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Shirts Off to 'Proper' Quality Management!
I don’t have many rules regarding the way I write these weekly posts, but every time two topics I like collide, I have to write about the event that led to their intersection.
This week, it’s about clothing and quality control.
As some of you may already know, I care about my clothing, and I particularly like nice jackets.
I also like efficiency, but efficiency and variety usually go in different directions, so I have built a simple system to help with this: I primarily own gray and charcoal pants, and mostly blue, button-down, oxford-cloth shirts.
This system allows me to spend all the time I have to spare every morning thinking about a single question: Which jacket should I wear today?
I like loud “British” patterns…
But also, more subtle Italian ones…
You can’t really go wrong with the classic navy-blue jacket:
But I can also pull off more bold, brownish-red jackets:
End of narcissistic part of the post.
The key is that I have many shirts like the ones you see in these photos.
Some call it a “OneShirt” strategy.
Finding a good and reliable shirt maker that is also affordable is not easy.
I view shirts as somewhat disposable, primarily because I am a messy eater and always one pasta sauce-stain away from ruining a shirt.
A few months ago, I decided to try a new shirt maker I found, Proper Cloth.
The process was excellent. They have a fitting room in Manhattan where you get measured, they send you a sample shirt that you try, and after washing it several times to account for shrinkage, you get several replacement shirts until the fit is perfected. The price is comparable to Banana Republic (for those curious about that), but they offer several fabric choices that can make the shirt as expensive as you want it to be. Overall, they use a process that is pretty common in the made-to-measure shirt-making world, and the shirts are made in and shipped from Vietnam.
But this is not what my post is about.
A few weeks ago, I ordered a new shirt (I use an inventory management system known as “Order up to” to maintain a constant safety stock of shirts).
The shirt arrived. I tried it, and it was perfect.
A few days later, however, I received the following email:
“We’re very sorry to let you know that we recently discovered a mistake was made on your order ###. These shirt(s) were ordered with the standard front placket (a fused/dressy style), but instead were made with the soft front placket (a more casual style that puckers when washed).
Since this discovery, we have corrected the error for orders going forward and we are working with our production partner to prevent similar mistakes from happening again.
To try and make this right, we’d like to offer to remake the affected shirts. Let us know if you’d like a replacement made with the standard placket style, as well as if you’d like to change anything else such as size, style, or shipping address. You will not need to return the original shirt to have this replacement made.
We sincerely apologize for this inconvenience. Please let us know how you’d like to proceed and we look forward to providing you with further assistance!”
The customer in me liked this very much, and the operations professor in me couldn’t love it more. I immediately emailed them to ask for a replacement (as a customer), but also inquired about how they figured this problem out (as a professor).
I immediately got the following response from their customer support representative:
“Excellent question! Thanks for thinking to use us!
A member of our customer experience team noticed a trend in customers receiving the wrong placket on their order and reported it to the operations team. They were able to meet with our production team and figure out all of the affected orders based on the timeline of when this started showing up, the order numbers, and through our database.”
Just to be clear, this is not an affiliated post. I am not getting any support or free things for writing this. I don’t have the readership to justify something like that anyway (you know you are the only reader, right?).
But allow me to explain why this incident fascinated me so much. I write about quality management problems frequently, and I know that shirts are not nearly as important as planes or baby formula (no one has ever died from wearing a shirt with the wrong placket), but this is exactly what makes this experience so unique.
But in order to look into this situation a little deeper, let’s first figure out what the mistake was. And for that, we first have to learn what the front placket of a shirt is.
The front placket is the strip of fabric that runs down the center of your dress shirt and has buttons on one side and buttonholes on the other. It’s often an extra piece of fabric sewn onto the shirt, or sometimes the shirt’s material that’s been folded over and sewn down.
In the case of a fused placket, the placket has an interlining which makes that section stiff. This helps it hold its shape while you’re wearing it. In the case of a soft front placket, the placket does not have the additional interlining, it’s considered more casual, and most people will not notice the difference. Frankly, I didn’t either.
And that’s the point! It’s the culture and the attention to quality at every level that differentiates firms.
But let’s get back to the quality management story.
Let’s follow the process through which they found the mistake, drove it to its root cause, analyzed its impact, and took responsibility for it before the customer (me) even noticed.
The best way to understand this process is to break it into steps and think about how most firms would handle it.
I’m not sure exactly how Proper Cloth first noticed the problem, but we need a starting point, so let’s assume that a customer complained about it and the customer experience employee was tasked with handling the matter.
In most cases, the situation would have been resolved right then and there. The customer that complained about it would have been reimbursed and that would be the end of it (in the best case).
But not at Proper Cloth. The customer experience employee chose to escalate it and discuss it with the production team.
And I am sure they got to the bottom of it. I can imagine different things going on, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that it was some type of labeling issue in the database that confused soft and fused plackets.
The production team could have resolved the issue right then and there, providing a solution for all future customers.
But not at Proper Cloth. They chose to search back all customers that may have been impacted by this mix-up. They could have also just marked it at that point and waited for other customer complaints.
But not Proper Cloth. They reached out, admitted their mistake, and offered a remedy.
This all feels so un2022.
I know that with today’s level of tracking technology I should not be shocked, but I am.
If you think this behavior is typical, I can tell you so many opposite stories. But I will only share the one.
A few years ago, I had a Mac which I realized (through the news) was part of a batch of Macs with faulty screens. I visited an Apple store to ask if they can fix or replace it before it starts failing. The answer was “No,” I was only entitled to a replacement once the screen failed.
A few months later, while waiting to give a talk at INSEAD, guess what: the screen fails, and I can only read half the screen. I immediately rush to the nearest Apple store, only to be told that since this is a US-based computer, they don’t care (you know, a pun on AppleCare), and it can only be fixed in the US.
A shirt may not be a laptop. But I also depend on my laptops more than I depend on my shirts (remember the OneShirt strategy).
Back to Proper Cloth: this is not only about quality management. This is about the culture of quality management and the culture of allowing an employee to “pull the cord.” It’s about not accepting remedies that are only short term. It’s about going to Gemba (and I don’t even know if Proper Cloth follows a lean operations methodology).
And this brings me to the following, important take-aways:
Everything is about tradeoffs. The fact that the firm is willing to incur actual costs to get things right, ensures two things: (1) that they truly care about quality, and (2) that the likelihood of this happening again is pretty low (because pain increases feedback loops).
And the last take-away is what it’s all about: building trust. As a customer, you shouldn’t constantly be checking for errors and be on your guard. For example, with the number of mistakes Uber and DoorDash make, the moment I place an order, I start checking its status. I don’t want to have to do that. I want to have peace of mind.
We may all have our own “no brown M&M’s” policies, but I want to trust that the firm is going to get it right.
It’s not enough to know that they are going to correct an error if and when it occurs. I want to know that they are actually doing their best to get things right. And if they know something’s wrong, they will not wait for me to tell them. They will know it before me and correct it for me.
That’s just rare, and when it happens it has to be applauded.
So hats off (or should I say “shirts off”) to Proper Cloth.
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