Lean manufacturing is not just for big businesses. Applied correctly, lean principles can help fashion SMEs minimise waste, maximise productivity, and deliver what the customer wants, when they want it, helping to increase growth in a highly competitive market.



The world of fashion retail is changeable, volatile, and unpredictable, with ever shorter lead times putting pressure on supply chains. However, the ideal conditions for optimum productivity and the minimisation of waste are seldom met at the design and production stages. This has a knock-on effect on lead times. A lean manufacturing strategy employed by SMEs can help eliminate waste, improve productivity, optimise processes, shorten time to market, and potentially increase growth and profit and it doesn’t need high levels of investment.

Lean manufacturing was first applied in the Japanese car industry by Toyota. It is based on five lean principles:

  • Value identify what is of value to your customers and how you can deliver this.
  • Optimise the value stream what is necessary to produce that value. What processes can be eliminated? Lean manufacturers traditionally use a stream map to identify all the processes in place.
  • Flow ensure there is no interruption in production and that processes work together in sync
  • Pull base production on customer demand rather than forecasts.
  • Perfection perfect your products, services, and processes.

Lean manufacturing relies on the elimination of seven areas of waste: transport, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, over-processing, and defects. The pursuit of continuous improvement is at its core the Japanese concept of Kaizen which organises the workspace according to five principles: sort, set, shine, standardise and sustain.





The seven-waste theory is of particular relevance to fashion and apparel SMEs as it focuses on savings and requires little investment. One obvious area where processes can be improved, and waste eliminated, is fabric inventory. We are all too accustomed to piles of fabric that never get used and take up valuable space. This can easily be avoided with a PLM solution that enables the mapping of stock and eliminates excess inventory.

Paramount to a lean strategy, from the designer’s perspective is fabric choice. This should be optimised once you have researched trends and determined what your customer wants. Again, this is a straightforward task with PLM.

The fabric technologist needs to understand the fabric, its weight and properties, wash/care instructions, draping and handling, and ensure the right fabric is used for the right design. Consider whether the fabric could be sourced locally instead of imported, thereby saving on transport. Can delivery waiting time be avoided? Fabric finishing can have long lead times so it is important to understand how long finishing, printing, and embellishing will take so this can be scheduled into the critical path.

In line with this, the garment technologist must have excellent knowledge of garment construction, patterns, and fabrics. A thorough understanding of production processes is vital to take the garment from prototype through fitting and sealing to a finished garment that meets customer expectations. Technologists will be expected to work to tight deadlines while maintaining constant communication with the factory and the retailer.

From the point of view of the pattern technologist, it is important to choose the correct blocks and to organise these with size charts for specific customers and products where this information can easily be found. The use of CAD makes this easier by standardising pattern grading and speeding up pattern cutting, improving accuracy with regards to labelling, cut information, annotations, etc. Virtual sampling on a 3D modeller will speed up the process by minimising sampling.

Waste can easily be avoided in the cutting room. Once again, the use of CAD/CAM technology ensures efficient fabric consumption and accurate cutting. The use of a plotter to print markers instead of lay planning and marking on a cutting table saves cutting space.

There must also be reliable equipment infrastructure in place with machine maintenance scheduled on a regular basis and a stock of spare parts to avoid disruption in case of breakdown.

Lean must be explicit, not implicit

Collaboration between functions is essential. Employee involvement and training is key, and staff must understand the business goals lean principles must apply on the factory floor and in the office. For these efforts to be sustained, efficient communication is required, which is where PLM and CAD solutions play their part. These solutions facilitate the traceability of information and ensure accurate decisions based on customer demand rather than growth forecasts.

With Nike and Zara leading the way, and the likes of Boohoo and ASOS following in their footsteps, there are many shining examples of lean businesses in the fashion industry. These business advocate day-to-day responsiveness and agility rather than over-ordering and over-production.

However, it is a common misconception is that lean manufacturing can only work in large businesses. SMEs may have different success criteria compared with larger companies, but the philosophy can be just as effective for small businesses. Lean manufacturing is arguably perfect for achieving shorter cycle times and meeting the requirements of higher quality.

Lean principle #5: Perfection of product, services, and processes. This is what customers need. Loyal customers buy more, purchase more often, and cost less to do business with. Lean manufacturing is an effective strategy for customer retention and the long-term success of any business.

Vetigraph Fashion Digital Solutions Ltd develops the StylePack PLM solution for the fashion industry and is the UK distributor of the Vetigraph CAD/CAM solutions. Herv Andrieu has been implementing CAD/CAM and PLM solutions for 28 years.



Author/Contact details

Name: Herve Andrieu

Job Title: MD Vetigraph Fashion Digital Solutions Ltd

Phone: 01273 672400



Twitter: @fashion2digital

For additional reading about Lean Manufacturing:

Lean Thinking by James P Womack and Daniel T Jones