Sewing background

Now it can be told: one of Canada’s most famous fashion designers is really a manufacturing geek. And Linda Lundström’s passion for production could change the fortunes of Canadian businesses.

From 1974 to 2008, Lundström produced more than 100 collections as founder, president and chief creative officer of Toronto-based Linda Lundström Inc. (LLI), posting annual sales of $13 million at its peak. Having been taught to sew her own clothes as a six-year-old in remote Red Lake, Ont., Lundström has always had a fl air for production. In 2001, in response to inventory crunches and delivery delays, she restructured her company’s production process, designing her own start-of-the-art
“lean” manufacturing facility.

Today, Lundström is still designing for several companies, but now her passion includes consulting on lean manufacturing. Adopted from Toyota’s value-based manufacturing system, the lean approach considers wasteful any activity that does not create value in the eyes of customers. Lundström now sees lean production as the secret weapon that could help more Canadian producers compete in international markets.

“You can apply the principles of lean to any size company, in any sector,” she says. “You identify what the customer wants, and eliminate waste as you deliver what the customer values most.” Although lean has been around since the 1980s, Lundström believes it’s the way of the future—and could even reverse the decline in Canadian manufacturing.

Lundström learned lean by doing it. She was always committed to producing her fashions in Canada, but by the late 1990s, real estate costs were rising, sales were slipping and customers were fretting over shipping delays. “Something had to change,” says Lundström. In 2001, she recognized that the “batch” production process taught in Toronto’s Spadina garment district was no longer cutting it. “Batch” assumes that high volume is better: if you have an order for five jackets, you don’t produce them until you have orders for 100, or 500. While economies of scale reduce unit costs, Lundström realized batch created other problems, such as handling, storing and moving in-progress components, along with the burden of financing all that inventory.

“When we cut 500 of something, all the cut pieces would have to wait around to be sewn,” says Lundström. “With lean, we only cut today what is sewn tomorrow.” Working with a lean consultant, Lundström hit the factory floor to talk to the experts: the sewers who produce her garments. Together, they changed the workflow, moved sewing machines to reduce extra steps and eliminated 65 bins piled with half-finished pieces. As a result, the factory floor shrank from 60,000 sq. ft. to 37,000. The exercise trimmed turnaround time from five weeks to five days, reduced production errors and cut LLI’s financing needs by almost $200,000. It took one month and cost about $9,000 (plus consulting fees).

But in 2008—as the financial crisis began—LLI’s bank called its loan. Lundström considered battling on, but decided that after 34 years in business, she could use a break. LLI slid into bankruptcy, but the brand and the factory found a purchaser—attracted in part by its production efficiency. “Lean gives a Canadian manufacturer the kind of fl exibility that some of the offshore manufacturers, with their large quantity requirements, don’t have,” she notes. “It’s a really good selling feature.” (Lundström now has a new firm, Linda Lundström Works, and is no longer affiliated with the Lundström brand.)

In her lean-related webinars and consulting activities, Lundström cites these significant aspects of the movement:

  • Five “s”: Lean begins with sorting, stabilizing, sweeping, standardizing and sustaining— activities geared to organizing the workspace and keeping it that way.
  • Value-stream mapping: This is a map or chart that depicts all the steps and information flows required to deliver a product or service. Putting the truth on paper helps everyone identify areas for improvement.
  • Eliminating messes: Lundström says all manufacturers and service firms usually have a tangled, unsightly mess on their premises—inventory, parts, files or equipment. Clean that up to gain clarity, save time and free up space.
  • Reducing errors: Lean includes what Lundström calls “continuous mistake-proofing.” It empowering workers to halt production whenever they spot a problem.
  • Lean prizes the input and experience of production workers: “I worked directly with the sewers for two months while we were converting to lean,” says Lundström. “No one had ever asked these people for their opinions before. It was so exciting to see them go from being managed in a hierarchical way to making decisions.”

But beware of barnacles. When you empower workers to think, you may get opposition from middle managers who feel left out. “Lean takes away their power,” says Lundström.

Finally, she says, lean is fun. Engaging with her employees, clearing out the cobwebs, changing things around and seeing fast payback was a rejuvenating experience. “The whole lean thing,” says Lundström, “freed up my love of the business again and improved my designs.”

Rick Spence is the Toronto-based author of the Canadian Entrepreneur blog and a consultant on marketing, strategy and business growth. You can reach him at rick@rickspence.ca.

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