Ok, I admit it.  I am world’s biggest Columbo fan.  Surely you must remember the bumbling Los Angeles homicide detective in the crumpled raincoat.  (Why did he always wear that in LA?)  My fondness for Columbo has nothing to do with his style or his mannerisms, although those traits never annoyed me.  I considered them to be a wee bit of comic relief.  After all, Columbo did have a grim job.  He just made us forget that.  Anyway, I like Columbo because of the ingenious writing – the quality of the stories.  On Columbo, you always knew whodunit, but it was hard to imagine how the seemingly hapless detective would figure it out.  He always had us amidst a genuine mystery.

It is sometimes fun to play detective.  We get to do that in our plants sometimes, provided we care enough to get to the bottom of the mystery-du jour.  I’d like to share with you a few of my favorite shirt plant mystery stories.

It was something like spring 1992 and I had an extremely bizarre “dirty shirts” problem reported to me by my inspector.  This happened at a time when I ran a large wholesale shirts plant in Massachusetts. Whenever an inspector or assembler or a touch-up person finds a stained or dirty shirt the person in charge is dealt a confusing feeling.  This discovery is a good thing and a bad thing simultaneously.  There must be a great deal of satisfaction that an inspector is doing his or her job, but also there is a likelihood that a customer will not be serviced on time because this customer’s order may be delayed.  Never a good thing.  My inspector didn’t tell me about the first few shirts that day.  It may have been that she started to get concerned after she had seen 8 or 10.  Then she told me.  We spent top dollar on chemicals.  Re-washes for “ring-around-the-collar” were virtually non-existent and it was quite rare to get a shirt with a stain, thanks to top quality detergent, the best oxygen bleach that money can buy and a world-class chemical rep to keep my wash department in tune.  But on this day, we suddenly were getting one or two shirts every ten or fifteen minutes! It was dirt.  “New” dirt, if you know what I mean.  It seems that it happened after washing.  It was almost like dust, but because the dirt was pressed into the fabric, it couldn’t be brushed off, but just a rinse removed the stain completely.

It looked like wet shirts were brushing up against dusty equipment.  Two bits of evidence made that hypothesis implausible:  One would expect that a shirt would be dirty at approximately the same location.  This was not the case.  The dirt was at any number of places on the shirt.  Often, it was just a small spot or two, but once on the back of the shirt, on another shirt, the sleeve, on another, it was the cuff or the collar.  Hmmm.  Secondly, there was no dusty equipment.  Really.

I was around and about the plant trying to solve this problem in earnest while the shirts with dirt on them kept coming. I was truly annoyed and something told me that the regularity of the tainted shirts was a clue, but I wasn’t making sense of it.  I strolled into the inspection/assembly area and cringed as I observed what were now dozens of shirt orders all missing a shirt or two, sent back for a stain.  Seems like in every lot that we had done, one or two orders were incomplete. Every lot?  That seemed like a clue too.  Back then, the Tailwind system was in the initial stages of development. The assembly procedures hadn’t been defined yet, but the size and the definition of individual lots was nearly as clear then as it is today.  That was to be my biggest lead.

This plant would produce about 360 shirts per hour.  In the Tailwind world, that is about 6 lots – one lot every 10 minutes.  Hmm, very interesting.  I recalled that my inspector was getting a couple of shirts every 10-15 minutes.  I had an order or two from what seemed like every lot we had done today.  The problem continued and wasn’t going away.

The evidence:

  • 1-2 shirts per lot with dust or dirt on them
  • the same kind of stains on every shirt
  • dozens of different locations
  • remarkable regularity, practically every lot would yield a couple of rejects

I had to determine what was different today compared to any other day and I was getting desperate. What is different? I walked over to the wash department and chatted with John, my wash man.  John was kind of an elderly guy, a devoted and dedicated employee. I expressed to him my extraordinary displeasure with this problem that we were having.  He just shrugged his shoulders as he took the latest batch of rejected shirts from my hands.  John was quite proud of his wash department.  I was happy to see that he had tidied up a bit over the weekend.  On the previous Friday, I had asked him to get rid of some clutter in a corner.  We kept individual lots organized and separated by using 35 gallon plastic barrels.  They hold a Tailwind-sized lot nicely.  John would cover the wet shirts with plastic like so many of us do.  The clutter in the corner was mostly the covers of those barrels.  I wondered why John didn’t just use the covers instead of wrestling with the poly all the time.  On Friday last, he agreed and said that he’d clean them off and start using them instead of poly.  He had, indeed cleaned them off and his department was sparkling.


I just stumbled upon something different.  Is it possible?  Can it be? I had nearly reached my office while I was thinking all of this.  I abruptly turned around and headed back towards the wash area.  I removed the cover from a barrel that contained a full lot of shirts.  The inside of the cover was covered with droplets of water caused by the dampness of the shirts.  I suspected that the cover hadn’t been cleaned well enough and the dust on the cover rubbed off onto the shirts and left the dirt there.  It was hard to see dirt on the cover though.  It was dark blue plastic.  I fetched a clean, dry, white cloth and wiped off the inside of the cover – including the crevices.  Guess what?

I think that John brushed off the dust that past weekend.  He was conscientious.  But he surely didn’t scrub them clean with a wet cloth.  As much havoc as his faux pas caused us that day, there was a great deal of satisfaction in solving the mystery.

Moral of the story I: Don’t take anything for granted.

Moral of the story II: If you don’t inspect it, don’t expect it.

Moral of the story III: Don’t waste a minute of time getting to the bottom of a problem.

A few months ago, in the midst of a very involved on-site job in the Midwest, I was concerned about the large number of stained shirts arriving in the inspection department. This time, they were legitimate, identifiable stains – yellowing stains, food stains, ring-around-the-collar, tannin. This isn’t acceptable in a shirt laundry.  Stains – food and other types – do come out if you are using good chemicals.  I think that some shirt launderers think that stains are something for the drycleaning department to remove, not the wash cycle. This is wrong.  Among those that think so were this client and his staff. This was an easy problem to solve. I checked the chemicals in the wash department.  I considered the built detergent to be acceptable and the requisite oxygen bleach was in plain sight.  I questioned the wash person.  I learned immediately that the portioning was way off and the bleach – critical for stain removal – was only used for re-washes.  I adjusted the portioning and was eager to see a drastic reduction in returned shirts the next day.

Moral of the story: You get what you pay for.

The next morning, I was plenty busy with follow-up training and I almost forgot to enjoy the assembly area – free of confusion, stress, mayhem and, most important of all today – free of incomplete orders caused by returned shirts.

A few hours later, around lunch, we started to get stained shirts in the assembly department again – more than a dozen.  I wasn’t happy about this.  I checked with the wash person who assured me that she was now washing with the revised wash formula and certainly oxygen bleach in every load.  I asked her about the stained shirts that had been sent to her recently.  She was a bit defensive.  Apparently overwhelmed with a sudden influx of at least 10 or 12 shirts during the last 30 or 40 minutes, she simply put them aside.  I found them hanging by her spotting area.  My client and I inspected them and found deep orange stains in a variety of places on nearly all of the shirts there.  The stain looked like rust to me, but a quick test with a rust remover proved me wrong in no time.  We organized the shirts by stain type.  It was easy. Only a couple or so didn’t belong. This plant had 8 single buck units. Each unit had a “branding iron” welded to the lower portion of the rear steam chest.  The result was a clear mark on the tail of each shirt that identifies the press and the presser.  All of the orange stains came from the same press.  We moved to the pressing area.  I looked around and in less than 15 seconds I had my answer.  Behind the bucks of the collar/cuff press lay all of the evidence that I needed.  I showed my client.  We both shook our heads.  He was eager to remove the evidence but I wanted to get the manager and walk her through what we had just done.

Now the three of us retraced.  We showed the manager the shirts with stains, and the tail imprints that showed the common source.  Over at the shirt unit, I showed her the soiled plate of the spaghetti and meatballs lunch that the presser ate before going to lunch.

Moral of the story I – Know what your employees are doing while they are on your time.

Moral of the story II – Lunch time is the time for eating lunch.

Moral of the story III – No eating, drinking or smoking in the plant.

I suppose that at some time in the past, at this same plant, somebody needed to know who pressed what shirt. Without the branding in the tail that these units afford, (or any other method of doing essentially the same thing) it was probably very difficult – or impossible – to ascertain who pressed what. This often needs to be known in virtually any plant.  It allows for accountability.  Someone in charge found that it was important enough to modify each unit slightly so that in the future the “detective” work would be automatic.  Good move.

Columbo may use clues to arrive at solutions to problems, but he can not control whether or not someone in the future will learn from these clues.  You can.  As owners and managers, we need to learn from our daily experiences.  It may be rewarding to solve a mystery, but it is far more rewarding to have the solution be self-evident because we have controls in place to either prevent a recurrence or a control that instantly points to the cause.   Some time ago, someone made those presses “self-evident.”  Hopefully, there is no more eating while pressing.  I know that washing the inside of plastic barrels became routine at my plant.