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Bringing Respect for People to the World's Sweatshops

by James P. Womack
May 2, 2014

Bringing Respect for People to the World's Sweatshops

by James P. Womack
May 2, 2014 | Comments (2)

Photo credit: Marcin Krzyzak / Shutterstock.com

This essay was first published in Gemba Walks (Expanded 2nd Edition) by Jim Womack.

I’ve been gemba walking in what I call sweatshops for a long time, beginning in China in the early 1980s. By a sweatshop I don’t just mean a factory that employs (if that is the word) underage workers, requires long hours with wages arbitrarily adjusted by management through bonus systems, has no rules for discipline other than more management arbitrariness, and lacks the most rudimentary safety precautions such as adequate fire doors that are never locked. I also mean factories that squander their workers’ labor by making no effort to improve productivity (except urging workers to work harder to get a bonus), that pay no attention to ergonomics, and that—above all—show no respect to the people who are actually creating the value by asking them to help improve the work.

The world mostly focuses on the former attributes of sweatshops because they are visible and periodically lead to horrific incidents like the recent factory fires in Bangladesh. But I think the latter attributes are equally bad because they often lead to the former. Poor work design with low productivity, fatiguing working conditions that guarantee mistakes and rework, and a lack of involvement of the workforce in improving the work almost guarantee that managers will squeeze wages and raise bonus targets to make money in the face of low productivity.

In recent years protests from Western advocacy groups have shone a light on the bad practices of sweatshop contractors used by multinational producers of consumer goods, garments in particular. And surely some good will come of this. But I fear that the box-checking, “compliance” focus of these efforts will simply drive bad practices further underground as contractors see a business need to employ bad practices to make money in low-productivity businesses in highly competitive markets.

I was therefore delighted some years ago when Nike approached some of our LEI faculty members and asked how lean principles could be applied to their contractors. Their idea was simple: Help contractors deploy lean practices to improve the way work is done in their 700 contractor factories around the world that employ a million workers. This would substantially improve productivity and lower costs so that Nike could demand that its contractors treat workers fairly and provide safe buildings. And Nike could do this while maintaining its competitive position against OEMs (original equipment manufacturerers) that don’t do any of the right things with their contractors. You might think of this as “benevolent selfishness”—Nike’s bottom-line objective was and is to protect its bottom line and its image through this concept, which it calls “sustainability”—but I will take it if it works to make work better for millions of people.

Recently I have been working with one of Nike’s contractors in Central America as a way to support an NGO in a very poor country. I’m able to report that the first thing Nike did in offering this contractor a Nike contract was to require that the contractor use no subcontractors (which increased wage costs) and do all of the work in one building with good sight lines. This eliminates one of the most common causes of worker abuse in which contractors operate nice facilities—that are frequently audited by the OEM—which simply box and ship the work of subcontractors running the actual sweatshops somewhere nearby. Transparency is one small but critical step.

This Nike contractor has taken the lead in organizing an annual lean conference in this country, with the proceeds going to the NGO to help keep kids in school and to make the schools worthy of keeping their students. I have been donating my time to make the conference possible and also provide a bit of free advice to the contractor and the NGO.

This work has given me a chance to see on the gemba what Nike and its contractors are doing to employ lean principles. I am impressed even though the journey will be very long. But my objective here is not to praise Nike. It is to ask a simple question: Doesn’t every OEM have an obligation to respect the work of its contractor workers by demanding that their labor be used productively through application of lean principles? (Achieving this goal can be another opportunity for OEM Op Ex teams to make their work more relevant by following in the footsteps of the original Toyota Op Ex team in the 1960s, as mentioned in my Gemba Walks essay, “The Strange Trajectory of Operational Excellence.”) And doesn’t every worker in contractor enterprises have a right to have their work designed so they can do it safely with high productivity? Note that if done correctly these measures cost the OEMs practically nothing. They get paid back with competitive product pricing from more productive, safe factories that show respect for their workers. And the OEMs can advertise this fact to their customers. (Why Nike doesn’t advertise its virtuous work is a bit of a mystery—its Nike Operating System activities are practically a secret—but that’s Nike’s business, not mine.)

So I’m hopeful that a few innovators like Nike, as pushed along by advocacy groups, can gradually reduce the number of sweatshops in the world. But what can we in the Lean Community do to help more directly and speed up the demise of the sweatshop? How about creating a “Lean Corps” comprised of those of us who have been on the journey a long time, who have made most of the money we need to retire or at least to cut back on our work hours, and who don’t want to stop doing the lean work that always makes us feel better? (Note that Taiichi Ohno was forced to retire from Toyota when he was 65 but immediately began advising any company who would listen on implementing the Toyota Production System and continued doing this for years, and that Shigeo Shingo was doing kaizen in a factory in his 80s when he felt ill, was taken to the hospital, and died. My guess is that kaizen helps keep oldsters alive and there is certainly a long tradition of “geriatric kaizen” in the lean movement that we can take inspiration from.)

How could you do this? One good way is to volunteer your services to one of the 17 affiliate organizations in the Lean Global Network to work with small companies in poor places that can’t afford expensive advice. Another is to find a worthy NGO operating in some poor country and offer to help run a lean conference for local firms if they will contribute the proceeds to the NGO. This is what I have been doing and it has put a spring in my step. And I have recently asked a friend with deep lean experience to coach a group of small, local companies (including the Nike contractor) on their lean transformation for a reduced and shared fee. If you would like to learn more or just to discuss your situation please write me, at jwomack@lean.org.

I feel I have been given a special opportunity to live at a time when lean thinking makes so many good things possible. I hope you feel that way too and that you will give serious thought about ways to pay back this gift by sharing your knowledge with the sweatshops of the world. From conversations with many managers in these enterprises I’m convinced that most want to do better. They just don’t know how and can’t afford to ask some expensive consultant. That’s where the Lean Corps might play a critical role.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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Nathan Rothstein May 05, 2014
3 People AGREE with this comment
I agree. It's always better to implement a better strategy for all workers from the onset, instead of going back and trying to change bad systems. While imortant to do, it can be much more challenging. It's great to see the conversation developing about what an equitable supply chain looks like

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Mark Donovan May 06, 2014
3 People AGREE with this comment

Jim -

I have seen first hand here in Indonesia the powerful impact that Lean thinking has had on our ability to create prosperity.

I love the idea of the Lean Corps!  What a powerful way to give back to our local communities.  How do we do this most effectively?  I have given many talks here in Bali on Lean thinking and practice and while everyone always says "yes, great, fantastic" very few if any have embraced this approach, let alone adopted it as a primary strategy.  As discouraging as this may be, is it simply important to keep getting the message out to as many people as possible and hope that with repetition and time it will finally catch hold?  I'm meeting with a local NGO tomorrow that supports local capacity building and would love to help run a small local lean conference.  Any tips you can provide from your recent work in Central America and elsewhere are greatly appreciated!

Lean Corps members that are interested in participating in a Bali conference please drop me a line!  


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