Operator Training and Deployment in Apparel Industry - A Systemic View

This is a guest post from Paul Collyer. In an earlier post, he has written on the use of and potential benefits of trained trainers utilising a systematic approach to operator training. If correctly deployed and resourced trainers will reduce training times for recruits and will also improve the performance levels of existing low-performing workers both in terms of output and quality.

Operator training

In recent years many companies in India and the South-East Asia region have started to use trained trainers and have benefited as a result. However, observations show that the majority, although achieving substantial cost improvements are still “missing a trick” and not receiving the maximum benefits possible by not integrating training completely into the production management process and modifying their training systems to their needs.

This situation is due to a combination of factors but a key point is the inability to appreciate how to modify the systematic training concepts to different production systems and circumstances.

The apparel industry is very diverse with many different products, production systems, order sizes and cultures to cope with. As with all aspects of running a successful garment business, there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” solution.

Those companies that have successfully embedded trainers into their factories should now in the pursuit of continual improvement look at moving up to another higher level by tailoring the training approach even more closely to their individual needs and circumstances.

Initially, If we first look at the training of freshers or new recruits.
  • Are recruiting levels linked to both production requirements and initial training capacity?
  • Are those two issues identical to avoid a shortage of recruits or the reverse; trainees sitting around or being used as helpers for several weeks resulting in losses?
  • Does HR have a recruitment target that is linked to the previous two requirements?
Also see: Systematic Training of Sewing Industry Operators – An Introduction

The systematic operator training approach works under the following philosophy:

1. You train someone because you want them to perform a task(s) for you. Therefore, you only train them in the skills and knowledge necessary to perform that task. Any additional training is both wasteful and counterproductive. The production system is paramount when designing the training programme.

  • Does the operator need to know one or more operations? 
  • Do they need to change style frequently or are they making a standard product? 
  • The approach need is to be modified for circumstances.

2. Sewing and handling skills are taught to the trainee; not operations.
If the trainee acquires the correct skills then they will be able to perform the tasks or operations. This is a key concept that determines the ongoing training programme. If trainees are going to work with “fashion” items such as dresses and potentially on short production runs then it will not be possible to design training exercises for every potential design feature and eventuality. Accordingly, a programme to teach “core” skills will be required. Alternatively, if a standard product such as men’s formal shirts is to be produced then a limited number of “core” skills allied to operation specific exercises is possible.

In addition to the product, the manufacturing system must be considered when designing operator training programmes. If PBS lines are in use then it possible that only one or possibly two operations must be mastered thereby reducing the number of skills to be learned, only teach what is necessary!

A team or modular system will require operators to learn many skills and operations and a step by step carefully planned approach needs to be taken.

Where “single piece” production teams are in use then again, a minimum number of skills will need to be learned. All systematic operator training is based on competence. Based on the ability to perform a task to a set standard. With sewing, this relates to output and quality and it is customary for trainers to have times for training recruits and then output targets as they move to production lines. In a PBS system management can set a minimum acceptable performance level and build these into their production balancing.

As “single piece” requires adjacent operators to work at different performances to meet the target the trainer can set individual competence levels in terms of time and speed to that required. i.e. trainees being prepared for different operations will have different target performances.

All the above demonstrates that the concept of systematic training needs to be modified for the circumstances within a factory and the classic systematic approach as shown below is effective but needs to be tailored for needs.

Systematic Operator training will be well known to those companies currently using it and should utilise the following programme:
  • Induction both HR for general employment issues and the trainer for specific production matters.
  • Machine knowledge
  • Foundation skills training. (speed and rhythm)
  • Operation specific skills using a series of purpose, designed fabric exercises. It is at this point that customisation for specific circumstances needs to take place.
  • Production work, stock items or mockups per company policy.

Operation specific skills

As previously stated these are taught using a series of fabric, (never paper) exercises. Each exercise teaches a number of skills and builds upon the learning of the previous exercise.

Each operation should be analysed and the necessary handling and sewing skills identified. All operations will contain a number of “core skills” such as align at the foot, sew a straight seam, or stop accurately in a corner. Accordingly, a number of exercises can be developed to teach these skills and the appropriate ones taught to the trainee. Again, do not teach skills that are not required. If a recruit is to top sew a collar there is little point in teaching long seam sewing skills.

Once the “core” skills have been mastered then operation specific exercises can be given to allow the trainee to relate the skills learn to the task to be performed and to allow the practice.

The above approach is effective when standard products such as 5 pocket jeans or tee shirts are to be produced or if long production runs are envisaged and an operator will be required to perform one or two operations only. (Never teach two operations simultaneously; teach consequentially remembering that some “core” skills may be common to both operations.)

However, a different approach has to be taken when making fashion items and the operator needs to be versatile. Products should be analysed for skills required and “core” skills taught using a number of exercises. Again, teach only one skill at a time but remember that exercises will transfer core skills the next one to another and should if correctly planned add to a level of competence over a number of skills and abilities.

The message is if you have implemented systematic sewing operator training and are achieving results then make even better use of your valuable trainers by targeting training regimes to your products and circumstances. Do not take the “one size fits all” option but grow your training expertise.

Following is an example of preparing an exercise sheet for operator training on movement and operation-specific skills.
Operator training exercise sheet
Exercise sheet

Download the above operation-specific training exercise sheets (pdf file) and one more.

About the Author
Paul Collyer is a UK-based garment industry trainer and consultant specialising in manufacturing, productivity and improvement initiatives. He has 47 years of industry experience in Industrial Engineering, Factory and production management, and consultancy.  Paul has worked extensively in the garment industries of the UK, North Africa, Middle East and Asia. Paul can be contacted at paul.collyer[at]btinternet.com.

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