Today, when brands look at product quality, they no longer view it from the perspective of what they are paying for the product. Instead, they look at it from the perspective of the end-customers' expectations. With quality benchmarks being the order of the day, how is it that vendors can meet expectations of brands? Rakhi Handa answers.


In November 1994, I remember working with a New York-based womenswear retailer who was sourcing a large quantity of knitted products from India. It was all highly embellished products, with beadwork, hand embroidery and lots of value addition - beautiful product to look at, but coming in one and a half inches short at the chest measurement and another couple of inches short at the length. Our solution to the factory? To re-open all 27,000 units and re-press using body boards so that the product met the required measurements and passed final inspection!


What a long journey of learning it has been for me since then.

No doubt, some part of the industry continues to focus on getting their shipments past the "Buyer QC's" inspection by stretching the garments, using patterns to hit spec, and so on. But times have changed and so too has the awareness of the end-customer or consumer. Today, when brands look at product quality, they no longer view it from the perspective of what they are paying for the product - instead, they look at it from the perspective of the end-customers' expectations.


There is also the growing understanding by brands, with labour rates spiraling, new and increasingly challenging trade agreements (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP) and with increasing competitiveness on retail pricing, that ultimately, the cost of quality gets added to the final FOB (free or freight on board) price of the garment. It is imperative, on the one hand, to satisfy a discerning customer from the perspective of quality; yet on the other hand, to be able to meeting the increasingly competitive pricing.


So, what exactly is it that brands are looking for?

As a quality professional, I can say there are three things I look for in a factory/vendor:

         A robust manufacturing process: How strong is the factory with their ability to manufacture a product with right-first-time quality, with the appropriate machinery/equipment and what is the level of attention at needle point (as an example, imagine making a pant with a welt pocket, and not having a welt pocket/reece machine to sew the pocket. Or think about a factory without an industrial engineering department). I call this the problem 'prevention aspect' of the manufacturing process - to me, a manufacturing process is strong when the focus is on problem prevention.


         What are the controls in place to ensure that the product meets specifications and expectations - the problem identification piece of the manufacturing process that catches the problem early enough to ensure that corrective measures can be swiftly implemented.


         And most important of all is the "people" part of it - the level of expertise available at the factory. How often have I been told that someone is very good at his job because he has been at that job for the last 20 years. With evolving technology and advancements in manufacturing, it is important to ensure that employees remain in step with progress and relevant in the current environment.


And why do we want to prevent problems from occurring?


Quite simply, because the later they are caught, the more they cost to fix. The graph shown here is a simplistic representation of how much it costs to fix something at basic concept/development; versus catching it the closer it is to market.


So, what should an aspiring vendor do to target the larger brands?

         Stay customer focused: First and foremost, stop focusing on getting your shipment past the Buyer QC inspection. Start thinking about the end-customer who is going to wear the product that is being made in your factory. Let's go back to the example I cited in the beginning - the t-shirts that came in under spec. Had we thought about the end-customer, we would have realised that the solution we gave (to stretch the garments through pressing) was going to disappoint our end-user - for what would happen the first time the customer washed the garment? It would shrink, of course.


         Design the product right: I learnt this the hard way. On the first day of my job as the head of the sample department for a large manufacturer I was told (rather aggressively) by the production team that the sample room had developed a jacket that was not production feasible. I remember it was a beautiful 35-piece patched jacket, with randomly placed patches, and the sample room had done an amazing job. The garment looked beautiful. But, there was just no way to make 15,000 of them. We found a solution, eventually; it took us five days, cost us a lot of money, and gave us a lot of rejections during production before we were able to ship the 15,000 units (air at our cost). And surely we didn't make any money. But it taught me a very valuable lesson. You have to develop your product in a manner that is scalable and is efficient to manufacture. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up for failure.


         Introducing pro-active methods: When you start thinking about scalability and manufacturing feasibility, it is also important to think proactively; to ensure you are looking at product and process from the perspective of avoiding or preventing problems rather than correcting them. It is important to anticipate and identify all possible ways that both the product and the process could fail. In other words, identify the risks. This could range from capacity limitations to product design to process design. What do I mean? Manufacturers frequently talk about increasing their manufacturing capacities by adding automation or additional machinery. However, they sometimes forget to upgrade the skills or expertise of their employees, or to redesign processes to cater to the capacity enhancements. I can best explain process design by sharing an example. A manufacturer made a beautiful 3 metre x 3 metre mattress pad for the first time using innovative water-resistant technology. However, they forgot to redesign their production floor to cater to this massive product size. The result? Work in progress (WIP) lay on the floor, dirt and soil became a challenge and when the product was being inspected, they did not have the tables on which to spread such a large item. I remember the product went through multiple rounds of inspection failures for dirt and stains. It is critically important to identify all possible reasons for a product to fail - and then to identify preventive measures and controls to ensure that those problems don't arise during production.


         Planning rather than fixing: Too often, we rely on fire-fighting and correcting issues in the midst of production. Instead, take a little extra time, plan right, and ensure that your production is smooth. This isn't rocket science. It takes a little bit of effort and a good amount of coordination. But good planning allows for production to flow smoothly. Frequently, factories that don't plan their machinery/ equipment and their sewing lines correctly face challenges of last minute delays which eventually result in quality issues. How? Imagine a production supervisor who was given less time to sew because raw material was delayed. What's the first casualty to quality? The under bed trimmers (UBTs) are switched off because of the erroneous belief that thread trimming slows down the machine and reduces productivity, forgetting the extra cost of an additional trimming department where the chances of creating further defects (open stitches, nicks and cuts/damage due to careless trimming) are considerably increased.


         Be cost-conscious: I encourage all manufacturers to be cost conscious. I learnt this from an exporter in Dubai (back in the days when apparel exporters were based out of Dubai). He would look at the daily reconciliation report of total rejection from every department at the end of each day. What did this do? It ensured that there was a strict control over wastage and questions were asked when there was even one rejection. The result? The exporter was controlling his re-work/rejection and ensuring product was stitched right - long before any of these concepts became popular. Today, we would say he was controlling his cost of poor quality. Manufacturers often tell me proudly that they have a strong QC system, that they have 14 checkpoints through the manufacturing process to ensure only good quality product is packed. That's not problem prevention; that's problem identification after the problem has already occurred. Never forget that inspection is a non-value added activity, and could significantly add to the cost of manufacture - a cost that eventually sneaks its way into the operational cost, thus adding ultimately to that FOB price the retailer pays.


         Achieving goals with small means: Not one of the five points mentioned above requires a high level of investment or infrastructure. You can achieve your goals with modest means. My greatest learning came when I visited the manufacturing plant of a world famous denim brand in Poland, a few years ago. I was amazed that the machines in this factory were installed over 15 years ago. Not a single new machine had been bought in over a decade. What I did see was that every machine had been innovated by an incredibly talented team of mechanics who had even gone so far as to create a circular bed from a flat bed. In another factory located in a region that suffers from chronic shortage of electricity, the factory's team of mechanics had used a car battery, fixed on a trolley and attached to a bulb, to create a mobile light.


         Tackle the chronic problems: Identify the chronic problems in the factory, whether they relate to man, machine, method, material or measurement (I've found its usually one of the 5 Ms). Some of the most chronic issues arise from the most inane root causes. Like this factory in Chennai in which I found mysterious yellowish stains on the shirts while conducting inspections. This went on for a while until it finally dawned on the supervisor (not me), that the stains came from the vermilion the female operators wore on their foreheads. An accidental brush from the back of the hands and the vermilion stains got transferred to the product. Another factory had a challenge of dirt and soil marks. We enforced stringent housekeeping. Or the factory where the sewing machines were skipping because the belts had become brittle and needed changing.


         Be willing to change:Sometimes the hardest thing to do is change the way you do something, quite simply because that's the way you've done it for the last 20 years. It's strange how often I have heard the words "but that's the way we've always done it..." There is comfort in following a routine. I have often seen that the finest ideas come from the youngest minds; sadly, they are dismissed because the idea originates from a mind that is young and inexperienced. If we believe we can learn every day of our lives, we will constantly evolve and stay relevant to the times.


         Nurture your talent: Encourage ideas, no matter where they come from. Sometimes the best solutions come from the most unexpected sources. I remember once, facing the challenge of inconsistent stitches per inch (SPI) on a product, where the variation was visibly noticeable. No matter how much we tried to monitor the machines, the operators would change the SPI to increase productivity because they were under pressure to meet their productivity targets. The line supervisor had a brilliant idea - remove the dials, so the operators can't meddle with the SPI. Encourage your people to learn, train and understand new methods, irrespective of age. Sometimes, its as simple as asking your machine manufacturer, thread supplier or needle supplier to partner with your team on the shop floor. You would be amazed by the cross-learning and improvements that occur when such opportunities are provided. I call it giving your people exposure.


         Be brave: It's ok to say "No" to your customer - in fact, I'll tell you a little secret. It builds your credibility. But it's not simply about saying no. It's not only about having the courage to tell your buyer that what they are asking for might not be feasible. It's also about bringing solutions to the table. It's about having the courage to recognise when mistakes are made and being able to quickly fix those mistakes. But most of all, it's about having the courage to deliberately change the way you have always done things.


Today, customers/retailers are looking for the right vendor partners who share their commitment to the end consumer and are keenly focused on delivering to customer expectations - be it quality, price or delivery. Retailers and brands are constantly assessing new potential business partners who offer that edge, that great design, that sharp pricing, but also that great mindset. And it is through the ability to innovate, the willingness to change, the creativity of solution-finding and the pro-activeness to avoid problems in the first place, that you can demonstrate that you have the right management attitude.


About the author

Rakhi Handa is the Managing Director, Product Safety & Quality Assurance at Target Sourcing Services, Indian Sub-Continent and Indonesia. The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect that of the company that she works for.