In today's environment where consumers have multiple choices, and retailers have options of sourcing from a variety of manufacturers, it is no-brainer that effective quality management is required for survival, writes Pradip V Mehta.

 

Effective quality management starts with a quality policy. Effectiveness is the extent to which planned activities are realised and planned results achieved. Policy is a guide to managerial action. A quality policy is overall intentions and directions or management philosophy of an organisation related to quality as formally expressed by the top management. Top management means the chief executive officer (CEO) or managing director (MD), and all those positions that report directly to CEO or MD.

 

The operation of any company reflects the underlying philosophy of those who lead it. The management philosophy shapes the culture of the organisation. An effective quality policy gives direction to an organisation in terms of purpose. It is a means of defining an organisation's aim, which all employees should be aware of. Quality policy brings clarity and unity within a company.

 

Employees and workers in any organisation make decisions on behalf of the top management every day. Quality policy is supposed to provide a reference point for every employee in their decision-making regarding quality matters. The content of the quality policy should be appropriate to the business, include a commitment to improvement and customer satisfaction and refer to the objectives to be achieved by the company. For a quality policy to be effective, it should be capable of influencing behaviour of the management as well as employees.

 

Here is an example of a generic quality policy:

The _____________ company is committed to delivering defect free products on time at the most competitive cost possible through continuous improvement of our processes and products. The _____________ company is committed to meet or exceed our customers' expectations each and every time.

 

Fundamental to quality policy is the definition of quality. Quality may mean different things to different people. For example, it may mean "the best money can buy," "meeting specifications," "no more than 1 per cent defective," etc. Whatever definition is chosen by the management, it is important that everyone in the company knows what that definition is. If different people in a company have different concept of quality, it becomes very difficult to manage quality. For example, where this author worked, poor quality or defect was defined as any condition in a product that will have an adverse impact on appearance, serviceability, or salability of that product, which can be anything such as a stain on the garment, a tear in the fabric, open seam, loose threads, mismatched panels in a garment, poor shrinkage performance in laundering, etc; and the list goes on. And a garment containing any one or more of these conditions (defects) was considered "defective." Our suppliers also knew how we defined quality.

 

While it is important to have a quality policy and a corporate definition of quality, it is equally important that both are communicated to the entire workforce throughout the organisation. It is most effective to explain to the workforce the role quality plays in terms of profitability so each worker understands how his/her work impacts profit of the company. At a shoe manufacturing factory in the US that this author conducted a quality management system audit, all workers on a particular production line which was producing two styles for this author's company knew that for one style if one out of 18 pairs was scrapped for poor quality, the factory did not make any profit on those 18 pairs! For the other style, they knew that if one out of 16 pairs was scrapped for poor quality, the factory did not make any profit on those 16 pairs! Think about what a great communication job that factory management did. Every worker in this factory knew how his/her work impacted profit. This kind of understanding within the workforce also creates peer pressure as no one wants to stand out causing poor quality.

 

Planning the quality parameters

In order to implement quality policy, some planning is necessary. Such planning is called quality planning. Quality planning involves allocating appropriate resources, defining quality procedures, and selecting quality standards pertaining to a specific product. Outcome of quality planning is a quality plan. A quality plan is a document or a set of documents that describe resources (types of fabrics and accessories, types of equipment, such as sewing machines, skilled manpower, etc) needed and processes (operations, types of seam and stitches, etc) to be used to produce a certain product; quality procedures (inspection, testing, sampling plans, etc); and the standards (quality requirements) that will be used in determining acceptability of a product. The standards can be related to workmanship, such as how a finished garment is supposed to look like as well as performance, such as colourfastness, shrinkage in laundering, seam strength, etc.

 

Typical tools available to a garment manufacturer for managing quality are inspection and testing. Inspection is visual assessment of the result of a process/operation or final product and a judgment as to acceptability or conformity of what was assessed. The principle behind inspection is the early detection of defects, feedback of this information to appropriate people, and determination of the cause, ultimately resulting in the correction of the problem and prevention from it happening again.

 

Inspection should be conducted in the following three areas:

 

         Incoming inspection: Inspection of raw materials/purchased materials such as fabric, accouterments, etc.

 

         In-process inspection: Inspection of assembled pieces as they go through important operations/processes.

 

         Final inspection: Inspection of completed pieces of garments. Final inspection also involves size measurements and form fitting. Form fitting is putting finished garments on proper size mannequins to see if the fit and drape is properly for the labeled sizes and/or live modeling, where garments are actually worn by appropriate size individuals to see how well they fit and drape.

 

For inspection to be effective following elements are vital:

         Trained inspectors who know what to look for or what is a defect and what is not a defect. Since inspection is visual and involves judgment, inspectors should be able to exercise realistic judgment. They should not be too strict or too lenient in exercising their judgment as to what is acceptable and what is not.

 

         Guidelines or standards as to what is acceptable and what is not. It is better to have these standards in terms of sketches, photographs, and actual defective pieces so everyone can look at it and know what is acceptable and not acceptable. While it is very important to have such standards in place, it is equally important that these standards are available to not only quality inspectors but also to the manufacturing personnel so everyone has reference points. Such standards can be grouped as fabric/material defects and manufacturing/assembly defects.

 

         Some plan as to how many pieces to inspect at what point in manufacturing/assembly process. Such plans are known as statistical sampling plans.

 

         Standard Inspection Procedures that would lay out a step-by-step inspection procedure, spell out statistical sampling plan, and identify inspection point. Most retailers have their own Standard Inspection Procedures.

 

         Clear communication in a timely manner to appropriate people as to the defect(s) and accountability for its solution (correction and prevention).

 

Testing typically addresses fabric construction (type, end and picks per inch or courses and Wales per inch), weight, shrinkage in laundering/dry cleaning, strength, colourfastness to various elements such as washing, sunlight, rubbing, etc, seam strength, appearance after laundering/dry cleaning, etc.

 

It is common practice in the industry to contract out testing function as there are quite a few excellent commercial testing laboratories. These laboratories will also provide guidance to the manufacturers as to what to test, for what properties, how often, how many samples, etc. Each property to be tested, for example, fabric strength, shrinkage in laundering, etc, must specify a test method for that respective property. Usually, test methods developed by the American Society for Testing & Materials (ASTM) and the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC) are used. Some large retailers such as Marks & Spencer's of the UK and JC Penney of the US have their own standard test methods. Commercial testing laboratories are knowledgeable about and well aware of such things.

 

It's the management's call

Please keep in mind that no quality efforts will succeed without top management commitment, not just support. Let me explain the difference between support and commitment by drawing a corollary to western breakfast. Typical western breakfast consists of eggs, bacon and sausage. Chickens support this while pigs are committed to this breakfast! Chickens lay eggs so often, however, they are still alive while pigs have to die in order to provide bacon and sausage!

 

Only when the top management devotes as much time to quality as it does to marketing, sales, finance, personnel, etc, are the prospects good for a good quality product. Any company can manufacture a quality product. It is up to the top management.

 

Let me give you an example of how one of the best apparel companies in the US addresses quality. This company has several manufacturing plants in the US, Mexico and several Caribbean countries. Every month, they have a plant managers meeting at their headquarters in the US, chaired by the executive vice president of Operations. Every meeting starts with a presentation by the corporate director of Quality where he makes presentation on outgoing quality levels at each plant for the previous month, cost of rework and scrap, what corrective actions are in place, overall trend for each plant, etc. It is only after this presentation that other issues are addressed. Conducting a meeting in such a fashion sends out a very clear signal to all plant managers that the top management of this company is committed to quality. Since these plant managers' quality performance is reviewed every month in presence of their peers they have no place to hide. Nobody likes their weaknesses to be exposed in front of their peers. Therefore, every one of these plant managers is committed to quality in his respective plant and the quality level in each plant keeps improving.

 

Keep in mind that poor quality is not usually a "quality" problem. Poor quality is a manifestation of other problems in the company. Problems such as poor quality raw materials (poor purchasing decisions), incompetent staff and workers (either lack of training or poor recruiting or both), personnel not getting along with each other (plant manager and quality manager not talking to each other) resulting in lack of communication and lack of information to make effective decisions, lack of resources (no appropriate wages to hire competent personnel), poor working conditions, overworked employees (tired employees), and the list goes on and on. It is up to the senior management to figure out the root cause of the quality problems. If other functions in a company are managed effectively, quality will take care of itself.

 

Eventually, it's everyone's responsibility

This author has reviewed operations of many apparel manufacturers in the US as well as in the Far East, including India and has yet to come across a well managed plant with poor quality.

 

Contrary to popular belief, quality is not just the quality department's responsibility. Quality is everyone's responsibility in a company. The quality department simply collects information and passes it on to the appropriate party in a timely fashion for appropriate action. It is up to the senior management to create a climate in the company where quality is understood and valued and provide adequate resources so quality production can be accomplished.

 

Now let me summarise how quality can be effectively managed:

         Have a companywide definition of quality

         Have a corporate quality policy

Make sure that both are effectively communicated in a way that employees understand what is expected of them

         Have an effective inspection programme

         Have an effective testing programme whether inside or contracted out

         Above all, be committed to quality and keep communicating and demonstrating it to the entire workforce on a continuous basis.

 

Let me close by quoting a famous American football coach, Vince Lombardi who said almost 56 years ago addressing a football team "Green Bay Packers" as he became their Head Coach: "Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence."

 

About the author

Pradip V Mehta, a Fellow of the American Society for Quality and the Textile Institute, UK retired in 2005 as the Director of Quality Assurance for a multi-billion dollar, multi-national retail and service organisation headquartered in Dallas, Texas after 30 years of service. His book An Introduction to Quality Control for the Apparel Industry, first published in November 1985 from Japan, is now in its fourth edition titled Quality Management Handbook for the Apparel Industry. He is also author of the book An Introduction to Quality Assurance for the Retailers. Mehta has taught Quality Management at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, at various campuses of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), and at the Pearl Academy of Fashion, New Delhi. He has lived in the US since 1970, and after his retirement divides his time between the US and India.