Sunday, March 31, 2013

5 Tips to Improve Your Product's Quality

How can you ensure the right level of quality control to avoid an “epic fail”? Lululemon recently recalled its stretchy black yoga pants that when stretched become see-through. YIKES!

Although the specific problems are unique to Lululemon and apparel, the themes apply to most products whether built for internal users, business customers or consumers.

Lululemon is a successful women's athletic ware retailer that has grown its annual sales to $1 B in the last 5 years. However their quality control is causing brand issues. Bloomberg Businessweek reports “The gaffe could cost Lululemon an estimated $60 million (on projected income of $271M in 2013) and stunt its popularity.”

There have been other quality problems that indicate a pattern:
  •         See-through swimwear when wet
  •         Bleeding colors
  •         Pilling fabrics
  •         Reusable shopping bags with lead
  •        "Seaweed" fabric that contained no seaweed (see end-notes)

These 5 tips would have helped Lululemon and can be applied to your next project.

1.       Admit there is a quality problem and then make quality a brand pillar.
To resolve a problem, the first step -- recommended by the ancient philosophers and modern 12-step programs -- is to recognize that there is a problem. Lululemon's CEO stated after the recent recall “The only way to test for the problem is to put the pants on and bend over.” Given that Lululemon is selling athletic ware, consumers expect that Lulu would test bending over.

As a positive example of such testing is NorthFace brand promise “We just don’t test our gear, we prove it.” [YouTube video of advertisement]. Lululemon’s statement in contrast, sounds like an excuse, rather than rethinking its approach to quality.

2.       Test beyond the promise and look for problems.
It seems Lululemon focused only on stretchiness, comfort and form-fit when checking for quality. And it delivered. In the software industry, this sort of testing is referred to as the “happy path”.

There are also undesirable outcomes that are critical to test when introducing new products. It is also necessary to ensure quality is maintained with each batch manufactured.  

It may seem daunting at first to test for negative outcomes. Thankfully, there are usually many simple, quick and low-cost tests. In the case of Lululemon, tests such as:   
  • Transparent when stretched - Take a batch of the fabric and hand-stretch in front of the light. If you can read the Lulu label, maybe the material is too thin.
  • Transparent when wet – Wet the material
  • Bleeding of dyes – Wash the material
  • Pilling – Rub the material to simulate normal wear

Testing for ingredients both wanted (seaweed) and unwanted (lead) is more complex, but can  be easily assigned to a reputable lab.

3.       Understand the technology.
Although it is easy to overlook, apparel also has an engineering component, specifically materials science.

When designing for extremes in performance, the designer needs to consider what complications may be introduced. For example, the extreme thinness and stretchiness of its yoga pants, introduced  the see-through issue.

Certain materials have known properties both positive and negative that should be understood.
  • Binding of dyes to materials is complex. Extra vivid colors seem to create weak bounds that bleed. Or if excessive dye is used to create the bright look, the material is unable to absorb and then the dye will wash out.
  • Softer and thinner materials have less strength which results in the pilling.
  • Materials as they stretch become thinner. This caused the transparency issue.
  • Plastics may contain lead. Center for Disease Control (CDC) states on its website, “The use of lead in plastics has not been banned. It softens the plastic and makes it more flexible. When the plastic is exposed to substances such as sunlight, air, and detergents the chemical bond between the lead and plastics breaks down and forms a dust.”  

4.       Test how the product is really used.
Proctor&Gamble is famous for understanding how its products are used, even sending representatives into consumers' homes to understand their needs and practices. Since Lululemon  clothing is intended to be worn skin tight, many women forgo foundation garments making the see-through issue even more awkward for those exposed to an unwelcome view.

5.       Seek out negative chatter
Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the see-through issue first surfaced several years ago and customers reported the problem to the company. Another source of feedback is its employees, many of whom use the product and resemble the target market. Even with poor quality practices, if only Lulu had listened to its vocal users, they could have uncovered and corrected the issue long before it became the target of late night comedians. 

With some extra effort, those of us charged with quality can ensure that we provide a great product that delights the consumer.

Read my related article about LuluLemon's branding errors with its "healthy" clothing line, Vitasea. Read more >> 


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