Zara and flat data-driven management
Harvard Business Weekly studies the management style at Zara:
In Zara stores, customers can always find new products—but they’re in limited supply. There is a sense of tantalizing exclusivity, since only a few items are on display even though stores are spacious (the average size is around 1,000 square meters). A customer thinks, “This green shirt fits me, and there is one on the rack. If I don’t buy it now, I’ll lose my chance.”
Such a retail concept depends on the regular creation and rapid replenishment of small batches of new goods. Zara’s designers create approximately 40,000 new designs annually, from which 10,000 are selected for production. Some of them resemble the latest couture creations. But Zara often beats the high-fashion houses to the market and offers almost the same products, made with less expensive fabric, at much lower prices. Since most garments come in five to six colors and five to seven sizes, Zara’s system has to deal with something in the realm of 300,000 new stock-keeping units (SKUs), on average, every year.
This “fast fashion” system depends on a constant exchange of information throughout every part of Zara’s supply chain—from customers to store managers, from store managers to market specialists and designers, from designers to production staff, from buyers to subcontractors, from warehouse managers to distributors, and so on. Most companies insert layers of bureaucracy that can bog down communication between departments. But Zara’s organization, operational procedures, performance measures, and even its office layouts are all designed to make information transfer easy.
Zara’s single, centralized design and production center is attached to Inditex (Zara’s parent company) headquarters in La CoruÃ±a [?]. It consists of three spacious halls—one for women’s clothing lines, one for men’s, and one for children’s. Unlike most companies, which try to excise redundant labor to cut costs, Zara makes a point of running three parallel, but operationally distinct, product families. Accordingly, separate design, sales, and procurement and production-planning staffs are dedicated to each clothing line. A store may receive three different calls from La CoruÃ±a [?] in one week from a market specialist in each channel; a factory making shirts may deal simultaneously with two Zara managers, one for men’s shirts and another for children’s shirts. Though it’s more expensive to operate three channels, the information flow for each channel is fast, direct, and unencumbered by problems in other channels—making the overall supply chain more responsive.
In each hall, floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Spanish countryside reinforce a sense of cheery informality and openness. Unlike companies that sequester their design staffs, Zara’s cadre of 200 designers sits right in the midst of the production process. Split among the three lines, these mostly twentysomething designers — hired because of their enthusiasm and talent, no prima donnas allowed—work next to the market specialists and procurement and production planners. Large circular tables play host to impromptu meetings. Racks of the latest fashion magazines and catalogs fill the walls. A small prototype shop has been set up in the corner of each hall, which encourages everyone to comment on new garments as they evolve.
The physical and organizational proximity of the three groups increases both the speed and the quality of the design process. Designers can quickly and informally check initial sketches with colleagues. Market specialists, who are in constant touch with store managers (and many of whom have been store managers themselves), provide quick feedback about the look of the new designs (style, color, fabric, and so on) and suggest possible market price points. Procurement and production planners make preliminary, but crucial, estimates of manufacturing costs and available capacity. The cross-functional teams can examine prototypes in the hall, choose a design, and commit resources for its production and introduction in a few hours, if necessary.