Tag Archives: Innovation

Stop Fighting Emergency Fires in Five Steps

Whenever I find myself spending most of my day fighting fires, I try to step back and understand why. A great framework that I like to use comes from the Malcolm Baldrige Performance Excellence Program. The firefighting example takes a process through five steps, going from “emergency crisis mode” to “no problem mode.”

The Malcolm Baldrige Performance Excellence program is a government sponsored award that focuses on promoting quality in US organizations. You can see the images below and other great resources on their graphics page.

Step One – Running and Reacting

1The first stage is where most of us start when we think of fighting fires. We react to emergencies that pop up by dropping everything and running to what’s urgent. If this only happens once or twice, then it might not be worth the effort to improve the response. However, the problems that occur frequently or have large impacts are the ones that need to move beyond step one. Focus on those problems for moving them through steps two through five.

Step Two – Running Less and Reacting Quicker

2If fires pop up in the same places frequently, then installing extra hoses in that area can really help. Likewise, if you repeatedly face the same emergency, making additional resources available in those areas can cut down the size or length of an emergency. Taking a few minutes to create simple, small countermeasures makes reacting easier.

Step Three – Response Game Plan

3Once countermeasures are in place, how can we get everyone on the same page? When the next emergency strikes, who contacts whom? Addressing these issues by making a game plan can make the response much more effective. More importantly, getting others involved makes the emergency less dependent on you. If you can’t ever leave the office because you’re the only one that knows how to handle certain problems, then this step can free you from that burden.

Step Four – Automated Response System

4Just like a sprinkler system automatically dousing flames, you can build a system that handles emergencies automatically. Basic computer automation or alerts can take care of many problems that frequently pop up. Emergencies that are more complex may require some IT investment, but many of those solutions are worth the price tag. Conversely, significant investment may not be necessary if a manual response system will work just as well.

Step Five – Innovate Emergencies Away

5This final step is not “brainstorm how this emergency doesn’t happen again.” That type of thought should happen at any stage. Instead, this is a systematic change in the design of work flows, products, and systems so that unexpected problems are less common and less damaging. A product’s cost can often be reduced by 70% when the designers’ goal is to make the product easier for manufacturing. Similarly, perhaps 70% of your emergencies could be avoided by focusing on internal customers and avoiding downstream emergencies. Of course, balancing the needs of internal customers with those of external customers is difficult. Nevertheless, keeping the needs of both customers in mind will help reduce emergencies for which you can’t plan.

How to Use the Five Steps of Firefighting

Whenever a problem arises, I look at where in the five steps my response to the emergency is. Based on the size and frequency of the problem, I can then look at options for moving the response to the next level. Few fires need all five steps; such investment would be overkill. However, simply knowing at what stage each of my problems is helps me prioritize my improvement efforts. Soon the categorization becomes second nature, and process improvement becomes easier, quicker, and more effective.

Best of all, there’s less fires to fight. And the fires I still have to fight are easier to put out.

At what stages are the recent emergency responses you’ve initiated?

[Images Source]

Startups, Sourcing, and Sustainability with Mark Dwight of Rickshaw Bagworks – Interview Part 2 of 2

In a beautiful San Francisco neighborhood stands a brick warehouse containing something unusual and inspiring – a startup that uses lean manufacturing and sustainable business principals to make products in the US. Relying on local vendors, an honest culture, and talented people, Rickshaw Bagworks produces bags that people love.

Mark Dwight

Below is the second half of the transcript from our phone conversation. The first half is available here.

Q: From your experience starting your own business – how was that to take that step? What would you say to budding entrepreneurs that want to make that same jump?

Well, the first part was that “I got pushed.” I got fired from Timbukt2, and that’s ok. It was a new group of investors. They bought the company for a lot of money and they weren’t there to have a party. They were there to build it even bigger and sell it themselves. They looked at me and said, “Look, you’re a really creative guy. You did a great job of growing this from 4 million dollars in sales to 20 million dollars in sales, but we need to make it a 100 million dollar company and you have no experience doing that. I was like, “You’re right.” So they said, “Well we’re going to go find a 100 million dollar man.” So I said, “Ok fine. You know, what do I have to say about that? You own the company, not me.”

So I left there and as I was thinking about what I was going to do next, I thought, “Well I could go buy another little, small company.” But that’s usually hit or miss. I had been very fortunate with Timbukt2. It was struggling, but it had a great brand and a bigger-than-life image. It was ready for someone to take it to that next level, and I was fortunate to be able to do that. Whether I could have taken it to that next level of 100 million dollars, I don’t know. Frankly, in retrospect, I’m not so sure I would have wanted to.

Rickshaw Bag in ProductionI looked around a little bit and I didn’t find anything that was obvious that I might want to buy. One day a friend of mine said, “Mark, you’re spending a whole lot of time avoiding the bag business.” I had been hesitant because I thought, “If I run off and start a bag business, everyone’s going to say, ‘that’s just Mark. He’s mad about Timbuk2, so he’s going to go start his own bag company out of spite.'” I didn’t want people to think that at all. In fact, I had fallen in love with bags and the bag business because bags are the most personal of personal accessories. People love their bags. At Timbuk2, we’d have people come in with a ten-year-old bag – it looked like trash – and I’d wonder, “Dude, how can you walk around with that on your back?” and they’d say, “I would never give up this bag.” These people would say, “I fell off my motorcycle and it saved my life,” or they’d say, “This stain here is where my wife, when I proposed to her in a French cafe, she spilled her wine. And that stain right there, I don’t ever want to lose that.” This made me think, “Wow, bags are interesting. Every bag tells a story.” I had learned how to make them, and I love making stuff. So I said, “Ok, I love bags, I love making bags, I know how to make bags.” I knew that Timbuk2’s custom business was profitable. Some of the other stuff we did was less profitable, but the custom part, the online customization, was really profitable. “Well, ok, I’m going to give this a try.”

Then I had that idea for a chassis strategy for custom computer bags. I thought, “Hey, I’ve got some innovative ideas, I love bags.” I had a little money from when I left Timbuk2. I had the grubstake to start, so I decided to do it. A friend of mine said, “You’re spending all of that time avoiding the bag business, why don’t you just go do it? You love it. Go do it. Don’t worry about what other people think.” We all spend a lot of time thinking about what other people think, but finally, I thought, “You’re right. I should just do it.” And I did. That was 6 1/2 years ago. It’s been a long slog; be careful what you wish for.

Rickshaw Bagworks Staff

Q: I watched a Stanford video that you did, and I liked what you said about not trying for a hockey stick growth pattern. You just want a good sustainable business that has modest growth. You go to work each day and you’re happy.

Yeah, you know, I’m not here to be the king of the bag business. I tell people, “I’m not here to make as many bags as possible.” Let’s face it, if you work for investors, your job is to make as much stuff and sell as much of that stuff as possible. That’s how investors make money, not my company. I’m not grading myself by how many bags I sell. I want to sell as many bags as necessary, not as many bags as possible, as many bags as necessary to run the kind of business that I want to run. Of course, I’m competitive like the next guy, but I don’t need to beat Timbuk2 at their game or feel like I’m competing with JanSport. I want my company to be respected for what it does, and I want it to be sustainable financially.

Sustainability starts at the bottom line. If you’re not profitable, it doesn’t matter what else you got or stories to tell because you’re not going to be around long. Hence, I want to run a financially sustainable business. I love working with my team. I love being my own factory. I love everything about it. Do we want to be a little bigger? Sure – because we’re just on the cusp of profitability right now. It’s been almost seven years, a long time. We’ll all be really proud of ourselves when we get to profitability.

Rickshaw Factory Floor

I think the company could be two or three times bigger than it is today and still be a company that I feel is an authentic, make-what-we-sell kind of thing without help from outsourcing. Frankly, I’ve played that game, and I’m not that interested in it. At some point, you have to decide what you really like to do. I love to make my own products. It’s not me sitting down at a sewing machine. I love my company making what it sells in its own factory and the kind of control, and not just control but satisfaction, that comes from that. It’s what makes me tick. That’s just me, and it’s nothing against people who design things and go have other people make them. That’s great. You’re a great designer; you don’t have to be a great manufacturer. I’ve tried to become both. Actually, that worked backwards.

I said I wanted to be a great manufacturer, and then I taught myself how to design and do the other parts. I tell people, “I’m here to make a living, not a killing.” It’s just bag. Yes, we’re creating a brand, like Timbuk2.

Timbuk2 had been around for 13 years when I joined them. We basically took that brand and blew it up. “Let’s go to China and make a $99 computer bag – we will sell tons of them.” And that’s exactly what we did. I said, “This company’s making expensive bags in San Francisco. We’ve got a great brand. I know how to design computer bags. Let’s do a $99 computer bag, make it in China, and exploit the Timbuk2 brand and heritage.” That’s what we did, and we sold tens of thousands of those bags. It was the bag that turned around the company. But, as I look back on it, I think, “Well, that’s one way to do it.” But it feels a little like you’re prostituting the brand.

I think what came with that strategy was a level of exposure that sort of betrayed the roots of the company and all the of the sudden people started saying, “Oh, you guys don’t make bags in San Francisco anymore.”

“Well, no, that’s not true at all; we still make our custom messenger bags here”

“Oh, but I just see all the stuff you make in China, so to me, you’re just a China-made company”

“No, that’s not it at all.”

With Rickshaw, I’m trying to be a little more true to that, even though I started out in China. Now I’m of the attitude of, “The more I can make here, the better.” We learn more every day. Part of it is training ourselves to make bags.

The reason China is so great at bags is because they have expertise, equipment, and capacity. The supply chain is all right there. You can sit in your factory there and say, “I want to see the buckle guy.”

“Ok, well let’s give him a call. He’ll be here at 2 o’clock”

“I want to see the webbing guy”

“Ok, we’ll drive over to his place.”

Everyone is right there. It’s like making cars in Detroit with the way it used to be when everyone was a local vendor. You could go over to the vendor, work stuff out, and go on with your life. Now, you say, “Ok, I have to book a flight to China – how many days do I loose when I go?” and all those headaches. Either you do it remotely or you plan these epic trips over there. It’s very costly, so what we try to do is build our own local supply chain.

Rickshaw Bicycle DeliveryQ: There’s definitely something to be said for having the local vendors right there. And I’ve heard that you sometimes visit them on bikes?

Yes, as a matter of fact I’m standing on the curb right now because I was delivering a box of canvas tote bags that we just made for Whole Foods Markets. A couple of their stores here in town are carrying some canvas bags that we make. I get a kick out of delivering by cargo bike occasionally. It gets me a little exercise.

Q: When you started on your own 8 years ago, knowing what you know now, would you do it again?

Oh, absolutely. I love every day of it. It’s really fantastic. Running your own business has its own headaches, but working for other people has its headaches too. I like the ones I give myself better than the ones others give me.

I’m very fortunate that I’ve had the resources to get as far as I have. That’s one thing I do advise entrepreneurs when they go into their own venture. I say, “Look, I guarantee you it’s going to take more time, more effort, and more money than your business plan says – even if you double everything. It just does. And I guarantee you that 3-5 years from now your business will not look the same as your business looks today.”

For example, Huckberry is a company that curates products for companies like us. They just opened a pop-up store nearby; they’re based in San Francisco. I was just talking to the two founders, and they said, “You know what Mark, we were just thinking back about when we met you three years ago and the advice you gave us.” They said, “We distinctly remember you saying ‘so, how long do you guys think you’re going to be in this business’ and we remember you saying ‘better give it 3-5 years.'” Then they said, “Here we are, 3 years later.”

I said, “Well you’re fighting a good fight if you’re here three years later.” I’ve been at it for almost seven years. It takes more time, effort, and money than you ever think. But, if you’re enjoying it, it’s ok. And for me, my business at Rickshaw is not only my occupation, it’s my hobby, my life, and my life style. I quite enjoy it. I don’t think about the work-life balance. I have four teenage kids, and I want to spend time with my kids, my girlfriend, and people in my family. But, they all know, “This is what Dad does. It’s a big part of his life.” It’s just what I live and breathe. I try not to let it consume, but it’s also what keeps me interested and vital. When I’m out in the world, I’m thinking about bags.

Q: I know you founded a non-profit supporting companies making products in San Francisco – how did you start that?

I founded the organization called SFMade. I conceived of the idea while I was at Timbuk2, and actually, it’s kind of a funny story.

When I started making this computer bag over in China, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article about us in the local newspaper. Basically, the gist of the article was that we finally had faced economic reality, and we were manufacturing in China like everybody else. We were facing the fact that it’s too expensive to make stuff in San Francisco. And in the that article, they showed a fairly large black and white photo of a sewer, a seamstress, who was a Chinese woman. If you read the headline and saw that picture, you would had said, “Oh, well of course, there’s one of their sewers over in China.” Well, the Chinese community in San Francisco is the backbone of the sewing community. That Chinese sewer was in my factory at Timbuk2 Headquarters in San Francisco. Now, it said so in the caption, but you read headlines and you see pictures – the same way you read a comic book. So that really irritated me. So I started thinking, “We just don’t get enough credit for what we are doing here in San Francisco.”

SFMadeI was in Silicon Valley working in high tech when Intel launched their famous campaign, “Intel Inside.” Here’s a company that is behind the scenes, no one really knows them, and they decide, “You know what, we’re going to convince people that if they’re going to buy their own computer, then they should demand that it should have an Intel chip. People don’t even know what a chip or microprocessor is, but we’re going to tell them, if there’s Intel inside, it’s going to work the best.” And they went to great lengths to make it seem like “Oh, your Microsoft Word isn’t going to run properly if it’s not on an Intel chip,” or “the operating system’s not going to work the same way.”  I thought that was brilliant.

I thought, “Intel can do it with technology, why can’t we do it with Geography?” The Champagne region did it. They protect the word champagne with vigilance. This notion in wine is very common. San Francisco is a special place. People think of us differently, “Whack jobs out on the west coast; super-progressive, liberal city; summer of love; the gold rush.” All those things that happened here in San Francisco are part of our culture. We have a very special place, plus we’re beautiful geographically. We should use San Francisco as an ingredient brand. So I conceived the idea of geographic ingredient branding, just like Intel did technology ingredient branding. I came up with this little logo for SFMade, and we started using the SFMade logo on our custom “Made in San Francisco” bag at Timbuk2.

When I left Timbuk2, I negotiated with the investors, “You know, this SFMade thing, it’s really for San Francisco. It’s not just Timbuk2’s thing.” I invented it, and they let me take it with me. They actually stopped using it after I left.

So when I started Rickshaw, I started using the SFMade label. Then I had the opportunity to launch the organization as a nonprofit. The executive director, Kate Sofis has done all the hard work to make it what it is now. Today, it’s 500 companies, in San Francisco, who are either making things themselves or having local subcontractors make things for them. Being an SFMade product means it has to be made by a San Francisco-based company here in San Francisco.

Q: A deeper question for you, what advice or life lessons have guided and motivated you personally and professionally?

My father was a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He founded a company, the first commercial laser business called Spectra-Physics back in 1962, when I was 2 years old. So I grew up around an entrepreneurial environment. Business was the topic of conversation.

One thing that my father has always stressed is integrity – personal integrity and business integrity. He’s always made it clear, “There is no mistake so heinous that you can’t tell the truth. It’s the not telling the truth that makes minor mistakes major mistakes.” I tell that to my company, because you know, you get scared. You make a mistake and you get scared, especially if you’re on the job. “It’s the boss’s money.” or whatever fear you have. I tell my team, “There is nothing you can do here that you can’t tell the truth about, because otherwise it just gets out of control—a small problem becomes a huge problem.” We haven’t had a problem that was a mortal wound. We’ve had problems, and we’ve solved them. If we catch them early, they do less damage. I try to impress upon everyone that your personal integrity is your foundation. It’s your bedrock. Don’t do anything to compromise that, no matter what. Sometimes the truth hurts, but I tell people, “The truth hurts for a day, a lie can last forever.”

Q: Here’s a fun question for you. If our readers are looking for a nice new bag, which one of yours is your favorite and which would you tell them to check out?

What’s my favorite bag? Well, my favorite bag is one you can’t buy yet. I’m usually wearing a prototype. But as computer bags go, I love our Commuter bag. It’s my third or fourth bag design for computers and I think it incorporates all I’ve learned over the last 15 or so years of designing.

I like our messenger bag a lot, and I wear our Zero Messenger bag a lot. It’s nice and simple and I can just throw stuff in it, sling it over my back, and I’m off and going.

We have a new backpack coming out. We’re just finishing up a run of 2,000 backpacks for Google. We designed the product just for them. We’re going to be launching that on our website soon, so that will maybe be my new favorite, but for now it’s the Commuter and the Zero.

Thanks again to Mark Dwight for sharing his thoughts. Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

Startups, Sourcing, and Sustainability with Mark Dwight of Rickshaw Bagworks – Interview Part 1 of 2

In a beautiful San Francisco neighborhood stands a brick warehouse containing something unusual and inspiring – a startup that uses lean manufacturing and sustainable business principals to make products in the US. Relying on local vendors, an honest culture, and talented people, Rickshaw Bagworks produces bags that people love.

Mark Dwight

I recently had the great privilege of interviewing Mark Dwight, Founder and CEO of Rickshaw. Mark shared his experiences and the lessons he’s learned with lean manufacturing, domestic sourcing, sustainability, and much more.

Below is the first half of the transcript from our phone conversation. I learned quite a few things that I later shared with my team. I hope to use his experiences as trail markers in forging my company’s own growing supply chain.

Q: Mark, can you tell me your background and how you started manufacturing bags in California?

I founded Rickshaw Bagworks 6 ½ years ago after running another bag company here in San Francisco called Timbuk2. I became involved with Timbuk2 in 2002. They were a small company on the verge of bankruptcy and had been around for 13 years. They had a great reputation, great brand, but were struggling a little bit. So I became the CEO and an investor in the company. We were very fortunate to get it turned around, and then we sold it three years later to a private equity firm. Eight months after that, I got fired. So, I said, “Well, I’ll go start my own company.”

Before all of this, I had spent 20 years in Silicon Valley, so I’m a high tech guy. I also have spent some time in manufacturing. I started out as a manufacturing engineer in the semiconductor equipment business, so I’m a manufacturing man at heart.

Q: I know you do a lot with lean manufacturing and one-piece flow. Where did you pick that up? How does that make Rickshaw different?

I picked up one-piece flow at Timbuk2. The founder of Timbuk2, Rob Honeycutt, is a real student of lean manufacturing. He had implemented those techniques at Timbuk2 for their custom messenger bags. They get orders in from their website, and they’re all individual orders. The practice of single-piece flow is something I inherited from Timbuk2, and I liked it, so I continued it at Rickshaw.

I think what makes Rickshaw different is that we make our own product in our own factory here in the states. Now, I’m no stranger to outsourcing. I don’t have any problem with it. I’ve done plenty of work in China myself, and I still buy a few things from there. However, I’ve really focused on trying to do it in my own factory – not as a protest, but as a celebration that we can still do it.

Q: I imagine there’s some kind of learning and experience from when you do it yourself that you miss out on when you outsource.

Oh, absolutely. It’s one thing to go into a room in a factory, say in China, and sit down with a product person and work through your prototype. You can show up with a really cool tech pack or just a sketch – which is what I do – and then you have a prototype made by the sample maker. Then you tweak it until finally, you get to a product your happy with. The rest is behind the scenes – they make the patterns, they sew the product. You never know what’s going on in the factory, and there’s a lot of implications to that. For example, you don’t know where the difficulty points are. When I’m working in my own factory, my people come and tell me, “Hey, this is really hard to do.” That’s either a design problem or a process problem. It’s not their fault – it’s the design or the process. Then we can say, “Well, do we need a different machine? What’s really going on here?” You never know that when someone else is making your product and it all shows up in is your cost. If there’s lots of rework, that’s in your cost. Then, if you go to your factory and say, “You need to sell this to us cheaper,” the following conversation takes place:

“Do you know how much rework goes into this?! No we can’t make it cheaper, this design is a disaster.”

“Why didn’t someone tell me?”

“Well, we’re just making what you told us to make. You didn’t tell us how to make it, you just told us to make it.”

I’ve learned that outsourcing often brings unintended consequences. For example, remember the debacle, years ago, with Mattel toys, when they imported toys with lead-tainted paint. Everyone was freaking out, asking “how could that happen?! Mattel is an upstanding company. Their factories have been making them for years without this problem, and all of the sudden, lead-tainted paint.” Well, it came out that the way they operated their supply chain management was that every time they placed a new order they took a couple percent off the price. Mattel would say, “Here’s an order, now you will make them cheaper.” At some point the factory said, “Hmm, we’ve taken out cost everywhere we conceivably can. Hey, go find some cheaper paint.” And so the purchasing department dutifully marches off and returns, “We found some cheaper paint. Let’s use this.”

“Well, why was it cheaper?”

“Oh, well, it’s a little lower quality than what we normally use.”

Mattel’s operations team was so removed from the actual process of making their products – they probably had never even been in that factory before. When you’re not intimate with your own supply chain, problems happen. Now I’m not saying Mattel should open its own factories – that’s not practical right now – but they do need to be intimate with the factories that make their products. Ultimately, nobody looks through them to the supplier to say it’s the supplier’s problem. They look at Mattel and say, “It’s your product, your brand, your fault.”

So even when I’ve subcontracted, I’ve always spent lots of time with my factories. For one, it’s a partnership. I’m not just shopping for the lowest prices. I’m looking for someone to make my product the way I want it made – someone I trust. Someone that when I’m not there, I trust them; and when I go there, I’m a partner. I think a lot of people just say, “Let’s outsource. That’s cheap. Let’s just go have someone else do it.” But there should be a lot more that goes on to make that happen. They have to be good factories, or your product suffers.


Q: For those of us who are interested in doing more domestic sourcing, what’s been your experience and how have you been able to make that transition?

To answer that, let me back up a bit to the beginning of Rickshaw. I came up with a product design concept that is similar to how Ford builds cars. You design a platform, or chassis, and you invest in that chassis because you expect to use that chassis for a decade. On that chassis, you expect to build multiple models. In the case of General Motors, you can have multiple brands sharing the same chassis. So my thought was, “For a complicated computer bag, what if I develop the chassis, and I have that made over in China. Then, I bring it over in pieces and do the final assembly here. I’ll put on some colorful elements to give it its personality. “The idea was I’m going to outsource 90% of the labor and complicated stuff, and I’m going to insource 90% of the personality – I’m going to do all the customization here. That is a Harvard Business Review manufacturing strategy. Great story for an ops guy, an ops geek like me.

I thought, “Wow, that makes total sense,” and the idea had lots of advantages. I pay 7.8% duty on subassemblies instead of the 17.5% that I have to pay on finished bags. The subassemblies nest in a way that bags don’t, so I get a 5-to-1 shipping volume efficiency. The chassis are all black, and there’s only two sizes, so I effectually have zero inventory risk. Operationally, it’s great. That’s how I got into the custom bag business. I designed a custom chassis, started importing them, and then I was custom making these computer bags and people really liked them.

Well, as time went on, we had to buy sewing machines to do the customization part. One day, we were sitting around and said, “Well hey, let’s make a messenger bag.” So we had an idea for a messenger bag that we could make in our own factory here. We started making it, and it became really popular. As we met more and more people, and said, “Here’s our computer bag, we make parts of it in China and do the final assembly here. And here’s our messenger bag, we make this whole thing here.”

“Oh wow, I want to know more about that messenger bag.”

People were really jazzed about that fact that we were making something from scratch in our own factory. As time went on, that really became our narrative. People really liked that story. And when we said, “Oh, we make this part in China.” They’d say,

“Oh, well that’s too bad. You should make that here”

And I thought, “Yeah, your right, I should.”

We’ve had to adopt a design philosophy that is sort of counter to the way bags are designed, or the evolution of bag design today. With cheap labor, designers get a little lazy. When they need to change their design, switch up their design season to season, they just add another pocket, zipper, or feature because labor’s cheap. It’s alright; it’s not a lot of material, just throw a little more labor at it. After years and years of doing that, you get fabulously complicated bags. For example, if you go down to your local outdoor supply store and look at a new camping backpack, they’re like a tour de force with so many pockets, zippers, and features. When you see them, you’re like “Wow, this is fantastic.” Now think about all the labor that goes into that. At $0.50 an hour, that’s no big deal. But at $20 an hour, big deal.

If we were going to make our products in our own factory here in San Francisco at an effective burden rate of $20 per hour, we had to rethink the whole design process. We design for simplicity, which in operation terms means we design to drive the labor out. We don’t want a bunch of labor; it’s too expensive. So we follow a minimalist philosophy of design, which in designer speak means we make elegantly simple products. We have gone the opposite direction of other bag companies.

The interesting phenomenon, though, is what happens when people who have been buying bags with lots of features for years buy a Rickshaw bag. Because I know Rickshaw and Timbuk2 intimately, people will come to me and say, “I’ve been wearing Tumbuk2 bags for 10 years, but oh man, I just love my Rickshaw bag. It’s the best bag I’ve ever had.”

Then I say, “If you and I sat down the Timbuk2 bag and the Rickshaw bag side by side I could show you the Timbuk2 bag has 10 times the features that the Rickshaw bag has.” But the people don’t need them.

As a matter of a fact, people say, “Yeah, it has too many pockets. I lose things in it.” So we’ve found that taking things away doesn’t necessarily mean our product is less. It just makes it different, and differentiation is important. We’ve differentiated ourselves by making elegantly simple products by focusing on customization. If you go to REI, you’re going to see everything’s in five different colors. If you come to us, you can have any color you want. We’ve really honed in on being the maker of custom bags.


Q: Piggybacking on that, a major, emerging trend is mass customization, which you’re set up to do and thrive on. What’s been your experience with mass customization? What challenges have you faced as you offer a mass customization model?

Customization at Rickshaw BagworksThere’s no question that customization costs you in terms of time and complexity. It just does. I don’t care how much anyone tells you how brilliant his or her mass customization program is. When our factory’s making an order of 2000 for a corporate customer, and they’re all the same, we are rockin’. We’re working at probably 1.5 to 2 times the speed that day than if every single one of those was a unique order off our website. It just is. Just to think, “Ok, the lining is this color, the inside is this color, the outside is this color, the label is this color,” those split-second decisions cost you time. They just do. There’s a level of complexity in the factory to do that. Nevertheless, we’ve set up our factory to do that.

We know customization takes a little extra time, so we have to factor that into our cost mode, but we accept that. We don’t complain about it, because that’s the business we want to run. We’re not the only guys that do it, there’s a few other people that do it. However, we do it on a scale that is larger than many. I’m not one guy sitting in my garage saying, “Oh, I got another custom bag order,” and then sending five emails to and from my customer telling me what to make. No, we built the customizer online.


Honestly, it’s not really customization, it’s personalization. You can’t walk in my door and say, “I have an idea for a bag. It has to have a pocket here and a pocket there.”

No, we say, “Here’s our design, choose your colors, and maybe choose a couple features,” but they’re modular. In our design process, we’ve designed for modularity; we designed for customization. We know what’s easy to customize and what’s not. If it’s not easy to customize, then we don’t make it an option because it will be too complicated for us. We look for some things that are easy to do, and then we try to make those signature design elements. Our binding, for example, is made out of the same fabric that we make the body of the bag, called self-binding. We have 50 colors of binding, because we have 50 colors of fabric. Not everyone offers that kind of thing. That color binding has become a signature of our product. In my business, you look for the smallest differentiators you can. We’re not rocket scientists here, we’re just making bags.

Q: I want to touch on sustainability, a hallmark of your company. How did you make sustainability a core value? For others that want to incorporate more sustainability principals into their business, what advice would you give?

I wouldn’t call myself a social responsibility entrepreneur or sustainability entrepreneur, because on one level, sustainability means “don’t waste stuff”. That stuff is material, and that material is stuff I paid for. So if it’s ending up in the garbage, that’s money out the door. The way that translates into a business philosophy is designing to minimize waste. Our zero messenger bag’s design criteria was to create as little waste as possible in the factory. The result of that is a bag made from four rectangles of fabric. Those rectangles can be sized to optimize material use off the roll, which means we don’t waste very much fabric when we make those bags. It’s a very simple idea, and since it wasn’t my idea, I can call it brilliant. It’s actually an idea that Rob Honeycutt, the founder of Timbuk2, came up with. He’s a friend of mine, and when I started my factory, I asked him to help buy my machines. One day he said, “I have this idea for this bag,” and I said, “Great, let’s make it,” and that became our zero messenger bag.

Some of these business principals are just my own personal values. I don’t like to waste things. I like to operate my business in a transparent way with great integrity. Those are personal values, and because it’s my company, those values have translated into the company’s brand value. Frankly, it’s just a good way to live: “Don’t waste things. Tell the truth. Be transparent.” It’s an easier way to live, actually.

Q: In terms of focusing on sustainability, you’re designing your product not just to take out labor, but also to take out waste.

Exactly, we’re designing our product to minimize waste. Minimize waste of material, minimize waste of labor. That becomes a philosophy of our design. There’s a design philosophy called minimalism – and so we’ve embraced minimalism as both a design philosophy and an operational philosophy. When you simplify, you make things faster. You make things more frugally, and you’re more flexible. I talk about the “three fs” of sustainable design – form, function, and footprint – but being fast, frugal and flexible are the “three fs” of sustainable operations.

zero-tagsThe second half of the interview will be posted next Monday. Share your thoughts in a comment below.

Five Supply Chain Mistakes that Kill Companies

Supply Chain Epitaph
Any good cowboy knows to be wary of rattlesnakes and stampedes, but the wild west of supply chain also has some precarious situations to avoid. A great supply chain strategy can help you dominate the market over time, but big mistakes can destroy your company in just days. Dozens of smart managers have unintentionally killed or maimed their businesses from these five blunders.

1. Automation – Too Much Too Soon

Supply chain professionals face strong pressures to reduce cost, and automation is an attractive option to accomplish that goal. However, jumping into a new technology without thinking through the strategic process could blur the fundamental problems and goals you face, which often results in investment misalignment. Seven of the incidents described in Supply Chain Digest’s 2006 list of the 11 Greatest Supply Chain Disasters involve poor implementation of new technology and automation. Specifically, the systems were unjustifiably large, unhelpful, or just didn’t work. Sometimes in our zeal to reach the shiny future, we become overly optimistic. Whenever I hear that investing in a new system will, “solve all our problems,” I pause and remember how many failed firms came to that same conclusion. The harsh truth is that the implementation of a new system is much more difficult than is usually anticipated. Furthermore, all too often, companies purchase a system before the demand justifies the investment.

How to Avoid the Mistake:

Don’t use technology as a replacement for a sound strategy and profitable processes. Instead, look to people and processes before technology to solve problems. If you determine that a new system is your best option, be sure to pilot it thoroughly before full implementation so that you don’t make unnecessarily large and risky jumps.

2. Trying to Do Everything Great Results in Doing Nothing Well

As customer needs diverge, you can quickly find yourself trying to provide a wide range of products through many different channels. Lacking a focused strategy can lead your supply chain down the dangerous path of trying to do too much. Richard Rumelt of UCLA compares this lack of a clear, focused strategy to an inept quarterback. If a quarterback were to conduct every huddle with nothing more than the words “let’s win,” then I doubt that team would score many touchdowns. Instead, by narrowing focus and developing a specific strategy of what your supply chain will do – and more importantly, what it won’t do– you can become great at a few objectives instead of being good at nothing.

How to Avoid the Mistake:

Create a supply chain strategy with focus. Strive for a few objectives with which to excel. Avoid vague, all encompassing “let’s win” goals and coaching.

Note: More thoughts on Rumalt’s strategy advice applied to supply chain available at Vivek Sehgal’s Supply Chain Musings.

3. Death by Inventory

Companies die when they run out of cash, and inventory has a nasty habit of eating cash faster than the cookie monster eats cookies. Small companies are especially vulnerable to stock piling inventory in anticipation of opportunities for growth. Never wanting to stock out, some businesses consistently over-order and over-build to capture all remote chances of demand. However, warehouses soon fill with obsolete or expired inventory that is essentially pallets of cash that you can’t use to pay the bills. Small companies aren’t the only ones with inventory issues; big businesses make similar mistakes. For example, Cisco took a $2.2 Billion write-down on obsolete inventory in 2001. More recently, Toyota, a company that prides itself on lean inventory, found itself with too many Trucks and SUVs that it couldn’t sell because demand for those vehicles dropped after the 2008 recession. However, less inventory isn’t always the answer either. Having too little inventory, or having the inventory in the wrong place, can quickly cut your market share and create angry customers. In reality, inventory is a complex creature that requires diligent attention to master.

How to Avoid the Mistake:

Don’t be afraid of politely turning away a few, less-profitable customers and custom items if it means freeing up significant amounts of cash through less inventory. Utilize data to back your decisions to avoid emotional purchasing. Build your company’s sales and operations (S&OP) process to ensure all departments are working on the same realistic forecast

4. Single Sourcing – “Help Me Supplier One, You’re My Only Hope!”

As supplier relationships become more collaborative, having only one primary vendor for key products can make financial sense. However, when your company’s destiny becomes married to your supplier’s future, you’re taking on unnecessary risk. Using one supplier for most of your business often makes good financial sense, but you must also stay vigilant in maintaining good back-up sources. Natural disasters, political unrest, or bankruptcy can quickly make your only supplier unavailable, leaving you in an uncomfortable predicament.

How to Avoid the Mistake:

Always have one or two back-up vendors for critical parts and services – preferably in different geographic locations or countries. Even if they are more expensive, give them a small percentage of your business so they stay engaged with you.

5. Complacency – If It Ain’t Broke, Why Fix It?

Last on the list of supply chain mistakes is complacency – getting too comfortable with a good solution. As Alex Rogo learns in The Goal, it’s difficult to push for improvements without a crisis encouraging change. However, remaining stagnate on a profitable model invites competitor disruption. New business models and supply chain improvements frequently disrupt the dominant firms in a market. Clayton Christensen, in his book The Innovator’s Solution, talks in detail about this phenomenon and offers advice on how to survive and prosper from disruptive innovation. To help our supply chains from losing their advantage, we should strive to improve and innovate before our competition forces us to do so.

How to Avoid the Mistake:

Become passionate about continuous improvement. Keep an eye on competitors, new business models, and emerging best practices. Work today to address risks your supply chain will face in the near and more distant future.

Which of these mistakes could your supply chain be facing – and what can you do to help avoid it? What other advice do you have to avoid these mistakes? Share your thoughts below, and be sure to subscribe free to receive future articles by email.

New Business and Lean Quotes Page Added

Lean and Business Quotes

I’m excited to announce that Supply Chain Cowboy now has a page devoted to business and lean quotes. I’ve gathered over 60 of my favorite business and lean quotes and added my own thoughts to many of them. They’re currently grouped into seven categories:

Here’s a sampling, five of my favorites:

“Continuous improvement is not about the things you do well ‐ that’s work. Continuous improvement is about removing the things that get in the way of your work. The headaches, the things that slow you down, that’s what continuous improvement is all about.”

– Bruce Hamilton

“A chess novice can defeat a master if moving twice each round.”

– M. Goldenson, Ten Lessons from a Failed Startup, in VentureBeat. 2009. Quoted in Nail It then Scale It, p. 96

“Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage.”

― Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

“A ship in port is safe – but that is not what ships are built for.”

‐ Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

“As long as I listen to my customers, I never need to have another original idea.”

– Niel Robertson, founder of Trada, in Do More Faster

I’ll add to the page regularly, so be sure to check back for updates. Also – if you have a quote that means a lot to you, add it in an email or shoot me a message on the contact us link.

Supply Chain Cowboy Business and Lean Quotes Page