In China, Shirtmaker TAL Uses Data Analysis for Efficiency Boost

One thousand one hundred and sixteen seconds. That’s exactly how long it should take to stitch together a men’s dress shirt, according to Eugene Lee, a plant manager at Hong Kong’s TAL Group. He knows, because his job is to get the production line at the factory he oversees in Dongguan, China, to run with Japanese-style precision. Each team of about 30 workers is assigned targets. Attaching a collar? That should take 23 seconds. A cuff? Twenty seconds.

Lee’s line supervisors will sometimes stand behind workers at sewing machines, stopwatch in hand, to assess whether a team’s working too fast or too slow. The information is posted on a whiteboard, so managers can identify bottlenecks. “In the old days a leader used a gut feel, but a lot of times the analysis was incorrect,” says Lee. “We’re using real data.”

TAL is one of several companies trying to squeeze more productivity from its Chinese workforce. The effort by factory operators in industries such as apparel, toys, and electronics is largely a response to rising labor costs. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, urban manufacturing wages rose 73 percent from 2009 to 2013, the latest year for which data is available. “You can’t waste labor, because wages are too high now,” says Shaun Rein, managing director of Shanghai-based China Market Research and author of The End of Copycat China. “The typical Chinese worker is about a quarter as efficient as a German or an American factory worker,” he says. For companies looking to boost productivity, Rein says, “there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit,” such as investing in worker training and automation.

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One of the world’s largest makers of men’s dress shirts, privately held TAL has more than 25,000 workers in China, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian countries and logged sales of $850 million in 2014. Customers include Burberry, L.L.Bean, and Eddie Bauer. Like other apparel makers, TAL is adapting to the rise of fast fashion. H&M and Zara introduce styles every few weeks, spurring other retailers to step up their own schedules. Orders are smaller and more complex. A men’s dress shirt that used to come in one standard fit might now be available in classic, slim, and extra slim. Brands and suppliers have to work together more closely, says Jim Ditzel, senior vice president for supply chain at L.L.Bean. “It used to be they would just cut and sew for us,” he says of TAL. The two companies now also “share information on trends, what they see in the marketplace, and what we are seeing.”

Another feature of today’s high-velocity retail environment is that customers are much less tolerant of delivery delays. “In a two-season year, [merchandise] would be on the shelf for six months, so if you missed the delivery deadline by two weeks, it was no big deal,” says TAL Chief Executive Officer Roger Lee. Nowadays, some customers assess a 10 percent penalty if a shipment is even one day late. “And on top of that, we have to air ship the goods ourselves—at our own expense,” Lee says.

Borrowing from lean manufacturing, a concept popularized by Toyota Motor and other Japanese companies, TAL is running more—but smaller—production lines. That way a problem with one worker or machine might affect only tens of items rather than hundreds. Teams are a third the size they used to be, and pay is based on the team’s output rather than the worker’s. Each team has a floating member (called a water spider, “because they jump all over the place,” says factory manager Lee) who can perform various tasks, whether assisting a colleague who’s fallen behind or fetching labels.

As they invest more in training, companies have more to lose from employee turnover—and greater incentive to treat employees better. “No workers will come and join a factory” if conditions are poor, says Allan C.K. Chan, associate head of the Institute of Textiles and Clothing at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Still, the new world of shorter production schedules takes its toll, according to Geoffrey Crothall, communications director at China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong. “All the pressure that supplier factories get from brands gets transferred down to the workers,” he says. “The line supervisor is under pressure to ensure quality control and bulk delivery, all in the short time required. It inevitably ends up creating tension between workers and managers.”

TAL is handling more of the logistics and delivery work itself, often using customer-provided sales data to determine how many shirts to make and then sending the finished goods directly to stores. It’s investing in new areas: In October it led a $12 million funding round for Metail, a British startup that’s developed a virtual fitting room. Online shoppers upload an image of themselves and key in body measurements to generate a MeModel, a digital avatar that they can use to try on clothes. Metail wants to amass a trove of information on size and shape that retailers and fashion brands would pay to tap.

With e-commerce playing an ever bigger role in fashion, CEO Lee anticipates demands on manufacturers like TAL will only grow. “There will be a lot more styles; the order size will get smaller. It’s a continuous battle,” he says. “It all comes down to how efficient we can make our operations.”

    BOTTOM LINE - The bottom line: Double-digit annual increases in wage costs are forcing Chinese factories to invest in Japanese-style efficiency.
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