The High Risk Habits of the Fashion Industry – Spreadsheet Dependence

16.06.2015 Ben Muis Blog 1 Comment

This article was originally posted on Ben Muis’ personal LinkedIn. To see the original article, please click here.

Why are some fashion companies trying to reduce the frustrations often caused by using so many spreadsheets? It is a good question, an even better one would be – why aren’t they all doing it?

There’s a vast amount of research and opinion on what causes fashion businesses to fail. In this article I’m going to examine three such opinions though the lens of a personal career in the fashion industry and my role as a mentor to many fledgling fashion businesses that have gone on to develop international profiles.

Kim Winser, writing for Forbes.com believes that a primary reason for fashion industry failure is the lack of investment in the production process. She emphasizes the importance of working to a critical path and create cash flow before dreaming about big catwalk shows and pretending to be part of the big league of fashion.

She’s certainly not wrong, but I do think there’s a misidentification of critical path in her estimation of the cause of failure. In just three words ‘invest in production’ she glosses over one of the major reasons that fashion designers fail to create a sustainable business: the failure to introduce process and control systems into fashion product lifecycle management.

Take the average simple collection – to process one season’s collection probably requires something in the order of 40-100 spreadsheets. These sheets proliferate through style iterations, product information into actual productivity schedules. This doesn’t happen once in a lifetime, or once in a year, but every season.

“Invest in production” is not rocket science in itself, but failure to do so can definitely lead to crash and burn. Few fashion entrepreneurs are given solid training in how to utilize technology to keep control over and speed up their collection into production, let alone in how to manage design process so that better product development is built into the system itself. A simple comparison would be for the NASA team to be using slide rules for their calculations, rather than calling on the awesome computing power that they themselves had been instrumental in creating. Fashion designers who fail to capitalise on the facility of cloud-based PLM whilst chasing online exposure and sales are guilty of a similar mistake.

An interesting research project by Claudia Eckert of the Open University’s Department of Design and Innovation approaches the problem from a very different perspective – it doesn’t examine early failure in fashion start-ups, but looks at a traditional fashion industry and explores why communication is vital to successful production.

One sentence from Eckert’s conclusion is worth quoting in full as it goes to the heart of the risk that I believe to be a central cause of fashion and footwear industry failure:

The communication problems in the knitwear industry arise because designers produce incomplete, inaccurate and inconsistent specifications, which require interpretation by a technician. The process is asynchronous so a shared meaning usually cannot be negotiated by extensive direct discussion.

I would simply say, ‘not just knitwear’! This problem is endemic throughout apparel design from footwear to sportswear to jewellery. Once again –  and partly because of the age of this extensive piece of research, which was produced just before the Fashion PLM boom – the author doesn’t, in my view, adequately recognise that a solution could have been fully realised already.

Process improvement is not new and previous generation PDM and PLM systems were already able to manage quite a bit of this. But now that seamless real-time communication and full online technology exploitation have taken hold Cloud based collection management has made this accessible in many ways.

So why doesn’t the industry as a whole take the necessary step forward? There are a couple of key reasons that limit recognition of the need to shift process management forward and then move to a PLM system in the Cloud.

1 – Familiarity

No matter how time consuming and awkward working with spreadsheets becomes, many designers stick with what they know, even though it clearly isn’t working well. The analogy is striking – if fashion design treated product the way it treats product data management Coco Chanel would never have created the Little Black Dress because it would have been too different to the boned, ruffled floral gowns that were its contemporaries.

2 – Fear

The frankly ludicrous idea that the Cloud is not a safe medium for creative design needs to be exploded. Given that 40-100 spreadsheets, circulating from the intern through the team, to the designer, to the producer (often overseas and on a very insecure connection) and back can hardly be viewed as low risk, Cloud-based PLM is a massive step forward in terms of security as well as productivity. A good system has hosting and security in place that is far in excess of what an average business could possibly hope to achieve themselves.

Most Cloud Fashion PLM systems are accessed across secure connections, offer the chance to limit access and bring people into certain iterations of a design but not others – spreadsheets, by contrast are ultimately hackable. If you, like me, have even seen harried development assistants and interns photocopying spreadsheets in high street copy shops because ‘the office system has gone down and somebody needs to pull the data together manually’ then you have seen the absolute failure of spreadsheet based design.

Cloud PLM subscribers in this case would just grab a laptop or iPad, shift their working location to any place with an internet connection and carry on working after they log in through the PLM systems secure connection.

Cloud based Fashion PLM systems allow authorized members of staff to directly input updates and amendments, approve designs, manage their critical path, run reports, make a techpack and create a Bill of Materials (BOM) from anywhere, while collaborating live with those directly involved in the production process. It’s secure, it’s swift and it’s simple.

Finally, I was very taken by Sam Jacobs’ passionate defence of the need to design as an ambitious and aspirational process.

Fashion PDM is not a small thing:

  • it defines the way a large part of the world’s population feels about itself,
  • it creates a large number of jobs, many in areas of poverty and risk
  • it drives innovation in many areas from fashion itself, through to better product lifecycle management, through to improvements in garment design that allow athletes to break world records.

Sticking to the mundane multiplies the risk of becoming a mundane designer, if you make it at all.

Because I know there is already so much more out there for the fashion start-ups and the established businesses that I mentor, I often introduce them to Cloud-based PLM. It helps to introduce and maintain solid and scalable process into the creation of the most important asset the business has to succeed, its product.

Want to discuss this further? Why not send Ben Muis a tweet (@bmuis) or reply to this post?

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  1. 1970i Fashion Business Technology » The advantages of getting your suppliers involved in your system

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