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TAL Apparel puts transparency in fashion
Published on Friday, 09 Sep 2011
Roger Lee
Chief operation officer, TAL apparel
Photo: Dickson Lee

What underpins your people development strategy?

The company has grown steadily over the past 60-plus years to become one of the world's largest manufacturers of high-quality garments. With more than 20,000 employees, it supplies many international brand name retailers from factories in China and across the region. To maintain expansion and profitability, the senior executive team puts a premium on innovation, supply chain efficiency, and improvements in human capital management.

Objectives  

We have built our reputation on product and processes, being able to deliver consistency and reliability to customers. That remained our emphasis until about five years ago. However, garment manufacturing is also a very "human" industry. It is people, not computers, who decide styles and judge quality. Besides, we knew that to keep growing, we couldn't just rely on having standard operating procedures (SOPs) and give orders from the top.

We needed to move away from a more traditionally Asian way of managing and introduce a new approach. The aim was to train people at different levels to make decisions by themselves because you can only control so much. A large, expanding organisation can't run everything with SOPs. It needs individuals who understand the company's direction and policies, but who also have the freedom and confidence to use their initiative. Now and in the future, people need to be able to adapt "rules" to their own work environment or business unit and be willing to communicate, challenge, and be open to new ideas. 

Methods  

We identified and agreed on nine competencies with the input of external consultants and a small team of senior managers. We interviewed many people from different parts of the company to find out what specific types of behaviour - major and minor - distinguish high from average performers in our organisation.

We used a clear methodology when asking questions and meticulously recorded the answers. Interviewees were also asked to talk about behaviour "events" that could illustrate common traits, and we arranged a series of non-structured group discussions to yield other kinds of input as well.

Each of the resulting competencies now provides a clear guideline, advising employees on etiquette that is appropriate in a variety of situations. We use plain language to explain these concepts - for example, one is entitled "Sticking together", another is called "Living for the customer" - and set out six levels, each of which relays our expectations clearly.

For instance, level one of the "Sticking together" competency requires staff to be positive team members, demonstrating integrity, and seeking to learn from others. Level five expects staff to share resources with other business units and support decisions that will benefit the company.

These levels are linked to our internal system of staff grades, so seniority depends on meeting these behavioural benchmarks. Line managers must now act as people development managers, too. It is their day-to-day responsibility - not the human resources department's - to train their teams, pass on experience, and coach the next generation of managers. 

Results and feedback  

The feedback has been very positive so far. Employees say that they now know the kind of behaviour that is expected from them. Previously, personal bias may have played a part in decisions about promotions or who scored well in assessments. Now there are standard benchmarks, real reasons behind decisions, and accepted behaviours. These show why certain employees are doing well and make it easy to see what a person must do to perform well.

We are giving staff a year to assimilate the information. Putting it together has been a tough process, but definitely has been time well spent. This is just one of our development tools, but it is key to getting us where we want to go.

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