27th January 2002

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Catering to top fashion labels

By Naomi Gunasekara
The sister companies of MAS Holdings (Pvt) Ltd, the largest manufacturer of lingerie and foundation garments in Sri Lanka, which received top awards for productivity last week, cater to some of the world's leading fashion labels.

Leisureline (Pvt) Ltd bagged the National Productivity Award 2001 while Slimline (Pvt) Ltd, won the National Quality Award 2001 (Merit Award) at the National Productivity and Quality Awards Ceremony. 

MAS Holdings (Pvt) Ltd., is a strategic partner of Mast Industries Inc. (USA), Sara Lee Courtaulds Textiles Plc. (UK), Charnwood Elastic (UK), Triumph International (Germany) and Textured Jersey Plc. (UK), 

Catering to international fashion labels like Victoria's Secret, Gap, Vanity Fair, Triumph, Hanro, Marks & Spencer, Bhs, C&A, Evans, Express and Learner, the MAS Group's product portfolio extends to daywear, innerwear, foundations, nightwear, leisurewear, children's wear and knitted and woven elastics for the apparel industry.

Leisureline (Pvt) Ltd is a comparatively small company situated in the Free Trade Zone in Katunayaka, which specialises in sportswear and lingerie exports to Britain's High Street fashion houses. 

Set in a serene environment and painted in the soothing shades of dark green, amber, brown and beige, the company is surrounded by tamarind, mango, araliya and palm trees. 

Though the araliya trees were not in full bloom, it was evident that the factory had blossomed into a clean, beautiful and environment friendly place within a very short time.

According to Quality Checker, Ajantha Priyangani, who had started at Leisureline as a machine operator and subsequently promoted, Leisureline had bought Sylvie-Honor, run by a Hong Kong national, after Sylvie-Honor recorded continuous losses and the owner decided to move his business to Bangladesh.

"The building was in a very bad condition when we first came here. There were no proper machines. Not even a proper table in the canteen. Everything was old and rusty," she said.

But today, entering Leisureline every morning has become a pleasurable exercise for most of its employees because the company has much to offer them. "We had no idea about the work we were expected to do. But after the management changed we were told what are duties would be. They took us from department to department and explained the entire process. They were never harsh on us," said Priyangani recalling the first changes effected by Leisureline (Pvt) Ltd.

Established in 1998, Lei sureline (Pvt) Ltd turned the factory into a profit making venture, according to Rochelle Perera, Leisureline's marketing manager.

At the time Sylvie-Honor (Pvt) Ltd was bought over by the MAS Group, the workforce had been de-motivated and used on an ad hoc basis. The move was a challenge to the MAS Group, which had never bought an existing factory with unskilled and de-motivated labour. 

The core issues before the new management had been the need to bring together the various levels of employees and making them understand the skills and competence required to run a world-class factory.

This has been an extremely difficult task because most of the machine operators had been unaware of the need to be efficient, accurate and methodical at the same time.

Another challenge for the company had been to convince the employees of Sylvie-Honor that they would be absorbed direct into the new company. "There was a lot of scepticism when the management changed. Most of us thought that we would lose our jobs. But after the company was bought, the managing director had a meeting and assured us that all who worked at Sylvie-Honor will be absorbed into the new company. He promised to restructure the company and provide us better facilities. We had confidence in him and he never let us down," said machine operator Chandramali Silva.

The company made a prof it within the first year of work and continues with good sales now, mostly in the UK market, said Perera. "Buyers in all markets, including Europe, were initially cautious following the September 11 attacks in terms of orders," she said. 

"But if you look at UK retail records during Christmas and over the last couple of months, they have been excellent, even surpassing sales in previous years. We have had excellent orders coming through, so currently we are fine. I think our speedy response to customers is the reason why we are ahead of our competitors."

While competitors might take as much as 6-8 weeks to complete an order, Leisureline takes only 21 days after confirmation of the order and despatches the products to the buyer without delay, she said.

The company became the sole provider of garments for Bhs' SW sportswear because of the high quality and standards maintained in designing and manufacturing their products, Perera said. Over 90 percent of the fabric used for export garments comes from local suppliers with the balance imported to meet special orders.

"Sometimes we design six to seven styles a day. It depends on the quantity produced. If the order is big we keep repeating the style until the order is completed," said Crishan Thamel, a technician.

Every employee in the production unit wore overcoats and caps for purposes of identification. Cutters wore blue while the machine operators wore pink. Supervisors and quality checkers wore maroon. Their caps were yellow, orange, red and pink and used by trainee, pregnant, multi-skilled and permanent machine operators respectively.

Stacks of dark blue, black and white pieces of cloth were piled on top of tables and arranged in racks within the 16 operating modules of the production unit. The entire unit smelled of fresh cloth.

Lalitha Sayakkara, who has been at Leisureline for nearly four years, says she enjoys her work because she is never made to feel inferior. "There is no difference between the management and machine operators here. We all eat at the staff canteen and use the same plates and cups. Even the MD has his meals with us sometimes. This has become like a second home to me. I feel free to tell the management of my difficulties because they understand," she said.

The canteen is at one end of the factory along with an infirmary, library and paper stand. Special charts are maintained at the canteen to monitor food supply, the work done by each team and attendance.

5S system
One of the secrets behind Leisureline's success is the company's strict adherence to the Japanese '5S' system, which focuses on reducing wasted effort, time and money while enhancing the value of outputs and improving employee morale.

This concept has five ways of improving productivity - seiri (sorting out items in the workplace, getting rid of unwanted items, preventing unnecessary items from getting accumulated again), seiton (organising the constantly used items in the workplace in a logical manner), seiso (maintaining cleanliness in the workplace), seiketsu (standardising the activities in the organisation) and shitsuke (training all employees on 5S and sustaining 5S through self-discipline).

The last five minutes of every working day are spent on arranging the workplace while a special 5S song is played. Twice a year, on July 31st and December 31st, all employees including the management get special time to clean their respective work areas. 

"It's a uniform system and the rules are not bent to benefit anybody," said one machine operator who found the new set up easy to work in. A number of teams have been appointed to look into matters like food and parking. And every new employee recruited by the company is first introduced to the 5S concept because competitions are held often to award the best team that adheres to 5S principles. 

Leisureline has proved to be a company of exceptional achievement. As observed by Peter Allison of Victoria's Secret USA: "The only word that describes the accomplishments of this production facility seems to be 'outstanding'."

Slimline (Pvt) Ltd
Founded in 1993, as a joint venture between Courtaulds Clothing Plc. of UK (now Sara Lee Courtaulds Clothing Plc.), Mast Industries of USA and MAS Holdings (Pvt) Ltd of Sri Lanka, Slimline (Pvt) Ltd has grown to be one of the largest manufacturers of lingerie and foundation garments in the region today.

With a dedicated workforce of over 2,500, Slimline intends to become the premier manufacture of intimate apparel while optimising stakeholder returns. In order to accomplish this mission, Slimline concentrates on enhancing the physical and mental well being of its employees by providing them many facilities like free lodging, medical consultation and drugs, library and gym facilities and transport and cafeteria facilities.

Having won the Akimoto Award for Japanese 5S productivity in 1996 and 1997, Slimline too follows the same rules of productivity improvement adhered to by its sister company, Leisureline.

Union leader accepts Leisureline's award

Lingerie and sportswear exporter Leisureline (Pvt) Ltd, which won the National Productivity Award last week, sent its labour union leader, Malsha Piyumali, to accept the award on behalf of the company.

The move was commended by Labour and Employment Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe who emphasised the need to involve all the stakeholders of an industry in order to achieve greater results.

All the other companies that received awards at the National Productivity and National Quality Awards ceremony in Colombo last week were represented by their chief executive officers or managing directors.

The event was organised by the National Institute of Business Management (NIBM) in association with the Ministry of Enterprise Development, Industrial Policy and Investment Promotion and the Sri Lanka Standards Institute.

"I'm so happy that I'm part of the Leisureline team," said Piyumali. "At Leisureline we are not treated like machine operators, nor made to feel inferior. Our MD and the management team take good care of us."

Thusantha Wijemanna, chairman of the NIBM said that every attempt is being made to "make productivity a way of life." The number of participants had increased by 60 percent this year, a sign that augurs well for the industrial future of the country, he said. Schoolchildren had been involved for the first time this year in order to promote productivity related education among children by way of poster and art competitions.

Prof. G. L. Peiris, Minister of Enterprise Development, Industrial Policy and Investment Promotions said there was a need to "improve, enhance and refine" the human resources base of Sri Lanka and to provide for social mobility by educating school children.

Sri Lanka's investment on education was "disturbing," he said. "While the Asian region as a whole spent about 3.8 percent of their GDP on education, we spent only about 2.8 percent,' he said. The awards presented at the ceremony included the Inter School Quality Circle Award won by the Meegahathenna Madyamaha Vidyalaya, the Inter-school Poster Competition Awards for three age groups, the Inter-ministerial 5S Awards, Merit Awards for the Manufacturing Sector, the Service Sector Productivity Award and the National Quality Award.

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