Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Uniqlo Machine

I've been shopping at Uniqlo since I moved to NYC, and it's by far my favorite clothing store. I've often wondered how they produce such great stuff (excellent quality, style and cut) at such low prices (often the same or cheaper than places like H&M or The Gap). The answer, of course, is kaizen.
Uniqlo is a company that prescribes, records, and analyzes every activity undertaken by every employee, from Ahmed’s folding technique to the way advisers return charge cards to customers (Japanese style, with two hands and full eye contact). To some extent, management science is an element of all international companies, but Uniqlo’s obsession is more like a turbocharged version of kaizen, the Japanese concept that translates roughly as the continuous search for perfection. (Kaizen is often invoked in business schools when describing Toyota, though less so recently.) Uniqlo has a relatively flat power structure and encourages employees to suggest ideas for improving productivity. Experimentation, however, must go through the proper channels. There is a poster in every Uniqlo manager’s office outlining the Ten Accountabilities. No. 8 reads, As a store manager, always follow company direction. Do not work in your own way.
The article is interesting throughout. The discussion of Japanese management theory reminded me a lot of NUMMI, an automobile manufacturing plant in Fremont, CA that was a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota. If such a partnership sounds odd, that's because it is. Check out one of my favorite episodes of This American Life for a fascinating story.

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