Company organizations are invariably shaped like pyramids, with the key people who make the decisions at the apex and the little people who carry out those decisions at the base. As the company expands the pyramid grows increasingly longer, ever increasing the distance between the thinkers and the doers. As a result, it becomes more difficult for people with new ideas that can effect change to bring those ideas to those who make the changes.
In the name of greater management efficiency, the role of the doer becomes increasingly circumscribed as they are told to operate within a fixed, rigid set of standard operating procedures. The system by its very nature weeds out those capable of original thought in favor of those willing to mindlessly follow instructions from on high.
Invariably, senior managers complain about the quality of their people who appear incapable of taking any independent action, never realizing that they themselves have inculcated the entire company with a saying-no culture. Simply put, if you say no, you are never wrong. Conversely, if you say yes, you become responsible for any and all related failures, thus ending your career.
Factories follow the same pyramid structure. With layers of management between the boss and the merchandisers, design assistants, quality assurance team, engineers and the like.
Since most factories, big and small are family operations, all too often the boss insists that he or she make all decisions, at which point everybody becomes the boss’s assistant. It is all about ego. When the boss insists that all authority rests with him, this results in serious problems both on the customer and the factory sides.
From the customer’s point of view, a factory where there is but a single decision maker becomes a risk, particularly when that factory is a major supplier. What happens if the boss becomes sick or dies? Will the factory survive?
Ego notwithstanding, there is a more rational and far more productive alternative to the pyramid. One which allows the doers to play an active role in the day-to-day operation while at the same time leaving the directors free to occupy themselves with the company’s strategic development. It’s called the customer care team (CCT). In this approach, each customer has a full complement on the factory side who are focused on that customer, including a design assistant, merchandiser, quality control specialist, etc.
In a real sense, the customer care team works for the customer. It has two roles which are to ensure that the customer’s needs and demands are met and carry out the factory’s goals as defined by senior management, such as a 6 percent increase in sales.
Every member of the CCT has an opposite member on the customer side, so that by working together everybody wins.
The collaborative work begins even before the actual design process, when the customer’s designer first selects sample fabric. The designer sends a swatch of the fabric together with a simple sketch. The CCT analyzes the swatch and the sketch to avoid potential future problems related to drape, weight, price, and such.
From here, the patternmaker on the team guides the client toward ensuring the first sample is as close as possible to the design concept. At the same time the factory design assist is working with the CCT QA to ensure that the factory can produce the style efficiently and at reasonable cost. Also, the design assist also works with the CCT cost specialist to ensure that the FOB price of the garment as designed will fall within the customer’s target price.
The key factor is time. With the right sample, in the right fabric, at the right price the first time around the sample cycle, from factory receipt of the designer’s sketch to receipt of designer’s sample garment corrections requires a minimum of eight to 10 days. However, if the designer requires second and third corrected samples, the time increases to one month.
The goal is to move away from the old sourcing system whereby the factory that provides the lowest FOB price is the factory that receives the order to a new sourcing system whereby the factory that produces the greatest profit for the customer becomes the factory that receives the order.
The customer care team strategy works, provided senior management on both the importer and factory sides work together to support the CCT strategy and herein lies the problem.
The team requires total support from the factory directors, particularly at the outset. In a sense the customer-care-team strategy must be treated as an investment, which will yield profit provided the directors play a positive role. For example, the team must learn the synergy achieved by working together. The team must be shown how to achieve its goals, without the directors simply providing answers. Most importantly, when things go wrong, the directors must support the team, offering suggestions on how these difficulties might be avoided in the future.
The greatest problem facing a customer-care-team strategy comes from the directors and senior managers. The truth is that many people at the top believe they are fundamentally more intelligent, more capable and frankly better than those at the bottom. A successful CCT strategy upsets these basic beliefs. As a result, those at the top have a vested interest in seeing the CCT project fail. Regrettably, in a family business where those at the top have the ability to undermine the project, failure is the result of a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Our industry is permeated with ego driven bosses and senior management on both the supplier and customer sides. The pyramid is a diagram of structured ego.
David Birnbaum, co-founder of Birnbaum & Father Ltd., is a garment industry specialist who has been retained by importers, middlemen, and factories as well as international institutions and governments. He is author of “Crisis in the 21st Garment Industry and Breakthrough Unified Strategies” (2008) and “Birnbaum’s Global Guide to Agents and Buying Offices” (2015) as well as the monthly Birnbaum Report.