended to leave it to the employees but that wasn’t finalized and legal so the owner’s boyfriend -a real bozo- took over and managed to run this solid 45 year old company -with 30 million in sales- into the ground in less than 3 years. You can read more about this company here. Succession kills a lot of good enterprises. Do see that yours lives on after you, won’t you? Your employees depend on it.

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  1. Using the stitchers to take on workload in the cutting department is a really good response to productivity increases.

    In addition, since the people with “nothing to do” have increased their productivity by thinking lean, they are ideal teachers for other product teams to improve their processes.

    Another tactic is to balance work, and mix in another style. If it were cars, the lean-ers would be looking to make them according to demand (takt time) in a pattern like this:

    AAA B AAA B AAA B …..

    That REALLY makes people think, because they have to look at how to make changeovers short and efficient, and what styles have enough affinity for one another that they use similar processes (and perhaps materials such as thread) through the cell.

    But the death of the owner and the loss of the momentum – and business – is the big problem – if leadership/management doesn’t get it, you’re pretty much sunk. Except that everyone takes away what they learned and might be able to use it for another smarter company.


  2. jinjer says:

    Another tactic is to balance work, and mix in another style. If it were cars, the lean-ers would be looking to make them according to demand (takt time) in a pattern like this:


    woah, this really goeas against everything I’ve elearned about the advantages of production-style manufacturing. Can Kathleen or Karen comment more on why mixing the work up in this way provides an advantage?

  3. Project Kaizen: Tuesday

    Today’s entry is making improvements for sub-team members performing the same type of work. In other words, I’ll be writing about troubleshooting in the pattern department. One of the clearest example of this is when I worked for an American…

  4. I’m not sure what you’ve learned about production manufacturing specifically about this, but lean does shake up a lot of conventional wisdom about production.

    I’m going to give you a quick inadequate answer and follow up with a better answer later.

    The basic idea relates to flow, and the elimination of batch-and-queue processes.

    If one model requires more work at machine X than another, the even mix means that the operator can move the same number of pieces per hour by balancing within her operation. The next operation then doesn’t get bunches of one, then bunches of the other, which might throw off their pace.

    you will utilize parts at the same pace throughout the day, making it easier for the previous operation to work to the same pace throughout the day. If each model has a different machine (eyelets made in one, but not the other?) the eyelet step can go at the same pace all day.

    It’s good to keep throwing conventional wisdom against lean practices to really understand why lean works.

  5. More –

    First, I am going to assume that you subscribe to the wisdom of making batches smaller and changeover faster. This means you don’t overproduce everything you will need for the next two weeks in the name of “efficiency,” but actually just take up space, tie up money, and risk getting stuck with unsold goods. If you are still trying to become efficient by maximizing the utilization of machines or workers, there is a different discussion that needs to take place.

    It also assumes your customer has learned not to order all she will need for the whole season, expecting you to deliver it all at one time.

    Your production will be paced to customer demand, with some mix of products you need to deliver this week. The pure AAA B AAA might not fit your particular product mix, customer mix and demand pattern, but there is some pattern you can discern.

    One thing you will certainly do, no matter what this week’s orders look like, is balance your use of labor and machines. If you have two designs, one that takes 5 minutes on machine X and the other taking 10 minutes, and you have 500 of each to make today, you don’t want to schedule all of the 5-minute designs in the morning, and all the 10-minute designs in the afternoon. Why? Because lots of other operations won’t be running at the same 1:2 ratio. You will have machine X’s operator sitting and waiting, or piling up work waiting for her to get through it.

    The effect on upstream and downstream processes is mentioned above.

    You might not need or want to level by the hour, but you might want to level the week’s work across the day’s. It will take a close study of your products, the pattern of demand, the way your materials are delivered, the number of operations in the process, etc., to look at how non-level production is affecting flow and how you can make improvements using the principle of balancing and leveling.

  6. Kathleen says:

    I just wanted to mention one crucial difference in this business. There is one -huge- critical problem for people in the needle trades and that is supply. As much as we may not want to, we are forced to carry fabric inventory (see my post //
    because suppliers refuse to service small orders (typically defined as fewer than 500 yards, or even a thousand). If you need 10 fabrics (or colors even) to produce your line, that can mean 10,000 yards! Being small operators, we lack the leverage to get our suppliers to think Lean in order to serve up smaller quantities too. However, we do not have this problem…
    It also assumes your customer has learned not to order all she will need for the whole season, expecting you to deliver it all at one time.
    …our vendors would greatly prefer to reorder during the selling season (we have about 5 selling seasons a year, most producers participate in a maximum of 3). The problem is, in order to make fabric minimums, manfacturers try to get all of their orders from retailers up front. It is a huge problem.

  7. clearly, there is a gigantic niche out there for fabric vendors willing to work with small or lean manufacturers who want to iplement JIT on the incoming end…so any entrepreneur wannabe’s out there who want to be in the fashion industry but haven’t found their calling yet, for god’s sake start the business already, and you’ll be instantly swamped with orders!

    If you’re worried about what kind of fabrics your demographic will want, you can request suggestions on Kathleen’s bulletin board, and I’ll bet you money that she’d be happy to feature your start-up in at least one post, so there’s some free market research and targeted advertising right there.

  8. Jinger is right! Actually lots of lean manufacturers have the supply problem. It’s a big barrier.

    The small lot vendor would have a competitive advantage. The large lot vendor also has a lot of unwanted inventory because they can’t reliably predict how much to make and in what mix.

    Tantalizing, isn’t it!

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