Sunday Reading: Quality Control & Production with Founder Michael Akira West

The flight from Los Angeles to Taipei is 16 long hours. As soon as you land, you are thrust into a completely different element and for the first few days at least, you battle jet lag and American food cravings. For some it can be a dizzying array causing endless amounts of stress, while others revel in it. 686 founder Michael Akira West is of the latter camp. For the past 25 years, Mike has been making the trip to Asia to personally stop at every factory and put his own eyes on each season’s production. We sat down with Mike to get a little insight on his quality control trips abroad.

Q: So Mike, where are your 686 production facilities located?

To start, we have a buying and merchandising office in Taiwan. All of our product designs and material purchase orders go there first and then are coordinated and sent off to our other factories in Asia, including a factory in Northern Vietnam next to Hanoi and two factories in China. We use multiple factories because each of these factories excels in a different technical skill set(s) and area(s) of manufacturing. For example, our GORE-TEX products are all sewn in a single factory, while other factories may make a variety of our pants or jackets. 

Over the last 20 years, we’ve nurtured a great relationship with each one of our factories and offices. Over time, we have developed tight bonds with the personnel – from the owners, management, merchandisers and all the way down to the workers – that has become similar to a family relationship. Like any job, some of the workers come and go, but many of them have been there for a long time. Over the years, I’ve been able to see each person in these departments grow. We have developed genuine relationships with the employees at our factories and they mean a lot to us.

Q: What are the working conditions like for the factory workers?"

As far as factory working conditions go, we have a specific set of standards that we abide by, period. We see to it that these standards are followed for our workers in the factories as well as for the handling of our products during production. All of our factories are audited by third parties to ensure these standards are being followed. I also visit each factory to check out the standards of working to ensure that our products are being created ethically and up to our high expectations. It is our responsibility as a brand to maintain this high level of social responsibility at our factories and it is essential to the core of our being for us to follow this.

Q: What does “quality control” mean to you and 686 as a brand?

Quality control is a broad term. To me, “quality” means you have to have a quality product at the end of production; and “control” means the control process required to ensure the end product meets your quality standards.

One important aspect of quality control is making sure the products we design and develop are produced for our customers the way we intended. In clothing production, mistakes occasionally get through that we don't always catch. Our job is to minimize these mistakes through our tests and checks as best we can, which is one reason why it's very important that my team and our other teams that go there before us are present to ensure the production process is done in terms of how we proposed them.

When I am in the factory, I am physically touching, feeling and inspecting as many pieces as I possibly can. I am looking for both the correct translation of our designs as well as any defects born in the manufacturing process – defects like loose threads, puckering zippers or garments that fit out of spec.

Q: What is the process you go through at 686 each season to ensure the premium quality of your products? Are there certain steps you undergo?

The first item we get after we turn a design in to our merchandising office is a sample, which is delivered to our headquarters in California. We carefully look over the sample, try it on multiple people and get feedback from our internal team as well as professional skiers and snowboarders. We provide comments, feedback, and necessary changes to the factories. Then we get another sample, and another, until the garment meets our design expectation. Next, the product goes down the line of checks: our buying office, the pattern maker, the merchandiser, and the workers on the factory floor. They all follow our standards to ensure the product is made exactly to our specified design. There are probably over 300 hundred people that touch every aspect of one jacket before it reaches the consumer, so coordinating that is a process in itself.  

During production, when we can’t be on the factory floor, we hire third party firms to inspect the production garment as well do working environment inspections. These third parties are neutral parties in the process – not tied to the business, garments or factory. This is important because they come in unbiased and provide are very black and white comments. They have a standard they look at, that we provide them, and they thoroughly check to make sure the garments are being produced to this standard. They provide us with constant reporting to ensure we know what is happening at the factory level.

Lastly, each year my design team and I (along with the team in Taiwan) go to the production factories to do our own inspections. To some extent, we follow many of the same inspection guidelines the third party firm already went through to make sure they were done correctly, but because we designed each garment we are able to catch extra little intricacies that may otherwise be missed. This adds a final layer to the quality control process.

Q: What is your personal role when you are overseas performing Quality Control checks?

My personal role is to look at everything from two levels. I inspect at a very micro level where I am examining all of the precision and details in the actual product and a much more macro level where I look at the overall efficiency of the entire process – from design all the way to final production.

When I go to the factories, it's probably not the most fun thing for the employees there. Not because I’m not fun, but because I look everything over with a very careful and discerning eye and ask a million questions. However, they know when I’m there it is actually good for the end result of our products.

Take a particular new fabric for example. I may ask the workers, “How is it to sew this particular fabric. Is it a difficult fabric to work with?” Someone may reply, “Well, this one was really difficult because the fabric you picked was really light and drapey, making it difficult to work with.” Or they may say, “This fabric was really easy to work with.” I want to know these details because I already know how it performed on the mountain when it was tested by our team riders, however if it was extremely difficult to work on the factory floor then it makes it that much more difficult to have first quality products.

Every time I'm in Asia working with the office in Taiwan or the factories, I realize many ways we can improve our processes to make them better, which ultimately will make our end products even better. Improvement in is as ongoing process. I don't care who you are or what you do, you have to have that humility to say, “we can do things better.” Not just creating a better design, but actually thinking through the process better, or doing more ahead of time to make the production worker’s jobs easier.

All these areas of checks and balances and ideas for future improvement go on behind the scenes without our customer’s knowledge, but for us it is one of the most important aspects of what we do.

Q: Has the production process been refined since you started 26 years ago?

For sure. It is light years ahead of where it used to be. Traditional technical apparel, such as outerwear, is one of the most labor intensive, skilled kind of apparel construction there is because you’re using materials that aren't typically made for sewing machines. This traditionally has lead to a lot of human error on the production line.

For example, let’s look at the center front zipper of a jacket. Sewing on a front zipper requires a very precise process in order to make sure the inner flap, the zipper, the outer storm flap and the panel they are attached to all come together without any mistakes. It is much more difficult to do than it looks.

We’ve recently developed a proprietary computerized sewing construction to combat the human error factor. We now have the ability to sew almost an entire jacket by computer. Humans are still very involved in terms of actually putting pieces together, but the craftsmanship of a computer ensures that the sewing is precise and helps eliminate error of the difficult of sewing by human hand. The computer construction has allowed us to be more confident that each piece of our garments are sewn with absolute precision. Currently, we can create about 70% of a complete jacket through this method. This is a big step forward because it improves our efficiency levels as well as creates a huge leap in quality levels of our products.

Q: Why has it been important for 686 as a brand to always improve upon these processes?

I've always lived by the rule of constant improvement. There's a Japanese term “kaizen” that refers to a continuous function of improvement. For the past 26 years, we've constantly striven for improvement each and every season in every facility of our brand. We believe that this following of kaizen is one of the reasons that we've been able to grow over the years and why we’re still out here having fun doing it!

Q: What does the Genuine 686 Reflective sticker mean for your products.

The genuine sticker is that extra touch saying, “there is that soul behind us.” It tells a story of what we have done. The sticker is proof that the garment came from a genuine 686 factory. The sticker started many years ago in response to major counterfeiting of our products that we were combatting and has stuck with our brand ever since. It’s kind of like a flag to rally around for the factory workers, the design team, the marketing and sales teams, the team riders, and our retailers. The sticker shows the customer that everyone here has signed off on these products and they are truly “genuine.”

Q: Do you have any quality control or factory advice for any up and coming entrepreneurs trying to start a business?

One thing I will say is that producing a product at scale is one of the most difficult things to do because you have a limited amount of control over the outcome. It's very difficult. Whether you're making a t-shirt or a technical garment, you have to depend on so many different people to translate your design into a final production run.

Over the years I’ve realize that it's what you do before you actually hit the production floor that is most important. You need to prepare everything behind the design appropriately so the factories can make all the right decisions on the floor. Many times, if there are mistakes with the final product it is because of something that didn't happen early on in the process. Maybe you didn't have right information, or the specs on your tech packs didn't necessarily match your preproduction sample. Maybe the factory didn't match the TOP sample or maybe you made a mistake on your TOP sample. If something happens, it’s usually something you did early on that impacts the final product the end consumer sees and wears. 

In a nutshell, make sure whatever you design and send to your production facility is air-tight and crafted exactly the way you want it. If you put trash in, trash will come out. You've got to make sure you are precise and detailed.

Along with this, know what you’re good at and seek advice from professionals with strengths in areas we you have weaknesses. You will always make mistakes down the road, but learn from those mistakes. Find a mentor. Find someone that has done it. Rely on them and actually learn from them. Make those mistakes, but recover and move forward.