Lululemon's sheer problem: A heads-up that quality control needs to be rethought?

Lululemon's ongoing problems with its yoga pants that were were inadvertently so sheer as to be seethrough raises an interesting question about how companies do quality control today. Making this problem even thornier is the fact that the percentage of goods being shipped is soaring, meaning customers are increasingly unlikely to be able to spot these defects on the shelf. This puts the onus even more on stringent quality control mechanisms, at a time when manufacturing locations are getting more and more separated.

Lululemon CEO Christine Day summed up the problem with current quality control mechanisms nicely last week during an analyst call: "The truth of the matter is the only way that you can actually test for the issue is to put the pants on and bend over. Just putting the pants on themselves doesn't solve the problem. So it passed all of the basic metric tests, and the hand feel is relatively the same. So it was very difficult for the factories to isolate the issue, and it wasn't until we got in a store and started putting it on people that we could actually see the issue."

The Lululemon website added that the company's normal production process for this product is not simple. "The production process for our signature luon fabric is complex. It involves a series of six detailed steps--all of which need to be reviewed at length in order to determine the cause of the irregular results."

Given that this isn't the first high-profile quality-control problem for Lululemon--the chain had a serious dye issue several months ago--management is wrestling with cost-effective ways of spotting these hiccups early. "The big shift for us is making sure that we have people actually on site in the mills and the other environments and that's the infrastructure that we started investing in this year."

It seems to be less of an on site personnel issue--although having more eyeballs on the process rarely hurts--and more of a "what are those people doing" issue. The core question is why "bending over" for yoga pants wasn't part of the routine testing. The broader issue is whether manufacturers of all kinds are still relying on QC tactics that may not realistically test how the products are likely to be used in the field.

A Q&A on the Lululemon site nicely articulates the goal: "Current inventory is being tested by a team of educators [we hope they mean yoga instructors and not college professors] and lululemon store support centre staff by trying on the pants and ensuring that coverage is appropriate while on the mat. We want our guests to down dog and crow with confidence--and the only way to truly test the fabric is to engage it in activities that create that 4-way stretch."

That is indeed an excellent goal. Any reason that logical approach wasn't being used before?

For more:
- read the Lululemon Q&A about the sheer problem
- check out the transcript of Lululemon CEO's call with analysts
- see the Bloomberg story about the Lululemon problems

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