Lessons from the Toyota Sewing System

Mr Chris Koh with one of the report containing recommendations from Mr Suzuki on how to improve Mr Koh’s manufacturing business.

“In 1988, when I joined my family business making children’s wear, productivity was at a low of 58% versus the 78% in similar factories in Hong Kong. So we approached the National Productivity Board for help. They introduced us to Mr Suzuki, a retired Japanese industrialist they had brought in together with the Japanese Productivity Centre.

At first, we were sceptical. What did a guy from the automotive industry know about fashion design and production? Besides, his idea was radical. Instead of ‘push production’, where each sewing operator produced as many quantities of a garment part as possible e.g. sleeves / collars, which could mean more storage or repairs if one operator was slower or made mistakes, Mr Suzuki wanted them to produce only enough for the next operator down the line to complete the garment, or what is known as ‘pull production’. This was Greek to me, but we decided to give it a shot. It took a lot of persuasion to get our factory staff to change the sewing machine layout every two to three days when there was a change in apparel style. But productivity improved by 42% initially and up to 20% subsequently. The Toyota Sewing System, as it was widely practised among apparel companies in Japan, worked!

Looking back, Mr Suzuki also taught us another lesson. That retired or retiring engineers and industrialists still have much to give. As such, could a volunteer skills exchange bank be set up to allow them to register their skills and willingness to teach? Those who do it for free should get credits to attend other seniors’ classes. Those who want to do it for a fee could be hired by companies as consultants. We can even loan these seniors to other countries. Tapping their skills presents a new economic potential we should not miss.”

About Mr Chris Koh: Mr Koh’s suggestion to have a volunteer skills exchange bank won the first prize in an online challenge organised by the Ministry of Health in 2015. The challenge was part of a larger public consultation to seek views for the Action Plan for Successful Ageing. In recent years, Mr Koh has been invited by the Asian Development Bank, and APEC to help governments in Asia and Africa strategise ways to develop the apparel industries.


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