Earlier this year, Jan Erickson stood on the floor of her small sewing factory in Colorado Springs, Colo., and watched as a Spanish-speaking management consultant persuaded her sewers to move their work stations — normally spread out in straight rows, like desks in a classroom — into what’s known as a cellular layout.
The consultant, Angel De Sevilla, told the skeptical sewers that it would be more efficient if they worked together as a team, finishing one garment at a time through a lean strategy called one-piece flow rather than with the traditional mass-production way of doing things in batches.
“There was some reluctance,” Erickson said. “It was so different and so new.” But then the sewers finished their first trial piece, a cape called Annie’s Wrap, in five minutes rather than the usual 10 to 12. “It’s revolutionized what we’ve been able to do,” she said. Her husband and business partner, Jon Thomas, was even more impressed. “It was like, ‘Holy buckets, this is incredible!’” he said.
Erickson says the lean strategy, commonly employed in auto manufacturing and other industries, has doubled production and will help her company, Janska, reach $3 million in annual revenue this year, a jump of 25 percent. More important, she hopes the added efficiency will make it possible for her to keep her sewing in the United States.
Like a growing number of apparel brands, Janska would like to sew its clothing domestically. The quality is often higher, shipping is cheaper and workplace safety issues are rare. Plus, Erickson said, more consumers are seeking out American-made products.
But it remains tough to compete against sewing operations in places like China or India, where workers are paid a fraction of American wages. And because the industry was decimated in the 1990s when garment making largely went overseas, it’s also hard to find trained domestic sewers. “We off-shored that entire labor population,” said Bart Taylor, founder of CompanyWeek, a Colorado trade publication that has covered the issue. “To bring it back, decades later, is a much more complex proposition.”
Erickson started the company in 2003, after years of working in restaurants and volunteering in hospitals — and after dreaming, one night, of making a comfortable fleece jacket for a friend who had suffered a stroke. Unable to shake the dream, she hired a Colorado manufacturer to create the jacket, which led to more ideas and more garments — vests, scarves, leg warmers — that Erickson initially sold at the Denver Merchandise Mart, a wholesale market center.
Within a few years, she had sunk the couple’s savings into Janska, which turned its first profit in 2011 and now sells through more than 900 boutiques. In 2011, Erickson, who had outsourced Janska’s sewing to various American facilities, decided to buy a small sewing factory in Colorado Springs.
For about $20,000, she said, she bought all of the equipment, cutting tables and sewing machines. She inherited seven sewers, invested about $30,000 in the operation, and hired seven more sewers from Central or South America. Erickson said she would hire at least 10 more qualified sewers now if she could find them.
Her husband, meanwhile, who practiced law for 30 years before Janska, had studied lean principles and thought Janska’s small sewing staff could produce more if they incorporated them. “There is something about systems that is fascinating to me,” said Thomas, who had read “Toyota Kata”, a book by Mike Rother about the automaker’s practices, which include one-piece flow. “You learn to work smarter, not harder.”
The couple applied for a grant from a state agency, the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, and last fall they received $33,000 to hire De Sevilla, the management consultant, who is based in Los Angeles. De Sevilla spent 15 days at Janska, where he re-trained sewers who were accustomed to “bundling” — an industry-standard process where garments are made in large batches and move down an assembly line in piles.
By contrast, sewers using the one-piece-flow technique sit next to each other and work on one garment at a time. As an illustration, if you used the bundling process to mail 100 flyers, you would fold 100 flyers, then stuff 100 envelopes, then stamp 100 envelopes, and then mail all 100 at the same time.
But if you used one-piece flow, you’d fold one flyer, then stuff it into an envelope, then stamp the envelope, then mail the first envelope before moving on to the next 99. While it may seem counter-intuitive, De Sevilla and other lean experts say the latter approach is more efficient. The sewers don’t waste time setting parts down, individual garments are finished and shipped faster, and mistakes or defects are caught more quickly.
The owners of Janska say one-piece flow has allowed them to produce more than 300 garments a day at times — and to increase wages for the entire sewing operation. (Thomas is scheduled to speak about Janska’s manufacturing conversion at the Colorado Apparel Manufacturing Summit in Denver next month.)
De Sevilla said it was unusual for him to work with an apparel maker — most don’t think of themselves as manufacturers. “People who work in sewing come from a design background,” he said. “They think of it as making a work of art. I agree, but there is a lot of room to incorporate manufacturing principles so you can produce high-quality units very efficiently, using as few people as possible.”