1. Who are you, what organization are you with, and what
are your current lean-oriented activities?
I'm Kathleen Fasanella author of The Entrepreneur's Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing and publisher of Fashion-Incubator.com. Originally I was a pattern maker in the garment industry. Critical to this discussion, a "pattern maker" is an archaic job description for a hybrid of engineering functions. A pattern maker is a product design engineer, a materials engineer and lastly, an industrial engineer combined into the drafting function. It is typical in apparel, that a pattern maker is the only employee on staff who provides engineering functions because apparel is dead last (pdf) in every manufacturing index, due in part to its ease of market entry and relatively low capital requirements (a common household appliance) and readily sourced materials at
retail. I've been nurturing start up and small manufacturers to start smart -and lean- for the past 15 years.
2. How, when, and why did you get introduced to lean and
what fueled and fuels the passion?
Well, apparel is unusual in that prior to offshoring and mass market "brand" creation, it had always been lean to the extent that production was pulled rather than pushed. As such, lean was all I knew at the outset of my career. Sometime in the mid nineties, the situation changed dramatically with manufacturers pushing production and it concerned me greatly. Dealing with smaller entities as I was, all of the push brands were failing. It was then I wrote my book describing the concepts of responsible production, detailing at length, all of the concepts embodied in lean studies as we know them. Not having an engineering background per se, nor any connection to lean practitioners, I was unaware of the school of thought known as lean by name and even admitted as such in the text saying I imagined this form of production had a name but I didn't know what it was, calling it the
"traditional model". In other words, I saw a system of which I could describe its concepts and practices but lacked the terminology and acumen to explain it within the parameters I know now. It wasn't until 2001 or so that I came upon Crosby and from there Deming and so on. I was delighted to know there was a whole movement and people I could draw from rather than my limited tacit knowledge and thus justify all I intuitively knew of sane and effective operations. What compels me is the rate of unnecessary business failures by push manufacturers which is rampant among start ups. It's such a waste and truly heart breaking because most of these enterprises are domestic, employing those with limited employment options.
3. In your opinion what is the most powerful aspect of
Empowerment, pride and profitability. Most enterprises are such that employees are a by product; they can borrow esteem from the positive image their employer may enjoy among consumers but this is seldom the case. Lean permits participatory pride, a sense of ownership among employees even though they may not own a single piece of the business. With lean, it's employees who are truly investing in their employers and they feel it, the owners feel it. It becomes a genuine group effort.
4. In your opinion what is the most misunderstood or
unrecognized aspect of lean?
I could write a book about this. Oh wait, I did. What is most frustrating to me is that the vast majority of entrepreneurs think they are lean because they're running their operations on a shoe string. Lean is not less in the ways they take it to mean. Lean does mean less in terms of resources needed and inventory etc but they think they're naturally lean with operations pared to the bone but they still -tragically- find myriad ways to waste what few resources they can marshal and worse, use questionable management to shut out the few sane dissenting voices who'd dare attempt to better guide their course.
Another unrecognized aspect of lean is the perception that it must be adopted full bore, down to its constituent parts, that you can't do any of it unless you do all of it. I think a lot of people don't attempt it because they think it's a full package to buy, an easily implemented magic wand with fast results at the outset not realizing it is a journey and an exercise in practice evolution. Again, I can't speak to other industries but apparel is unusual in that a few no-cost changes can generate impressive and literally overnight results even if the operations process remains largely static. I've made this the focus of my practice.
5. In your opinion what is the biggest opportunity for
lean in today's world? How can that be accomplished?
I think today's economic challenges will continue to increase interest among business leaders in lean implementation. At least in my industry, there's increasing acknowledgment that off shoring production does not provide the financial benefits that were once supposed. With a paring back of the economy, branding is falling by the wayside in a climate where consumers are taking stock and demanding more value. The companies that are thriving now are those who can cycle from product inception to delivery inside of two months. This is a radical departure in that our cycle times were traditionally 16 to 9 months. Obviously, those firms who can beat the two month window perform the best. Again, apparel in unusual in that it is possible to go from product inception to delivery of small quantities inside of a week. That is rare but well-oiled Zara does this as a matter of course; their cycle time is typically two and half weeks.
One of the firms I've been working with since 2004 (Fit Couture) sells over 1,000 skus consumer direct via the web. Unbeknown to consumers, at the time product is ordered, it doesn't even exist. Yet this firm will cut, sew and ship what amounts to custom orders -all within 24 hours. This company is really tiny with only four full time employees (two of whom are the owners) and one part timer. The firm is doing very well and implementing another lean cell this year.
I can't speak to other types of manufacturing but apparel -in spite of unbridled opportunity- is facing an enduring crisis owing in part to out sourcing which will continue to affect the needle trades for years to come, specifically that of human capital. When out sourcing became rampant, many domestic contract shops closed down with adept experienced employees and the owners who employed them, retiring or going into another line of business. At the same time, education continued to focus on the operations then typical of the most "successful" employers (push manufacturing) so there is a dearth of experienced operations people. Now that there is increased market interest in local production, there are insufficient contractors to address domestic production demands. Currently, there's enormous demand for lean practitioners in apparel but too few have the necessary background in operations with the tragic result of a lot of LAME practitioners. The problem is further compounded by the traditional and extremely conservative mindset of existing manufacturers to invest in their operations, meaning it's mostly tiny firms with limited resources to hire consultants to assist them in their lean journey.