Podcast #234 – Mitch Cahn, President of Unionwear on #Lean Manufacturing

Mitch Cahn

Today's guest is Mitch Cahn, president of Unionwear, a manufacturer of hats, bags, and apparel in Newark, NJ. I first learned about Mitch and his company because of a display they had at the Northeast LEAN Conference, which I blogged about here. What caught my eye was their display of politician hats they produce, including the famous red “Make America Great Again” hat that Donald Trump wears.

Beyond the surface of those hats is a fascinating story about competing instead of making excuses. As Mitch explains in the podcast, Unionwear has been very successful even though he's producing in one of the highest-cost parts of the world. Unionwear has had to compete against imports from China and lower-wage southern states in the U.S. Starting in 2007, Lean has been a major part of their strategy for improving productivity, reducing cost, and being fast to market.

Whether you work in healthcare or manufacturing, I think you'll love the story behind Mitch, his company, and his employees.

Lean is a battle against human nature, says Mitch Cahn in this podcast Share on X

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For a link to this episode, refer people to www.leanblog.org/234.

Read a transcript

For earlier episodes of my podcast, visit the main Podcast page, which includes information on how to subscribe via RSS, through Android appsor via Apple Podcasts.  You can also subscribe and listen via Stitcher.

In this episode, we discussed topics including:

  • Please introduce yourself and Unionwear… why did you start the business?
  • What competitive pressures did you face?
  • How did you first learn about Lean?
  • How has Lean been a part of your strategy as a business, competing against low-labor-cost countries?
  • How does your strategy help attract the business of politicians and their merchandise?

Mitch said some very quotable things and notable ideas, including:

  • The Al Gore presidential campaign was the first to buy hats from Unionwear to give away to online donors
  • Many of the campaigns place orders weekly because, during primary season, they don't know how much longer they'll be in the race. Lean allows Unionwear to be more responsive and deliver small quantities through “small batch manufacturing” and Lean.
  • “I always reminded myself the first 10 years I was in business, was that if I wanted to make money, it would have been a lot easier if I had stayed on Wall Street. I didn't want to make money; I wanted to make products. I found the manufacturing process to be extremely rewarding. I didn't want to [move production to China] because I enjoy the maker experience.”
  • “We're probably the only company that went to the union before we got started and said we want to be a union shop.” They were going to pay union wages and benefits anyway, so it made sense to approach the unions and take advantages of the relationships they had (for selling products to unions).
  • Faced with competitive threats from China and the southern U.S. (non-union wages), “I starting looking for a magic bullet and I stumbled across a Lean 101 seminar” being run by the NJMEP.
  • “When I came back to my factory, all I could see was the opposite of Lean. I was so angry at everyone who worked for me for not seeing that they were doing non-value added work all day, forgetting that I had gone TEN YEARS without seeing any of that myself. I wanted to do everything at once… but you can't do that.”
  • The NJMEP Lean consultant found that that the time down between changeovers was an average of 2.5 hours (Mitch thought it was 20 minutes). “I saw everyone running around, working hard.” It was too difficult to find the right colored thread in “closed white boxes.”

Here is a photo that illustrates a story Mitch tells in the podcast about improving the organization of thread in the factory, which saved time and improved productivity greatly (click to watch video):

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 8.35.34 AM

Video of Mitch Cahn:

This video, below, reveals that the “Make America Great Again” hat they make is a “knockoff” and that Trump's official hats are made in a non-union facility in California. It's still a great story about Unionwear and Lean.

Thanks to Mitch for sharing his story!

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


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