Archive for the ‘The greater good and social responsibility’ Category

How does lean operations interact with how workers are treated? That is the question behind an article in Stanford Business (Lean manufacturing benefits workers and the bottom line, Autumn 2016). Here’s the story in a nutshell. Nike began working with its apparel suppliers to implement lean operations at the suppliers’ factories. This entailed bringing in managers to train them and then supporting them as they began implementing lean assembly lines.

While one side of Nike is doing that, another is going out and auditing suppliers for how well they maintain labor standards. This team is monitoring compliance with local labor laws as well as Nike’s own standards. They are passing out letter grades. Suppliers that are doing well get As and Bs. Those with major violations are getting Cs and Ds.

And, of course, both Nike teams are collecting data: Who has implemented a lean line? Who has cleared up their problems with overtime pay and so on? Some academics get a hold of that data and start to look at whether lean moves the needle on labor standards. (You can find a link to the academic paper here.)

Here is what they found. (more…)

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How is this for a bold assertion: All your clothes are made with exploited labor.

That is the title of a recent Atlantic article which discusses what Patagonia learned when it audited the practices of its second-tier suppliers. These are not the firms sewing sweaters or assembling backpacks. Rather these are the mills producing fabric and factories producing components that go into those sweaters and backpacks. It turns out that a lot of those mills were engaged in some dubious practices.

About one-quarter of those mills are based in Taiwan, and the majority were found to have instances of trafficking and exploitation.

The problems stemmed from how those mills found the people to work their factory lines. They didn’t hire workers themselves and instead turned to so-called labor brokers. These labor brokers charged migrants exorbitant, often illegally high fees in exchange for jobs. There were other red flags, too. Suppliers would open bank accounts into which the workers deposited their paychecks, so that fees for labor brokers could be automatically deducted. Workers’ movements were also restricted through the confiscation of passports. The recruitment and hiring process used by many labor brokers can create a cycle of fear and debt that leaves workers neither able to leave their jobs nor to make a decent living.

The article goes on to explain that sourcing labor through brokers is both legal and common in Taiwan. It is arguably necessary for the mills to be cost-competitive. Still it is an embarrassment for a brand such as Patagonia which has staked quite a bit on being a better global citizen than the typical clothing brand. (Check out the social responsibility page on their website.)  (more…)

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There have been several things written over the last couple of years about working conditions in Amazon fulfillment centers. (See, for example, here, here, and here.) Now we have a BBC report complete with hidden-camera video of what it is like inside a fulfillment center.

If you prefer to read, you can also check out “Amazon workers face ‘increased risk of mental illness’” (Nov 25).


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It is hard to think of a more challenging problem: How do you distribute necessary medicines in a developing country lacking infrastructure? That is question tackled by Simon and Jane Berry, two Brits trying to reduce childhood deaths from diarrhea in Africa. Diarrhea is the leading cause of death for children under five — which is tragic since it is not some mysterious disease. It is completely treatable by standard and (in the grand scheme of things) cheap medicines. But you need to get the medicines out to rural areas. The Berry’s solution was a packaging innovation that lets them piggyback on existing, super efficient supply chain. Whose supply chain? Here’s a hint, their not-for-profit is called ColaLife (ColaLife: Turning profits into healthy babies, BBC, Jul 22).

Simon Berry and his wife Jane had come up with a strikingly-simple idea – a package for medicine that slotted into the empty space at the top of a crate of soft drink bottles, fitting neatly in between the bottlenecks.

A dazzling idea, to piggyback the delivery of the diarrhoea medicine for babies onto one of the most efficient distribution systems in the world. Go anywhere and you will find a shop selling Coca-Cola. And the plastic packaging is ingenious – once opened it becomes a measuring device.

Here is what ColaLife’s anti-diarrheal kits look like sitting in the crates.

Here is how the crates get out to villages.



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I’ve been thinking over the last several days about the tragic factory collapse in Bangladesh. One question that comes up is why global apparel firms would choose to source their products from Bangladesh. CNN has a spiffy graphic that clearly shows that cost is one reason (Bangladesh vs. the U.S.: How much does it cost to make a denim shirt?, May 3).


Of course, the US ain’t exactly the right benchmark here. The real alternative is China and  the Wall Street Journal reports that wages there are four times higher than those in Bangladesh (The Global Garment Trail: From Bangladesh to a Mall Near You, May 3). That kind of cost advantage together with a tariff advantage with the EU gets you growth like this.



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OB-VN078_1129so_P_20121129145850How much responsibility does a downstream buyer have for how its suppliers behave? That has been a recurring question over the last several years as various news reports have highlighted tough working conditions in (largely) overseas factories. Apple’s relationship with Foxconn has been front and center here.

Now we have two stories that leave Wal-Mart facing similar questions. A horrible garment factory fire in Bangladesh killed over a hundred workers, some of whom were apparently making clothes for Wal-Mart. The problem, according to the Wall Street Journal,  is that they weren’t suppose to be (For Wal-Mart, Sears, Tough Questions in Bangladesh Fire, Nov 29).

Wal-Mart says it followed its play book when it yanked its business from a Bangladesh garment factory after the retailer’s inspectors found problems. But the chain’s clothing was still being produced there when the factory went up in flames last weekend, leaving at least 112 workers dead. …

The world’s largest retailer said it had revoked the factory’s authorization to make its products months before the fire, but declined to elaborate. It would not name the supplier it said was responsible for giving its business to Tazreen Fashions Ltd., a modern factory set up in 2007 near the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. …

Wal-Mart’s system of inspecting factories grades them on a color scheme ranging from green to red. It said most of the audits are done by outside firms, though Wal-Mart has an internal team that conducts surprise audits and checks factories with known problems. Factories with repeated bad grades can be banned from doing business with the company.

Wal-Mart said it is the responsibility of the suppliers to use factories approved by the company, and warns suppliers in an extensive manual that they can be banned from doing business with the retailer if they fail to do so.


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G4S has been appointed the Official Security Service Provider for London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  In addition to much talk about social responsibility, the G4S website states:

We specialise in outsourced business processes and facilities in sectors where security and safety risks are considered a strategic threat, with expertise in the assessment and management of security and safety risks for buildings, infrastructure, materials, valuables and people.  G4S is the largest employer on the London Stock Exchange with over 657,000 employees.  We have operations in more than 125 countries.

G4S was contracted to provide 10,400 personnel but today Mr. Buckles, CEO of G4S, admitted in a grueling hearing at the British Parliament that G4S currently only had 4,200 security personnel at Olympic venues.   That’s right, only 40% of the promised service level!  And the shortfall is very unevenly distributed: only 30 out of a contracted 300 G4S personnel had arrived to provide security at the Olympic cycling event on Tuesday.  Moreover, the 51-year old Buckles also said that G4S “would provide a minimum 7,000” when the games begin.

A few comments on the operations strategy (outsourcing service ops and capacity planning) and management (execution): First on operations management: According to the New York Times,

Mr. Buckles said he learned of the looming crisis while he was on vacation in the United States on July 3, but the company informed the Olympic organizers only on July 11 that it could not meet its obligations.  He was forced to apologize, saying he was deeply sorry for the shortfall in security staff and blaming it on the failure of a scheduling system.

This is a failure of executive oversight of G4S’s highest profile project and a cheap blame.  Here we have a firm whose business is staffing and a project whose requirements were known years in advance and then blaming it on “a scheduling system?”  Your operations = Your firm.


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