Quality stakeholders from across the apparel and footwear industries open up about the comfort level they have with their factories’ operations, their own ability to resolve issues and the growing pains that come with diversifying their factory bases.
Chief Merchandising Officer
On visibility at the factory level and how that affects quality: We believe that key to our success is our “superior quality” requirement on all key production partners. They all share our philosophy and have adopted “best in class” quality procedures in order to prevent any shipments from being delayed or held up due to quality. As we have stringent demands in final inspection, most of our suppliers have, on their own accord, adopted 100 percent inspection practices. The need for “visibility” when you develop longstanding relationships with your vendors based on trust greatly diminishes. With that said, we have two QC teams in Vietnam and one team in China overseen by our partner. They speak with the factories on a daily basis and, through them, we control every single component of our product.
On how well root causes are identified and resolved: We have a policy of immediate alerts on any quality or make issue. Our vendors are required to submit a solution within 48 hours to our office in New York. Based on our SOP and the character of our relationships, our vendors are extremely responsive in resolving issues.
On the biggest concerns when ramping up a new factory: It takes a full year to implement our “system” in any new factory. My greatest concern is always to align factory management with our philosophy on quality. In my opinion, a factory is never better than its factory manager. To find factories is not an issue, but to find excellent and consistent performers is definitely a challenge, regardless of country.
VP Sourcing & Production
On visibility at the factory level and how that affects quality: We work with a small group of footwear factories—direct and through sourcing agents—and overall they do a good job keeping us informed of any quality issues that arise in development, and most importantly in pre-production and bulk production. In addition—and when possible—someone from the Soludos production team will travel to the factory during bulk production, inspecting the product and working with the factory QC team as the goods come down the line.
On where resources used to police production could be redirected: When you have a quality issue with a shoe that’s at retail, it’s all-hands-on-deck to resolve and correct the problem ASAP. One area we have been concentrating on in the past 18 months is sustainability: sourcing recycled materials, organic cottons, chrome-free leathers, etc. We would shift more of our resources to concentrate and expand on sourcing, developing, testing and executing these materials.
On how well root causes are identified and resolved: I’d say we’re at a 7 right now, so there is a lot of room for improvement. Currently, we’re revising our product development calendar to allow for a much more robust fit and wear-test program, which will help identify any potential quality issues earlier in the process.
Soludos sells many shoes on our website, and we are highly engaged with our customers through the online reviews. As a result, we can identify any fit or quality issues within the first few days of the product going live. In addition, we have three retail stores in the U.S., two in New York City. All employees at the home office work at least one shift each month in either the SoHo or Williamsburg shops. There’s nothing like waiting on a customer to get that immediate feedback on your product.
On the biggest concerns when ramping up a new factory: Timing is one, as vetting and then onboarding a new factory always takes longer than anyone thinks; it’s a process, and you can’t cut corners. Understanding a factory’s strength in certain categories, their weaknesses, how they run the sample-room, what their material sourcing capabilities are—it all needs to be taken into consideration versus “How quickly can they make a sample for us?” The other concern—specifically related to moving from China to Vietnam—is two-fold. First is the longer lead times for material development (and production), as practically everything is still coming out of China. Second is the lack of a strong infrastructure related to port capacity and shipping. For Vietnam, it’s just not there and is resulting in extended transit times of seven to 10 days to the West Coast.
VP, Product Development, Commercialization & QA
On visibility at the factory level and how that affects quality: We have a thorough quality assurance process in place that has been refined along many years in every one of our factories. We either leverage the methodologies and personnel of Impactiva or those of our own teams. Once the commercialization or pre-production stage has been successfully completed, we have a series of gates and milestones that guarantee we are able to call out, document and address immediately any issues, from materials to workmanship.
On where resources used to police production could be redirected: Words matter, and I prefer to define our relationship more in terms of partnering on production execution than policing quality. We focus on improving transparency in building our supply chain, which helps define the scope of work of our QA resources. If this work was unnecessary, we would reallocate resources to more upstream commercialization activities closer to development and QA at our tier-two/nominated material vendors.
On how well root causes are identified and resolved: The proof is in the pudding: Every quality-related KPI has dropped to historical best levels as we have got the courage and consistency to address with the factories and internally the typical proverbial “root causes”: establishing a fact-based transparent partnership across the entire manufacturing chain, including authorized/vetted sub-contractors, aligning with the key decision owners in each factory, improving the skills and engagement of our own QA teams, aligning our shoe developments with the core competencies of each factory, and developing materials and shoes to be “production ready.”
Quality is an output that reflects the quality of the different inputs. An untapped and exciting opportunity lies in “digitizing” and leveraging “the big data” captured along the different inputs—i.e., the manufacturing processes—to drive speed, consistency and improve the competence and working conditions of the factory operators.
On the biggest concerns when ramping up a new factory: We spend a great deal of time in conversations around validating assumptions and expectations—really understanding the core competencies of the factory workforce and assessing any gaps with TOMS shoe constructions and quality expectations. We want to be in factories that promote our expectations as it comes to good working conditions. To a point, production loading, manufacturing cycle times from stitching to assembly, and factory operators’ skills are key enablers of good working conditions and quality of execution. Assumptions around hourly productivity, pair per person per day, etc., need to be carefully validated and adjusted.
Head of Design
On visibility at the factory level and how that affects quality: We have full visibility—we work very closely with our factories and consider them a close partner to our business. We talk to them via email and/or conference calls on a daily basis, and we visit them throughout the year to check in on our production. The key is constant and open communication.
On how well root causes are identified and resolved: I would rate Peach and our factories highly right now. There are some issues we are currently dealing with, and the factory is 100 percent partnering with us in order to help us find a fix and to make sure we don’t encounter this same issue in the future. Our factories pride themselves on their workmanship, so they are invested in the success of Peach as much as we are.
On the biggest concerns when ramping up a new factory: Our supply chain is currently diversified. We manufacture not only in China but in Sri Lanka, Peru and in the U.S. as well. Our biggest concern is [whether] the factory [can] deliver the goods on time, so we spend a lot of time onboarding them and reviewing calendars with our key dates and setting up our expectations from the very beginning. We work hard at establishing and maintaining relationships, and it’s helped us tremendously in this business.
VP, Quality Management Americas
On visibility at the factory level and how that affects quality: We have detailed visibility, down to the garment manufacturing operation level. We have QC and our QA teams on the ground at the factories. Our company takes a preventive approach for quality by prioritizing prevention instead of detection. We use resources from the very beginning, development stages, all the way through distribution centers.
On how well root causes are identified and resolved: We are very proactive and have strong expertise related to corrective action plans. We use Lean Six Sigma methodologies and tools. However, we do not wait for quality issues to arise because our team is already involved in factory operations, from pre-production meetings, sample reviews, process audits, in-line and final audits amongst other quality activities at the factories. Continuous improvement is the key to excelling in our daily operations.
On the biggest concerns when ramping up a new factory: Our first priority is always to partner with our internal global sourcing colleagues to ensure a new vendor meets our responsible sourcing guidelines. Our next concern is to review and evaluate the factory’s internal quality system. The quality management team will then travel to the factory to assess quality systems and identify any potential risks or opportunities.
CEO and Creative Director
On visibility at the factory level and how that affects quality: We have quite a bit. Because of the way that we’re structured, we actually also own a production company, and we have contracted laboratories that work specifically for us—some of them as long as about 20 years already.
So we work directly on all development, all production, all details and specifics for the brand, and we really build the product with them from scratch. It’s effectively the best way to work because we see it all the way up from every single component to every single process. And everyone has a hand in terms of improving the product, so it’s very visible for us.
On where resources used to police production could be redirected: At the finished-goods level, it’s probably the most important, so staying in the factory before any sort of shipping and movement to be able to make any corrections and adjustments is still key for us.
That being said, we are a direct-to-consumer brand as well as wholesale. So we have so many places that we could take funds and budget to place in our business. Being able to grow the brand, build the brand, create more distribution opportunities through marketing and such—that’s a direct step that we would take with funds. But, quite honestly, we’re not looking to make that change in any way right now.
On how well root causes are identified and resolved: We’re always looking to improve based on global standards. We do work with some of the leading retail partners in the world, especially on the American side, that follow very stringent or defined standards—everything from sustainability to worker experience, etc. And we do pass those tests and continue to focus on any areas where we can improve further. So I would say that from a standards perspective, the oversight has been positive. And we are able to evaluate that yearly, really.
On the biggest concerns when ramping up a new factory: Time. Discipline. Quality of product. The fitting process. The biggest thing for us is we are a lingerie brand. So the amount of SKUs and variables you have in sizing and the 27 components to make a bra, for example, are quite the challenge to make sure everything’s there. We’re also very much a dyed-to-match company, where a lot of our components all match the same exact color and format, and to make that happen consistently, and then to create the quality control level within the production chain, is one of the biggest challenges. You just want everyone to see the product with the same eyes as you do, and that’s very hard whenever you start with a new factory. That expectation is the challenge.
On visibility at the factory level and how that affects quality: We have full visibility on possible quality issues on a factory level. We have chosen to work with only one garment manufacturer/laundry. All operations in this factory are under one roof, and we have given full responsibility to the factory themselves when it comes to monitoring and safeguarding the quality. Our relationship is on such a level that we have mutual confidence in the maintaining the quality levels.
On where resources used to police production could be redirected: In our case this is not applicable—we don’t have any resources allocated to quality checking.
On how well root causes are identified and resolved: Since our supply chain is extremely flat and simple—besides our garment/laundry partner we only work with two denim mills for our fabrics—we are able to identify and solve at the source in case of a quality issue.
On the biggest concerns when ramping up a new factory: We have explored the options of diversifying our supply base, but all of the above were reasons for us to stick to our current (single) supplier. On one hand we might be vulnerable while sourcing from one location only; on the other hand we have full control and transparency over our sources.
Due to our extremely small and flat supplier base, we have very few problems to maintain our quality level. Our processes related to this are very simple, and we are able to easily oversee our sources.
This piece originally appeared in the Optimizing Productivity report. Click to read how apparel and footwear companies can become more efficient in a time of great uncertainty.