Countries such as Mauritius, Sri Lanka and Vietnam are showing an increasing interest in teamworking, and many factories in other parts of the world already claim to have implemented the practice. But what is 'teamwork', and are apparel manufacturers prepared for the corporate commitment needed to make it a success? Niki Tait finds out.

Each factory interprets the term 'teamwork' in a slightly different way, and the methods adopted can be quite diverse - even within different parts of the same company. The term is often confused with a variety of similar terms that may, or may not, be related or interrelated. These include 'modular manufacturing', 'small group working', and 'quick response manufacture'.

All these definitions describe manufacturing methods. Teamwork, however, adds another dimension, moving the emphasis away from just a production method towards a change in the philosophy and culture of a company.

True teamwork
One of the best definitions of true teamwork was developed by the European Teamworking Group during the mid-nineties: "Teamwork is a flexible, quick response production system consisting of self organised, self motivated, multi-skilled versatile operators who work collectively in stable teams, making joint decisions and sharing responsibility for the team's output in terms of both quality and quantity."

A key point within this definition is the phrase "flexible quick response production system." For quick response, there must be low work in progress. This is because throughput time is directly related to not only to the work content of the product, but also the amount of work between each workstation. If there is one day's work in progress between each operation, and there are twenty operations in a twenty five minute product, at an average factory efficiency of 80 the throughput time will be (1 x 19) + (25/80%) = 19 days, 31 minutes. In other words, although it takes only 31 minutes to produce the actual garment, it takes over 19 days for the garment to be processed through the factory. Thus the efficiency of the plant and the work content of the product have little to do with the throughput time; but the work in progress (WIP) does.

Potential Benefits Of Teamworking

For the company:

  • Increased profitability
  • Higher productivity
  • Enhanced flexibility
  • Total Quality
  • Radically reduced WIP
  • Reduced overall cost
  • Improved attendance
  • Lower labour turnover
  • Greater contribution from the workforce
  • Stimulus for change and improvement
    throughout the company

For the customer:

  • Quick response to market demands
  • Improved and consistent quality
  • Confidence in reliable, on time deliveries
  • Flexible and versatile production
  • Reduction of risk
For the workforce:
  • More interesting and rewarding jobs
  • Sense of team spirit
  • Fairer wage system
  • Opportunity, stability and security
  • Improved working environment

"Self organised, self motivated," means that there is a degree of empowerment within the team. Many of the traditional supervisory functions are absorbed within the team, such as line balancing, and organising who will carry out each task and perform each operation. Motivation becomes more a team function than a management/supervisory function.

"Multi-skilled versatile operators who work collectively in stable teams" means that within the team each worker is able to carry out a range of operations. And because the teams are stable and not changing constantly, training plans can be implemented to ensure that the team has sufficient skills within it to carry out all the necessary operations, cover for absenteeism, etc. Because the team is responsible for its own organisation and balancing it should be involved in drawing up and implementing these training plans, looking at the longer term as well as the present and immediate future. It stands to reason, then, that at least two operators must be able to carry out each operation. And depending on the balance of operation times, each operator may need to be able to perform several operations.

"Making joint decisions and sharing responsibility for the team's output in terms of both quality and quantity" again relates to empowerment of the team.

"Output in terms of both quality and quantity" results in the need for the team to adopt a 'right first time' total quality philosophy. It needs to become involved in the methods and pre-production planning, as well as the scheduling of work into the team.

Empowerment of responsibility
It is the empowerment of responsibility and decision making, therefore, that makes 'teamworking' different from 'modular manufacturing',' small group working', 'quick response manufacture', and the like.

A number of further characteristics result from this definition of 'teamworking'. Because teams are multi-skilled and versatile they are inevitably highly flexible.

The need for self balancing and organisation means that the teams need to be laid out in a way that both aids communication and makes visualisation easy, and wastes no time in moving work around and excess handling. So the teams are normally laid out in a U-shape, circle, or similar, with work flowing from operation to operation.

Costs can be looked at differently. Individual performances, efficiencies and utilisation are no longer the key factors. The team is collectively responsible for its output, and the emphasis of production monitoring moves away from what each individual within the factory is doing, to what each team is completing.

The emphasis begins to focus on 'non value added activities'; that is, the costs associated with factors that add nothing to the value of the product. For example, the dramatically reduced and tightly controlled work in progress means that some method of handling can normally be devised to eliminate the tying and untying of bundles. This activity adds nothing to the value of the garment and should be eliminated wherever possible, as should the need for physically moving work around.

Because the team takes over many of the management/supervisory responsibilities that are tied to the removal of non-value added activities, costs can often be saved by reducing the number of indirect staff. 'Work movers' are no longer required. Examination becomes a team function. Work is often presented to the teams in lay height.

For both quality and motivational reasons, wherever possible the team should produce the entire garment, inclusive of bagging and/or boxing. This also cuts out much duplicate handling. The number of supervisors required is often reduced. One supervisor can be responsible for up to 100 operators, although this obviously depends on a number of factors, including the amount of training and retraining required, the similarities between styles and product types, the frequency of style changes, and the degree of empowerment given to the teams.

Payment systems also change. If teams "work collectively in stable teams, making joint decisions and sharing responsibility for the team's output in terms of both quality and quantity," it would be inappropriate to pay piecework rates. Some type of group payment scheme therefore needs to be introduced.

A question often asked is "should the operators be seated or standing?" Again the answer depends on many factors. The type of product; the requirement for 'quick' response or almost 'immediate' response; the wishes of the operators; the degree of varying skill requirements within a product and the sequencing of those skills; the frequency of moving of each team member; the length of time spent at each workstation, to name a few.

In the same way that every company has its own aims, objectives and future strategies, the potential benefits of introducing teamwork need to be evaluated on an individual basis. The precise method of teamwork needs to be designed to meet the requirements of the company, the products it produces, and the markets it serves. There is no universal solution that can provide maximum benefits for everyone. The approach must be extremely open and flexible, allowing companies to develop into teamworking in ways appropriate to their particular circumstances.

Standing solution
With the standing solution for example - often referred to as the TSS system (Toyota Sewing System) - operators will function with sequential skills. The work in progress here is often down to one garment per operator. The work is 'pulled through', which means that once a garment comes off the end of the team, the last operator will walk back to the preceding operator and take over the production of her garment, even if she is half way through an operation. A type of reverse relay race then results. The freed operator will move back to the next and so on until the first operator moves back to the beginning of the line and commences a new garment. Skills must overlap sufficiently otherwise this smooth takeover cannot occur and a build up in WIP will result.

On the positive side, the work flows very quickly. And if the standard minute value of the product is twenty minutes, providing the team is operating at 100 per cent efficiency, a garment will come off line twenty minutes after it has been started. This results in almost immediate response. Any quality problems are picked up almost instantaneously too.

The other side of the argument says that not all operators will be able to work to the same speed or efficiency, even with the correct training. Some operators are more dextrous than others and are better at the more fiddly little jobs, whilst others are more effective on the longer seams. Some prefer the special machining jobs such as button attach and buttonholing which can not always be carried out sequentially, as in the case of some fly fronted blouses for example. Working sequentially, the operator may need to sew long side seams, use a folder machine to attach the waistbands, then close the boxed waistband ends. All require very different types of skill and handling.

Another problem with this method is that the operator is non-productive when moving back to take over the next garment. To overcome this, some systems introduce a small amount of work in progress to help eliminate this non-productive time. The amount of work in progress then determines the length of time an operator spends at a workstation. The longer this time, the lower the percentage of waste time spent actually sitting down or standing up, so chairs may be introduced.

The alternative to sequential skills is for operators to work on non-sequential operations. The operations they work on can be the ones they feel most comfortable with, perform at the highest speed, opt to learn, produce the best quality on, etc. The arguments here include the fact that the team members can have more say in their training plan, both individually and collectively.

But if this system is operated with single garments, team members will inevitably collide with each other as they move between machines, and it is very difficult to balance.So a 'Kanban' is normally introduced.

Diagram showing the TSS stand-up approach to teamworking
The characteristics of the TSS method of modular manufacturing can be summarised as:

  • Operators stand rather than sit.
  • Individual garments move through each workstation in sequence.
  • As operators move with the garment, they need to be trained on a sequential range of operations.
  • Teams operate in a U-shaped layout.
  • Work in progress is drastically reduced.
  • Change from individual piecework to group payment schemes.
  • Less supervision as operators become involved in decision making, more emphasis on management.
  • Teams responsible for their own quality and quantity of output.
  • Operators contribute towards methods and production planning.

Kanban system
A Kanban is a Japanese term referring to a stock replenishment system. In this case, the stock is the maximum amount of work in progress situated between any operations. By definition, therefore, it is very tightly controlled.

An example is a Kanban of 2 bundles with 10 garments per bundle. Once an operation has been carried out on two completed bundles, the operator must stop and move onto a different operation. Obviously she can only move to an operation that has work waiting in its preceding Kanban, and where the proceeding Kanban is not full.

Other strategies can also be introduced with this method. For example, if there is a choice of operations, the operator could move to the one she does best. It may be that where there is a choice she goes to the earliest operation in the sequence, thus effectively pushing the work through the system. Or it may be that she goes to the operation last in the sequence, 'pulling' the work out of the team.

The Kanban size can be whatever suits the company or team best: it is not always the same for every product, and it need not be the same for every operation. The important thing is that once the Kanban rules are set they are stuck to, unless there is a proven and agreed benefit in changing them. Typically, a thirty minute garment with say 16 operations and seven team members, a Kanban of 2 bundles, and ten garments a bundle, would result in a throughput time of approximately 6 hours from start to finish. Still quick response, though not as quick as the single garment system.

Diagram showing the Kanban approach to teamworking
Characteristics of the Kanban method of manufacture are essentially similar to the TSS, except that operators sit to carry out work on bundles. Work in progress is strictly controlled by use of Kanbans. The Kanban is a fixed, predetermined level of work in progress allowed as a buffer between each operation. If the Kanban for the next workstation is full (i.e. it has reached the predetermined maximum level), or if the Kanban of an operator's previous workstation is empty, the operator moves to another workstation. When an operator moves, she has to make a choice based on four rules:

  • The next workstation's Kanban should not be full.
  • The workstation has to have garments within its Kanban (i.e. work waiting for that operation).
  • The workstation should not already be occupied by another operator.
  • She must be trained to carry out the operation at the workstation.
  • The garments move sequentially around the system.
Because garments are placed in Kanbans between operations, the operators do not have to be trained on sequential operations, but can move between any workstations they are trained for.

Stand-up TSS teamworking at Viet Tien in Vietnam.

Support team
Whatever physical form of teamworking is adopted, the empowerment necessitates a different role for the supervisors, quality staff, managers, mechanics, workstudy, and other indirect employees. They become a 'support team' for the production teams, and this can result in a considerable culture shock.

This empowerment cannot take place overnight but develops in relation to the way the team evolves. Considerable training needs to take place, not just in terms of the multi-skilling and technical aspects, but in team development and team support. Regular team meetings need to be held to discuss the new styles, quality aspects, training needs, machine requirements, and scheduling, but also the interpersonal aspects of the team. Problem solving, communication skills, meeting skills, and much else must be addressed as part of the training, as should the changing roles of supervisors, who become more of a team leader, coach, and facilitator. Managers must learn to delegate and push the decision-making down the line as far as possible, and provide the teams with greater authority to act than they have previously.

Unless this change is carefully and sympathetically addressed, the supervisory and managerial staff, particularly at the lower and middle levels, can feel venerable and threatened to the point that they can make or break the teams.

The introduction of teamworking is not a project that can be undertaken lightly. It must be given the commitment and resources necessary for any major change. Training for all members of staff from the managing director to the individual team members will be required, as the system will have ramifications throughout the company from sales and marketing, financial control, through purchasing, planning and cutting, and back to design.

The pressure will mount on the mechanics as downtime will become critical; no order can start production until all the components are immediately available; and teams will devise improved production methods affecting the cutting, patterns and design. New marketing and sales opportunities open up with the ability to offer a quick response service.

Teamworking can act as a stimulus for change and improvement throughout a company. But perhaps the greatest impact of all comes from the removal of the 'safety blanket' of high work in progress and the need to meet the demands of the new quick response systems.

Niki Tait, C.Text FTI, FCFI heads Apparel Solutions, a consultancy that provides independent assistance to the apparel industry in the areas of manufacturing methods, industrial engineering, information technology and quick response.

A company should address the following questions before implementing teamworking:
  • Do we understand what teamworking is really about and what it is not?
  • Are our top management committed to teamworking and are they prepared to involve everyone in the business in the change?
  • Are our people prepared to accept a rigorous, self-driven, on-going programme of continuous improvement?
  • Are we prepared to question every activity in our company to determine its value-adding right to exist?
  • Are we seriously aiming to reduce inventory by up to 90 per cent as part of the strategy?
  • Are we willing to radically alter our plant layout despite the temporary disruptions?
  • Are we prepared to commit to reorganise the order entry, material supply, manufacturing procedures and distribution logistics to achieve the revised aims and objectives of the company?
  • Are we prepared to commit to a 'share to gain' attitude with our suppliers and operators rather than the traditional adversarial approach?
  • Do our systems dictate to or support manufacture; will we change them to suit our teamworking requirements?
  • Are we prepared to attack the design of our product to build in quality?
  • Given that we are prepared to drive quality back into the design of the product and to suppliers, are we prepared to stop production whilst we fix the problem if poor quality still emerges?