January 12

7 Steps to Implement Lean Manufacturing in the Garment Industry


A lot of businesses often struggle to implement lean manufacturing in the garment industry. In this guide, i'll show you the 7 steps i've used with a number of embroidery companies, to help them implement successful lean improvements.

Typical Challenges for Garment Manufacturers

The challenges garment companies face, is similar to most other manufacturers. 

This guide is based on a number of real life examples. As they represent 3 different embroidery businesses that i've helped. To protect confidentiality, i won't be mentioning their names, but merely discuss what we did to help them improve their operations. 

You can use this framework to drive improvements in your garment business.

So what are the common problems garment manufacturers face? Here are the main things I see:

No Visibility of Customer Orders

Often, a customer order is received. It then gets assigned to production and disappears into the ether. Once it's in production, the teams know it's there but don't necessarily know where it is in the queue and when it will be completed. 

When the next job comes in, the same thing happens. And the next... and the next....

And so on. 

Soon, there's a build up of orders and visibility of jobs reduces with each and every new order.

Jobs Stuck in the System

As you start chasing your tail, jobs that your sales team have promised, are just not getting completed in time. 

This leads to a number of tough conversations with customers, as they phone, requesting their items. To compound issues, the sales team just can't provide an accurate due date to their customer amongst the chaos and lack of visibility of work status.

Everything is starting to become a priority. 

In fact each Account Manager personally walks work into embroidery / production, requesting it to be treated as an urgent job.

The production team are caught in the middle, and struggle maintaining order, because everything is wanted now.

It's Their Fault

The sales team point the finger at production. Their reasoning is that they must have the wrong staff.

  • Work doesn't seem to be moving fast enough
  • No-one sticks to the priorities
  • They constantly ask questions about every job coming in the business - why can't they get on with it?
  • It's the sales team that have to take the kicking from the customer, due to the incompetence of the production team
  • They have no confidence in production getting work out on time

Production lay the blame at sale's door:

  • They give them orders too late
  • These jobs are always outside of agreed lead-times
  • There's always missing information on the job sheets
  • How can everything be a priority?
  • They have no confidence that sales can stick to the rules to give production a fair crack of the whip

Constant Work-arounds 

In addition to this, there's never enough time to fix problems. The business is getting so far behind deliveries and experiencing many unhappy customers, that the only time people have is to work around the problems, rather than spend excessive time to fix everything. As a result, the same problems keep appearing:

  • Those input errors on the job-sheet - they're always being corrected
  • The lack of organisation of job files on the system - They're just left while extra time is lost searching through them each time
  • The ever-increase pile of work just grows, adding to a feeling of being overwhelmed
  • The sales team need to keep taking the orders to hit their sales targets, despite knowing full well, that each order will get stuck in production.
  • Broken threads every other run - The operators deal with these when they happen, as they frantically try to keep pace
  • The machines breakdown - "Get the engineer out quickly, so we can get the machine back on-line as fast as possible."

None of the above will be fixed for good. The teams just don't have the time...

Lots of inventory

There's now inventory everywhere. 

Some jobs are part completed, waiting for missing material that's been delayed from the supplier.

Other jobs are waiting to go.

Others are stacked up in despatch, waiting to be picked up.

In between this, there are stacks of jobs - more than a day's worth in the queue.

There's also large runs of work, which take up the machines' run time. This means that smaller jobs don't get a look in, until the current job is completed.

General Frustration Across the Business

At this point, people are feeling the strain.

There's a divide between production and office teams.

Each team believes they're taking the flack from poor organisation and practices. No-one knows what to do to get out of the mess... But things have to change to get sanity back.


Do any of the above ring true to your business? It may sound quite excessive, but from my perspective, these are common problems.

The issues I've mentioned may not be as severe, but more than likely, they're there

A Quick Explanation of Lean

You've probably got a decent understanding of lean, but it's important to provide an overview, before we move on. 

Lean has a range of benefits.

At its heart is a simple set of tools, designed to achieve a range of things:

  1. To provide the customer with what they want
  2. When they want it
  3. At the right price
  4. Whilst making a profit for you

Lean is a framework that everyone in the business follows, to eliminate waste, and maximise value.

Wasteful steps are in the form of:

  • Handling missing information
  • Processing too much too soon
  • Dealing with machine breakdowns
  • Waiting for a previous process to finish
  • Preparing or sorting items
  • Walking and searching

And so on. In fact, there's a standard system to follow, to help you highlight process wastes.

The goal of lean is to eliminate as much process waste as possible, and then systematise processes, so they repeat like clockwork in the most efficient way.

If you do this, you'll be able to process more work, and to a uniform way, which removes most of the headaches described above.

Here are the steps I typically take to help implement lean manufacturing in garment businesses.

Step 1:Track Current Performance

The first step is to measure your performance. This is obvious. But do you measure what's important? 

Do you know: 

  • Uptime of machines
  • What the biggest bottlenecks are 
  • Which jobs are behind
  • What your defect rates are
  • Your on-time delivery performance

Most companies simply don't do this... But what you don't measure, you can't improve.

And before we can make any improvements, we need to know some important metrics.

Measure Your Machines' Uptime

For one to four weeks, measure the average time each machine is running. Do this by capturing the time each day, and then averaging this over the course of the period you're measuring.

  1. Purchase a stopwatch for each machine
  2. Every time the machine is not producing, the operator starts the stopwatch.
  3. When the machine is producing, pause the stop watch
  4. repeat the above until the day is finished
  5. Take the total downtime for the shift
  6. Add this to a simple chart like this:
machine uptime tracker

Now we can see the severity of our problem. 

In the above example, our machines are only running around 35% of the time. That's pretty low, and indicates that our garment business is just not productive enough.

At 70% up-time, we can double our machine output. This would mean that we'd have no production capacity problems at all. 

So, we just have to see where we're losing time and why.

2. Map the Processes

In addition to this, we need to walk the processes and understand:

  • How work typically gets made, including where the bottlenecks and excessive inventory is
  • How we take an order, so we can identify where we could improve speed and accuracy of information - so jobs are passed to production without any questions
  • How long it actually takes to take an order and deliver it to the customer (the lead-time)

When we walk our processes and map how they actually work, we uncover many observations of where things are not as effective as they could be.

We also identify ideas to improve them.

And build some lean principles into them, too.

Walk your Processes

Here's how we would walk a typical business' process:

  1. Grab a pen and paper
  2. Draft the rough process steps out with your team
  3. Now walk the process to see if it actually happens this way - walk the information flow from customer order to passing to production
  4. Do the same for the production process
  5. Update your draft map to reflect this

3. Observe the Processes

Given that we need to see what's going on in our process, we need to deploy another of our lean tools. This is "Go See" (The Japanese call this Gemba).

In this instance, we just stand and watch. 

Watch on a number of occasions... For several minutes at a time. See and feel the effects of the downtime of the machines and gauge what regularly stops the operators from making more.

You'll find typical wasteful activities like:

  • Operators working on 'their' machine - this silo mentality means that there's not much thought on helping other people with their jobs and keeping other machines up. In other words, there's little team work
  • There's a lot of time setting up the machines between jobs
  • Preparing and framing runs is also done by the operator and often, the machine is idle, waiting to be loaded
  • Finding information on the system is slowing the team down
  • Processes which don't provide consistent quality output
  • Not knowing which job to process next (and asking the team leader)
  • Asking questions about the job - which means the machine is waiting whilst the operator leaves the area to find answers to their questions
  • Being pulled around from pillar to post, at the request of account managers, to jump the queue for promised jobs
  • There's far too much inventory between processes

You may have a lot more observations, too.

Once we have this information, we've got a lot more understanding of our production process. 

Now add this information to your map, so you can see the waste on one complete document.

We're Building a Good Picture

We've come far and making good progress. Here's what we know:

  • How long the machines are running for
  • What the main reasons for the downtime are
  • How information is processed and our garments are made
  • The areas where quality is poor, the bottlenecks and excessive inventory

4. Make the Machines (& Processes) Flow

The next step to take is to increase the productivity of our machines. 

And while we're at it, we want to flow our processes, so they provide right-first-time information, without anyone having to ask questions and go back and correct things, every time.

Improve Right-First-Time Quality

During your walk-around, you'll find areas where we make silly errors in collecting information... Often where it's not complete, not clear enough what to do, the wrong information, even.

We'll fix these by identifying the critical to quality areas in the process - those that must be absolutely right, before proceeding - and we'll implement error proofing, where we can.

Here are some examples to help increase quality in our day-to-day processes:

  • Design simple check-lists to ensure that the same steps are followed and checked off every time
  • Design error proofing into data fields, so they can't get entered wrong (E.G. forms completed on-line, whereby you can't click send, unless all the fields have information in)
  • Feedback data entry points - Where a measurement can be made, and is critical to quality, get the process operatives to actually enter the measurement on a check-list or job card.

The point is, standardise your processes to ensure repeatability.

Increase Production Uptime

To do this, we must separate the value add activities from the non value add ones. 

At present, our operators are doing it all, and the wasteful activities are being absorbed in the process.

What do we mean by non value add and value add

Value add for our machines, is the uptime. It's the very act of embroidering or processing.

The following are NVA:

  • Reading the paperwork for the next job
  • Getting the yarn, etc
  • Getting the next job
  • Loading the next job and setting the programme up
  • Framing the garments for embroidery
  • Moving the jobs on
  • Asking questions about the job
  • Changing over from the last job, to the next one

Some of these activities force each machine to stop and wait for the operator to catch up.

And in lean, the machine should only stand idle when it's not planned to run due to no work. 

That's it.

Get Someone Else to do It!

Your secret weapon to improving up-time of your machines is to split the tasks from:

  • Those the operators should do in cycle
  • Other activities which are done for them

Things like framing jobs, loading the machines, loading the programmes and setting the machines up are operator activities. 

The other tasks like checking work, preparing the paperwork, querying issues, moving work around, getting the next job can be done by a support operative. This person is someone else, other than the operator.

I refer to them as material handlers or water spiders. A client of mine called it an efficiency facilitator. Whatever you call it, you need to ensure that the operators are doing the value-add work as much as they can, and keeping the machines running as long as they can.

The facilitator can take up the slack and distractions - they can also help the operators change the machines over between jobs, too.

How Do We Find Our Facilitator?

You're probably asking how you can get additional labour without adding to the overhead.

Two answers. Either employ a low skilled and cheaper labourer, and train them in the standard activities you've highlighted...or, free up time elsewhere.

In the companies I've worked with, we've often been able to free up an operator's time by making them more efficient in other areas they work.

Here are some examples:

  • A person that picked the jobs for production to process, was picking 3-4 days ahead in most instances. This took up 70% of their time. They only really needed to pick a day ahead, maximum. By ensuring they picked for tomorrow, meant they could then help production by being the facilitator.
  • Another company found that a heat-seal operator deliberately went slow because they had no work to do for half their day. We then used them to be the facilitator in between heat seal jobs.

Continue to Measure Uptime

Once we have these improvements in place, we still continue to measure our performance. We want to see the results of our improvement efforts.

5. Create Kanban Links

The next step is to link our processes together. 

We need one point in the process that sets the pace... and we need the other processes linked to this.

By achieving this, we can prevent the following:

  • Making too much too soon
  • Picking and supplying too much too soon
  • Working in silos - what's needed is an element of joined up thinking

We'll use Kanban to allow us to only supply and make when the next process wants work.

Here's how it can be done. 

In this example, we want the picking function to provide production with a day's worth of work.

We'll do this by creating a simple Kanban system, to show when to fill up with more work and when not to.

Here's how it works:

  1. We'll have a dedicated rack for the next day's work.
  2. This rack space is big enough for only 1 day's worth of work
  3. When the rack space is empty, the picker picks the next day's work.
  4. If there's work in the rack, the picker doesn't pick

It's a simple and visual system to control inventory.

6. Daily Production Plan

With Kanban in place, we still need a way to link what we have to produce, with what we should produce in this period of time, and when.

And with improved uptime of machines, we'll be able to plan more work in the same period of time.

Effective production plans provide targeted start and finish times for each job. 

This allows you to see pace and whether you're to plan or not.

If the jobs are being processed in time, then the Kanban will run itself. And you'll know that you're getting work out on time.

Here's an example production board:

example production status board

In the above example:

  1. The planner plans the day's work
  2. The operator rubs the work out, when the job's been completed
  3. They can see whether they are to pace or not by placing a red / green indicator
  4. The team can see how they're doing and discuss how they can keep on track with support of management

7. Flow Where You Can...

So far, we've done the following:

  1. Identified where we can improve our processes and productivity
  2. We've improved right-first-time in the admin processes, using standard work
  3. We've improved the up-time of the machines by removing the wasted elements that stop the operator from working
  4. Implemented kanban, to link sales and picking with production

We now need to link production with despatch, so there's a constant drumbeat of work leaving production.

This can be achieved through the principle of first-in-first-out (FIFO).

First-in-first-out is a method of simply processing each piece of work in order at which it arrived.

That means there are no expedites and no planning what should be worked on next. What arrives first, gets first attention. What arrives next, gets processed next... and so on.

FIFO to Link Production to Despatch

In our example, we created a FIFO lane. This lane is simply loaded by production from one end, while the Despatch team take the job from the front, in sequence.


So, if we load production on small increments of work, through our Kanban system.

And production is keeping pace with the production plan...

Whereby the jobs are being fed continuously by FIFO...

It means that we've linked the picking, production and despatch together in unison.

Track Despatch, Too

Now the team are using FIFO, we can set a despatch pace to ensure they're meeting the right drumbeat of orders per day. Let's say that we have 150 jobs to despatch today, and the team work 8 hours per day.

In order to ensure that they are processing work, ready for despatch at the right rate, we can track this too. 

We call this Takt time - it means drumbeat, and we need to know the despatch process drum beat for each day.

It's measured by the following formula:

Available Hours in a Day / Total Jobs to Process

In our example, if we work 8 hours per day and have 150 jobs to process, our takt would be:

480 minutes / 150 = 3.2 minutes. Each job must be processed in 3.2 minutes... or 19 jobs per hour.

Make Our Takt Visual

Now we know the formula, we can track our takt every day, to see if the despatch team is keeping up with the daily pace.

We can do this by using a simple board, like the following:

how to improve factory productivity: hour by hour board

We can then see clearly if our Despatch team is on plan, behind or ahead, and therefore bring more resource in if needed. We can take resource away too, if they're going too fast, as well. (We only want to work to the daily demand on us).

Step Change Results

In our example, the garment companies we worked with, experienced a real jump in performance. It's pretty common to see big gains, once you've implemented lean correctly.

  • The machines in our example went from an average 40% to 75%. This meant that all work that was currently outsourced to a supplier, they could bring in house and increase their margins.
  • People in the business felt less stressed and had more available time - due to less time spent dealing with inefficient processes
  • The sales team had more confidence in taking an order and seeing where it is, as well as delivering in the agreed times
  • Everyone could see within 30 seconds, where work is and the whether each process is performing to plan
  • Customers were happier. They got what they wanted when agreed, and the lead times were within 3 days


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