During early 2002, after my exposure to Sri Lankan giants – Mas Holdings and Brandix Group – I commented: “Excellence in garment manufacturing can be achieved by sheer excellence in HR practises.” Later in 2015, after attending the OGTC conference, I am now asking myself…
In most of the meetings and discussion forums we keep hearing that ‘it is the man behind the dumb machine that works for you’, and it is true for apparel manufacturing. The industry being labour-intensive, workers always come first; but the question is how much importance is right balance? Not long ago our garment manufacturing setups used to have one personnel department that used to keep record of employees and their salary and overtime payments. There was no developmental plan of effective human resource.
Thereafter making use of the carrot and stick principle, management started devising incentive plans – incentivizing both individual as well as group. Production incentive, quality incentive, attendance incentive and very recently devising an incentive plan on achieving the first-hour target, we have incentivized almost every parameter. Gradually things changed, incentive has been rephrased as social benefit; now the employer not only enquires/takes care of the employee’s well-being, but his/her spouse/family also. Once organizations had scant regard for the safety of the employee, but now organizations do care about not only safety but also the health of the employee. There are eye check-up camps, blood pressure check-up camps, diabetes check-up camps, rewarding the children of the employee for academic excellence, and even counselling of erring spouses; all under the umbrella of employee engagement. No doubt, these initiatives started in the name of social compliance by some buyers and NGOs, but eventually organizations must be benefiting from it, and hence there is a massive self-drive.
The question is… Are we overdoing it at the cost of technology? I remember during late 1997, the reaction of one factory manager while he was offered to comment on sewing line balancing software: “To get production, we don’t need scientific or mathematical line balancing, but just a bunch of dedicated and motivated workers”.
Although my passion of exploring and developing computerized solution for garment manufacturing functions has not dampened since then, my prescription became controlled. If an organization wants to increase its sewing line production by say 20 per cent and is on a lookout to hire a consultant… Suppose the consultant ABC gives a proposal of Rs. 40 lakh (US $ 56,000) that involves workplace engineering, including procurement of appropriate technologies, whereas another consultant XYZ gives a proposal of employee engagement at only Rs. 10 lakh (US $ 14,000) that claims to increase production by 5 per cent. Which option the organization should adopt? Which option is giving better return on investment? What is the value proposition? Is it a fair comparison?
“I see there is sheer dearth of knowledge of technology in the organizations for solving quality and productivity problems. My fear is that soon there will come a time when a machine engineer will be trained in ‘art of living’ workshop rather than honing their skills by attending advanced machine engineering workshops. To put it simply, if you are looking for HR-related training help for your organization, there will be a glut of options, but if you are looking for trainers to train your machine engineers about how to get pucker-free seams, there aren’t any!”
But then, I would go on to ask if choosing one option over the other depends on the simple demand-supply situation? Or an easy going option? Is it because there is easy availability of experts/consultants in HR practises and soft skills? Or is it easy and safe to try the HR option (because there are no capital investment) than the technological option? Despite open-mindedness, I would say the HR prevails over technology for the following reasons…
1. Lack of knowledgeable experts in technology improvement: While there are scores of consultants offering consultancy in lean and soft skill training, there are neither any consultants offering technological solutions for sewing or cutting problems nor any credible consultants offering methods improvement and cycle time reduction in sewing per se. To illustrate, even one of the leading sewing machine company’s project division offers consultancy on line balancing, but not on advanced sewing technology!
2. Inter-industry movement of top level executives: When some top level executives from non-apparel join apparel industry (which is considered good for inter-industry benchmarking of best practises), what best practises they bring in? Obviously HR practises, as technology and manufacturing practises would be considerably different (to even improvise and adopt).
3. Compliance mandate from buying houses: Buying house expats initially (during mid-90s) were technically strong (pattern engineering and fit areas), but were never technologically strong (which machine feature and attachment can result better defect-free seam). Now as the empowered compliance division is too busy to fix social and environmental problems, the focus on technology is missing!
4. Compliance initiative from NGOs: NGOs have brought mandate in social upliftment. With CSR guideline from Government this will even become stronger.
5. No capital investment involved: Management consultancy is all about re-organizing thoughts and processes and often requires no capital investment. Company management often prefers such interventions over any interventions that require capital investment.
6. Easily comprehendible by top management: The top management is able to understand the intervention process (easier than any technology intervention), thus wholeheartedly supports in the implementation process.
7. Shortage of manpower: Over the last 5 years every apparel manufacturing hub is facing manpower shortage at the operator- and supervisor-level. Therefore, retention is the key (if not able to attract new), which is forcing organizations to concentrate more on employee engagement over other factors.
We need to understand and acknowledge that there is science behind most of the phenomena. There is severe lack of knowledge among production personnel in every manufacturing organization. Nobody has any interest to know the reason (science) behind; the GM feels it is production manager’s domain; the PM feels it is line manager’s/supervisor’s domain; supervisors feel it is machine mechanic’s domain; and often these people from bottom level of skill pyramid are intellectually incapable of understanding (even if they wanted to) the cause behind this mess. The tragedy is those who can understand, don’t want to, whereas those who want, couldn’t understand.
By technological intervention, I mean the appropriate technology and processes to achieve the stated goal. Suppose one sewing operator is having problem in achieving target production or consistent quality, the first step should be exploring whether he/she is using the right technology? Whether change in machine bed and/or feed type can improve the situation? Whether any method improvement is required…? Whether an attachment can improve the situation…? For exploring these options, the right expertise should be available in-house, and management is solely dependent on the machine mechanic. The so-called technician/IE often analyses the situation with fishbone diagram, but the ‘machine’-related reasons are simply under-explored (as not knowledgeable enough) and other reasons are over-explored. The reason behind not achieving production target or consistent quality may be multifold, and as humans are involved in the operation, there can be some humane component as well. The management only treats the humane component (through HR intervention) and becomes happy with the part-improvement achieved and the technological reasons remain unaddressed forever.
If we look from business owner’s perspective it is return on investment or value for money. Which option gives them better return? Or safer return? Currently it is HR. During last 5 years if any manufacturing organization looks at their investments in training, they will see a definitive gradual shift to HR-oriented trainings. Not only at organizational-level, even if you analyse the seminars/conferences/workshops/training programmes being arranged during last 5 years, similar trend is visible. This is where I want to emphasize that technological interventions can’t be supplemented with HR intervention; it is best to be complemented with. Both have their own merit which have to be practised by manufacturing organisations. There is science and technology behind every manufacturing and ‘Make in India’ cannot be achieved without it.