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K-Way factory | Recipe for success | Clothing manufacturer
January 2015

“Yes we can!”

And they did

Two South African sportswear and outdoor clothing manufacturers have shown that our factories can compete successfully with the rest of the world. The manager and owner of the K-Way factory and Impahla Clothing in Cape Town share remarkably similar recipes for success, namely switching to manufacturing top quality garments, incentivising workers, and introducing values like transparency, open communication and learning from others

Anever-say-no attitude, a commitment to transparency and sharing of ideas, holding management, not workers, responsible for problems and investing in cutting-edge new machines … these are just a few of the ingredients that have contributed to the turnaround, and success, of the K-Way factory in Ottery.

Eight years ago, before the current manager Bobby Fairlamb said “Yes we can!” to the challenge of competing profitably against high-end technical garments manufactured internationally, the Cape Union Mart factory was facing the same crisis as the rest of the South African clothing industry: uneven competition against cheap imports from Asia, resulting in massive job losses and factory closures.

But, Cape Union Mart chairman, Philip Krawitz said: “We’ll make it work — as a beacon of hope for local manufacturers.” And they did, under the guidance of Fairlamb, who is “a person who does not take no for an answer, he always believes you can do anything,” explains Cape Union Mart Marketing Director Evan Torrance. “This factory is an investment in the clothing industry, it shows that we can make local manufacturing work.”

It wasn’t an option to try and compete with China by lowering wages and introducing other morally indefensible labour practices — instead, they decided to compete by upping their standards and producing higher quality garments than what came out of China. “We did it by importing cutting edge technology on the same level with European brands,” says Torrance.

Going hi-tech

The K-Way factory transformed from a bespoke tailoring manufacturer into a developer of top quality technical garments, worn by, among others, record-breaking ultra trail runner AJ Calitz, mountain runner Lucky Miya, adventurer Kingsley Holgate and the many staff members who regularly summit Mount Kilimanjaro.

Because the average Cape Town worker does more technologically advanced work than the average Chinese, the lower labour component and higher value of the cost per garment enable them to compete profitability with China. This was also made possible by increasing efficiency through introducing lean manufacturing principles.

With the result that over the past five years, when other employers in the South African clothing industry counted worker numbers in losses, they could honour the chairman’s pledge that no worker would be retrenched. On the contrary, they have been growing worker numbers by 8% and currently employ more than 200 people. While others were closing doors, K-Way was expanding floor space and investing millions in new equipment.

Fairlamb is clearly proud of the factory, which includes a design centre where they research, design and develop new products. These are often initiated by Cape Union Mart head office staff members who come across innovative new global technologies during their travels — like laser cutting, sew-free pockets, etc.

“The problem is that the East catches up fast and has a quick response to what sells — and then devise ways of making the unit cheaper,” says Fairlamb. “You therefore constantly have to be looking out for the next new thing.”

Planning well

His productivity philosophy is that workers are ready to work, as long as management provide them with work to do. “Planning is management’s responsibility and it is management’s job to make sure the workers stay busy,” he says. He therefore holds the managers responsible for ensuring that there are no costly delays during the manufacturing process because one sector sits idly waiting for fabric or garment parts to work on.

The planning department maps out the fabric, trims, workflow, etc. required for each garment on a planning board, which has to be updated regularly. By consulting the board, supervisors and store clerks can, for example, see when a specific trim is getting low and remedy it before it becomes a problem.

They believe in paying workers incentives, instead of using the whip. “Our workers feel safe in their working environment and the result is amazing productivity,” he adds.

To make sure that everybody shares the same work ethic and values, their entire management team and supervisors have undergone World Class Manufacturing training. “Each employee at K-Way understands the philosophy of Continuous Improvement and the associated impact of making small improvements every day.”

Lean manufacturing

Fairlamb is chairman of the Cape Clothing and Textile Cluster (CCTC), which has the aim to assist companies in the sector to improve and change the way they do things. He believes that through Look and Learn the whole South African clothing and textile manufacturing sector can become world class.

K-Way also participated in the CCTC programme, a Public Private Partnership (PPP) between the Western Cape government and the clothing and textile industry, to improve efficiency and standards in local factories. As part of the CCTC, consultants closely work with management and staff to suggest improvements.

They, for example, pointed out that excessive motion and high work-in-progress inventory levels impacted productivity on the sew-free line — which was rectified by changing the floor layout and reducing bundle sizes to achieve single unit flow.

They implemented the 5S workplace organization method based on five Japanese words starting with “S” that can roughly be translated into sort, straighten, shine, standardize, and sustain — for example, by improving demarcation of work areas, providing equipment next to machines to promote cleanliness, etc. Supervisors and managers are encouraged to do regular audits to ensure that the work flows at an optimal level.

Since adopting this lean manufacturing programme in 2011, their rates of returns for repairs and rejects had dropped significantly, absenteeism had fallen and efficiency levels had shot up. The result was that their employment opportunities grew by 8%.

Over the past six years Cape clothing manufacturers began recognising that they can only benefit from communicating with each other and sharing ideas. The industry is therefore upping their standards and gearing up to compete with the rest of the world. On their own terms.

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