Tuesday, May 30, 2017

How to Make Big Problems Out of Little Ones

This is a time in the evolution of the apparel industry where profits and market share are in flux. It seems everything is changing, not for the best for some companies. The players who are doing well are reading from a new script-speed and agility is a main asset. Also price is a main driver in today’s market, so cost reduction is as important as product cost when sales are threatened.

I have found that too many companies, especially larger ones, get in their own way. They have too many processes that do not add value, and are very slow; most important, too many people working on the same things, each with a little piece of the whole to complete, and most with no power to move the process forward. This is due to two main factors: 1. The organization of the process itself, and 2. Too many people involved in decision making, most not empowered to make even small decisions. This all costs time and money.

Two examples, two companies, both US companies manufacturing in China:

1.     Company A makes mens shirts. One print of bulk fabric due for quick turnaround has some shading bars. It is visible in fabric form, but when sewn into a shirt it is nearly impossible to see. Within one day of the problem being uncovered, the factory produces a sample that proves this. The players in China, including the head of all Asia offices, as well as the quality manager, agree that this sample is acceptable to go ahead. However, they refuse to make the decision and send the shirt to US for final decision. Two weeks later, the decision is made and, naturally, the delivery is delayed.
2.     Company B is making a shawl that will be packaged with some woven strips which use a Velcro closure. Someone decides to change the shape of the Velcro closure from square to round, and, when samples are examined, it is found that the adherence is not acceptable. The solution is to change back to square to give the Velcro more traction and iron the patches to make sure they adhere well. Good solution. That being said, it took about 5 days and more than 30 emails to come to and approve this conclusion.

Both cases clearly illustrate my point.  There are two problems: 1. Too many cooks in the kitchen and 2. Nobody feels empowered to make the decision except the big boss, finally-like a basketball team passing the ball 30 times and nobody wants to shoot.

What should happen here?

1.     Change the process and perhaps reduce the number of players so decisions can be made quickly. Most companies are set up in silos- every order requires the participation of many departments, all of whom have one piece of the process and very little impact on the whole. What is more, they have no personal interest in problems in the other area, even if they may have caused them. Oh, and they don’t usually talk to each other.
2.     Empower staff so that decisions can be made at the lowest feasible level. If you hire someone to “manage” something, let them manage. If you don’t trust them to manage, you shouldn’t have hired them. It is undeniably true that people who are put in the position of sheep end up being sheep, even if they weren’t when they started the job.
3.     Find staff that are highly productive and add value; you can give them more workload, thus reducing the number of fingers in the pie. Even if you have to pay them more.
4.     Think big, be small. Reduce your staff as much as possible- just a Seal Team of highly effective people. Will cut cost and reduce the number of hands in every process and decision.

Each case and each company are different, but the above principles work are universal.

Here are some more specifics of what can be done to improve and speed up the process:

1.     Reorganize along project lines rather than functional lines. IF one person manages one order or one factory by themselves, they will be fully conversant in all aspects and will not have to wait on who-knows-how-many people to answer questions or make decisions. It is their order-period- and they cannot defer the responsibility to anyone else if problems occur. They and only they must solve problems and get it done.
2.     Simplify your process so it can be handled by fewer people. For example, the omnipresent PSR (Production Status Report). In every case that I have seen, these reports are a waste of everyone’s time. All you need to know- just a list of key events with due dates, another column for actual dates (AKA reverse calendar). Not the date every style goes to cutting, sewing and packing.
3.     If a process or part of it does not add value, don’t do it. You will simply waste money and slow things down. For example, inline inspection. For continuing styles and with a good, dependable factory, problems with sewing should almost never happen. Even if 5% problems (way high), why waste time doing 100% of production? Put the burden on the factory to get it right.

I am sure that the biggest challenge here is change. Companies are rarely willing to give up something that they believe gives them a comfort level-even if they cost too much, slow things down too much, and problems happen anyway (always). Unfortunately, many don’t know any better way. What is needed for them is a new standard and belief in new possibilities that they either never considered before or considered and dismissed.

The most important lesson is that little problems should be just that-little problems. If they become a big problem, probably your process is the problem.

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