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In Fostering Innovation in the Apparel Industry, Edwin Keh Says these Skills are Important

Candid industry expert interviews 

If you are tuned to innovation and technology in the Apparel Industry, you will have heard of Edwin Keh, who devotes himself to the advancement and bettering of the industry as the CEO of The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel(HKRITA). “Motif Talks” had the privilege to interview this amazing and passionate expert. In part one of this conversation, Edwin shared his views on how to foster innovation and the key role skills play in the innovation process. 

Guest Introduction

Edwin Keh is the CEO of The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel. He is also on Faculty at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology where he teaches supply chain operations.

Until April 2010 Edwin was the SVP COO of Wal-Mart Global Procurement. Prior to Wal-Mart Edwin managed a consulting group that has done work for companies on supply chain, manufacturing, and product design. The practice also did work for non-profit organizations and charities. Edwin co-founded the Consortium For Operational Excellence in Greater China (COER GC). The Consortium is sponsored by the Wharton School and Tsinghua University.

Edwin is the 2011 recipient of the Production and Operations Management Society’s Martin K. Starr Excellence in Production and Operations Management Practice Award, and is on the Debrett’s Hong Kong 100 as one of the most influential people in Technology and Digital sector.

About Industry Innovation

M What’s your understanding/ definition of ‘Industry Innovation’?

 E  Industry innovation is the improvement and change in the current industry manufacture. 

M Currently, which area(s) of industry innovation are you mainly focusing on?

 E  We’re interested in manufacturing processes, supply chain, and we’re also looking at new materials for the industry.

M Where do you find innovations? Do you look inside your own organization or do you look for outside resources to get inspiration?

E The way we are doing innovation is nonlinear. So, it comes from different places. While we try to have very disciplined and systematic look at how innovations can happen, often times, we’ve found that innovation is something we discover, not something we can engineer. The discovery process means that, internally, we try to make it as conducive as possible for innovation to happen. So we encourage people to explore, we give room for people to experiment. Naturally we hope innovation can happen on a regular basis inside the organization. But we also found outside the organization. As we apply innovation, we will learn new things from old process. And we will also learn from the experiences. So something we designed for one project will have application to the project next to it. It’s hard to say where we find innovations come from, but we’re certainly trying to make it a regular occurrence inside the organization and we are very open to look for it anywhere.

M Have you faced any difficulty during the innovation journey? Could you highlight a couple?

E Yes! Well, very easy. We simply fail. Often times, innovations start with solutions we think are very easy or we think we have problems figured out. But what happens next is that unexpected things occur, and we don’t succeed. I’ll give you some examples:.

Several years ago, we developed a method to use plasma to modify a surface to give materials different functionalities, like waterproofing. We failed at commercializing this solution because it turned out that the distance between the plasma energy source and the material surface has to be very precise. There are variables with how much we pressurize the environment, what type of gases we use for the plasma. In the end we were not able to create a uniformly consistent operating environment. Even though we had great theory and good IP behind it, were not able to commercialize this innovation.

Another example would be, using graphene aerogel, a very lightweight material, to solve the problem. We thought it was a great solution, but what we found out was that the process of manufacturing graphene aerogel requires us to use a lot of very harmful and powerful acids. We created a very toxic waste, so we had to abandon that research as by solving one problem we created a new problem. We’ve always encountered and learned of unexpected things in our innovation journey. 

M So how do you deal with such difficulties and failures? What matters to keep things moving forward or even have a breakthrough?

E First of all, we should expect failure. The important thing about failure is that we learn from it, understand why failed, what we can do better and differently. So to go forward, first of all, what we need to do is to learn from previous mistakes so that we don’t repeat them. Second, borrow from past mistakes so that we don’t make future mistakes. Third, we need to learn from observation of other people’s mistakes as well so that we don’t end up paying for those.

About Skills

M What do you think of the skills’ change in the industry?

E The apparel industry has gone from a labor-intensive industry to a capital-intensive industry. It has gone from the art to much more of a science. We are undergoing some fundamental changes, it’s a lot more systematic, with a lot more disciplines.

M What do you think of hard skills such as programming, and soft skills like critical thinking or problem solving which are more innate or harder to teach? Which is more important in the future? In terms of hiring, which type do companies prefer? What do you think of this situation?

E In the innovation process, there are lots of teachable skills that can be acquired through the discipline of systematically going through information, doing reasonable observation, communicating outcomes, and documenting results. There are also certain skills like engineering and other science-based skills which are teachable. However the magic is in the unteachable skills, which are
Curiosity– asking questions,
Tenacity– being very persistent in your research and getting answers,
Recovery– a lot of people fail and then they are so sad, so discouraged that they don’t recover. The goal is to recover quickly from mistakes? And then finally,
Velocity – specifically the velocity of learning- how fast you can learn is critical.

“Which is more important” is a bit of an unfair question to ask, like “Do I love one of my son more than the other?”. Still, I think for the future, first, what matters is the discovery of people who have unteachable skills, so the right personality, and then it is about equipping them with the necessary tools to be successful and how to keep them.

In terms of hiring, definitely the unteachable will make the difference. Always hire somebody that has something you cannot teach them, everything else can be trained. Hiring is always a risk, today we probably miss a lot of good candidates because we don’t know the right questions to ask them. In the future, we will have to figure out how to do this better. Successful companies always better and better at it.

M Regarding hiring, what skills would you recommend companies to look for?

E Well, I have mentioned curiosity and tenacity. Courage to try new things. Finally hiring employees that align with the corporate culture.

M How do you keep yourself up-to-date?

E I talk to a lot of people and I read as much as I can. I now attend more and more meetings; traveling is also important. I think it gets harder and harder to keep oneself up-to-date since everything is moving very fast.

M Would you recommend or encourage your staff to take training? If so, in what kind of approach?

Yes, but not the traditional ones that people usually think of. I think of training as acquiring and building existing skills sets and also training as learning new disciplines; not so much in the classroom, but learning by doing.

Some things are great to learn online, such as quantitative or engineering skills. Soft skills are not easily acquired online, hard skills learning is more cost effective online.

M What do you think are the effective and applicable ways to close the skill gap?

I think first, we need to have a much clearer definition from the industry and understand what the skill inventory today should be for this. And two, look where, in the next 5 to 10 years, the industry is heading. Let’s say data analytics is becoming more and more important, so how do we have more people focus on data analytics and how do we create a platform to do it. But first, we need to find out what we’re missing before we can go out and start training people. 

Continue to...

Part II of the conversation, in which Edwin shares his vision of career development and some lesson learnt on his professional journey.

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