Efforts by the global garment export industry to achieve greater efficiency and higher productivity have limited designers to the lowest level of design, workers to producing the simplest garments, and even customers must make do with what they are given. But it doesn't have to be like this, says David Birnbaum, with new technologies providing a platform were talented designers can show their wares directly to the consumer.

The two fundamental principals underlying the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the world's first industrial engineer, the person who created the modern assembly line and, in a real sense the father of the 20th century factory, are:

  1. Factory workers are apathetic and stupid by nature. They are incapable of understanding the actual manufacturing process.

  2. For each product, there exists one-best-way to manufacture that product, providing the greatest number of units in the least time with the lowest number of defects.

2011 marks the 100 anniversary of the publication of Winslow Taylor's 'Principles of Scientific Management' where, using the steel industry as an example, he devised the first strategy to increase manufacturing productivity.

The Line
Taylor introduced the three-step programme to achieve true manufacturing efficiency:

  • Enforced standardisation of the manufacturing steps

  • Enforced adoption of the best tools and techniques

  • Enforced cooperation of the entire workforce.

He broke down the manufacturing process into a series of specific steps, where each repetitive step could be carried out accurately and efficiently by a person with few skills, little intelligence and no education.

Taylor's goal was to meld the worker with his machine to produce the most efficient mechanical production unit. All he wanted was the hands; everything else was at best superfluous and at worst counter productive. In the words of Henry Ford, Taylor's most famous disciple: "Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?"

Taylor's ideas were well suited to the early 20th century, a time when most people were uneducated and where manufacturing relied to a large degree on hand tools. The better shovel designed to lift precisely 21½ pounds of material did indeed raise productivity in the steel mills where Taylor carried out his pioneering work.

We in the global garment export industry found Taylor's scientific management to be an ideal model. When, with the advent of quota in the early 1960s, we were forced to move our factories from the more developed countries such as Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong to less developed countries, scientific management seemed like the answer to our prayers.

Using Taylor's methods, we were able to build efficient operations in countries where wages were low and the supply of labour virtually inexhaustible. We employed mostly women - the least educated group in countries with the lowest levels of education. In these garment sewing factories, no one sewed garments. Each worker was simply programmed to sew a single straight line.

True to Taylor's creed, the worker had become just one more machine.

The problems with Line
As both industry and workers became more sophisticated, flaws in Taylor's scientific management became manifest.

The system worked best in factories which produced a single unchanging product. What was ideally suited to the production of never-ending streams of steel billets and blooms did not work well in the production of automobiles, where model change was an annual event and where much of Taylor's scientific management efficiency was lost when, each August, the factory was forced to close down to re-tool for the next-year models.

Rising numbers of defects became a serious problem. It was discovered that small defects occurring in the early stages of the production process would become major defects at the end of the line. To maintain quality levels, companies were forced to install rigorous, time-consuming, and costly quality control procedures.

The evolution from hand tools to mechanical, from mechanical to computerised, and finally from computerised to robotic, required a better educated and more highly skilled workforce.

Suddenly management found that the workers' hands were not enough. They needed the workers' brains as well. Taylor's outdated steel mills employing thousands of hands were replaced by highly sophisticated specialised operations, employing a few hundred skilled employees, all equipped with university educations.

From Line to Lean
The new generation management discovered that not only were their workers intelligent, they also knew a great deal about the manufacturing process.

And so was born Lean Manufacturing, where highly skilled workers capable of operating sophisticated equipment, working in semi-autonomous teams take responsibility for their own quality control. Not only are these teams more flexible thus reducing down-time, they are able to play an active role in Taylor's second fundamental principal - the search for the one-best-way to manufacture each product.

We in the global garment export industry have been slow to move from the line to lean.

Ours is a labour intensive industry where capital costs are low and wage rates even lower. As a result, increased productivity does little to reduce costs at the factory level.

However, the trend towards decreasing order size coupled with increasing numbers of styles is making lean more attractive; while at the same time pressure from our customers who require greater speed-to-market is making lean a requirement.

The problems with Lean
Just as we are all jumping on the lean bandwagon, we are discovering that lean is not the universal panacea.

The problem lies with Taylor's second principal - the existence of the one-best-way to manufacture each product, with the greatest number of units in the least time with the lowest number of defects.

Taylor's Scientific Management may work for basic commodity products but falls apart when applied to anything more sophisticated than sheet steel, because for the sophisticated product there is no one-best-way to manufacture. For sophisticated products, the best way depends not just on the product but more importantly on the customer and the "look" the designer wants to achieve.

Basic products have but a single standard of quality. Any deviation from that standard is by definition a defect, ie, a lower level of quality. A steel billet is a specific object which, depending on the alloy, has a specific mix of elements. Any deviation from the standard, such as shape, size, mass or mixture, is a defect.

Sophisticated products such as fashion clothing are different. Each style is different and each operation in the production process can be performed different ways, each with a different standard. As a rule the higher the standard the lower the level.

To put it another way, the more difficult the operation the greater the likelihood that defects will occur. At the lowest standard, a sleeve can be set in a single step operation. At the highest standard the same sleeve is set in a four step operation - two of which are done by hand.

The single step operation will produce a more uniform product, with each garment identical to the other, while the four step operation will result in a much nicer sleeve, but because of the added operations, no two garments will be the same.

We cannot even say that one method is better than the other. Giorgio Armani will reject the Wal-Mart garment produced by the single step operation, while Wal-Mart will reject the Armani garment produced by the four step operation.

To this we have to add the fact that we often use defective materials such as silk, while at the same time adding totally unnecessary operations such as pleats, pintucks, and embroidery, all of which serve to increase the number of defects.

It is all a matter of aesthetics. And, Frederick Winslow Taylor's Scientific Management leaves no place for aesthetics. To Taylor and his modern day disciples only uniformity, efficiency, and productivity count. All deviations must be exorcised from the manufacturing process.

Once again, Henry Ford summed up the Taylor philosophy when he wrote of his famous Model-T: "Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black".

We in the garment industry have learned Taylor's lessons all too well. Where once "commercial" design was defined as creating something the customer wants to buy; we garmentos now define "commercial" design as creating something the factory can produce.

If our products now look like lowest-common-denominator design, churned out by cookie cutters, it is because we have intentionally opted for a lowest-common-denominator cookie-cutter industry.

The 20th century reached the apex in our climb towards greater efficiency and higher productivity.

In our unending efforts to move ever upwards, we left behind our designers who we have limited to the lowest level of design, our workers who we have limited to producing the simplest garments, and even our customers who must make do with what we give them.

For the most part, the result has been a greatly overpriced, second-rate product shipped months late. In the end we have traded higher efficiency for lower value.

However the 21st century with its new technology has created an alternative.

From Lean to Live
Question: What do racing yachts, space satellites, video games, the US military, and Armani jackets all have in common?

Answer: They are all 21st century craft based industries.

We tend to think of crafts and craftsmen in terms of Navajo blankets and ikat silk sarongs, but the people who build racing yachts and space satellites, develop video games and sit in Maryland operating drone aircraft flying over Afghanistan are as much craftsmen as the hand weavers in New Mexico and Lunang Probang. The only difference is that 21st century technology has provided better tools.

Nowhere will this be more apparent than in the fashion garment industry.

The internet provides a global platform where talented designers can show their wares directly to the consumer, by-passing the brand importer and the retailer.

That same internet provides a means for designers to work directly with experienced seamstresses, who have the necessary skills to produce the style the designer wants, at a reasonable cost, maintaining total designer integrity

Better logistics allows for orders as small as one garment to be shipped from workshops in Asia, directly to customers anywhere in the world, by-passing the buying office, the import office and everyone else in the middle.

In an industry where the retail price is six to ten times first cost, there is a great deal of room for something special at a reasonable price.

There is now a place for the talented, knowledgeable, and committed to provide well designed and far better made clothing directly to the consumer at less than 50% of today's accepted retail prices.

The 20th century giants will still have their place in the 21st century industry; the giant factory suppliers with their long lines of mechanical sewers will go on. There will certainly be a place for lean manufacturing.

However all three will now have to compete with committed professionals who have great craft and join together as individuals to produce something of value.

A better design - a better make - a lower price - coming to you soon directly from your local global live supplier.

David Birnbaum is the author of The Birnbaum Report, a monthly newsletter for garment industry professionals. Each issue analyses in-depth US garment imports of four major products from 21 countries, as well as ancillary data such as currency fluctuations, China quota premiums and clearance rates.