Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fairness and incentives in the Women's Sewing Co-op

When I started the Women's Sewing Co-op with Bendu, Tina and Vivian last June, we did everything equally. Each of them received identical sewing kits, which I made up during a visit to the tailors on Carey Street and included scissors, a tape measure, needles and different shades of thread. Each of them received the same yardage of lapa to make the first sets of bags from. Since then, the Co-op has followed this model.

Every meeting that I'm handing out lapa, I do so evenly between all 15 tenured members of the Co-op. Each team leader gets five sets of 6 yards of cloth--a measure of three lapas or one 'African suit'. The next meeting, some of them would've sewn the entire lot into beach bags. Others--and it was usually the same women--would have only sewn half, or wouldn't show up that week at all.

When we had our first bulk order for 500 bags this Spring, it didn't occur to us that the management model should change. Each team sewed the 500 bags on short notice in less than a month--an average of one bag per Co-op member per day. Sure, some women--the same women--came over two hours late to our meetings, but the bags were good quality and we sent the order on time.

Now, things have changed. We're getting what could be a repeat order from a large client and the Co-op needed to make 1,000 bags in two short months. The first meeting we had to buy bags, Matilda's group had made 119 in one week. Bendu's group had made...16. So when I gave out lapa, I gave Bendu's group the usual 5--one per person--and Matilda's group got 10.

That's when things fell apart--for Bendu's group. Matilda's team were happy with the challenge, Tina's group decided they would sew faster so that they could also get extra lapa, but Bendu's group--well, Bendu, to put it nicely, decided to fight. Nevermind that she was an hour late and the meeting was actually over, with all the other Co-op members having carried their new lapa away, along with $2,000 sewing money divided among them in crisp Benjamins tucked nicely into their clothing for safekeeping.

Bendu showed up late, with her bags in a bundle, her lips pursed. I recognized trouble. Before she even had a chance to put the bags on the sand, there it was:

"You gave Matilda more lapa than me! It's not fair!"

She had a point. It's not fair--in the 'everything should be the same for everybody' sense of the word. But now that we're working on a tight deadline and bringing in thousands for the Co-op, we need to put incentives in place that prioritize good work, done on time.

My version of fair, for the Co-op, is that you get paid for the work you do. If you sew 20 bags in a week, you should get paid for them--and have the resources you need to sew 20 more. If you just sew 6, fine. You're still in the Co-op, you'll still be paid for those 6 bags, and when you get your lapa for the week, the cloth you get will match your previous week's output. As a certain businessman friend of mine would say (i.e. is always telling me, which I find sometimes a bit annoying), "It's about business."

That was not really an answer Bendu wanted to hear, so I spared here the one-liners and brought out my Co-op notebook. "Look, Bendu," I said, showing her the numbers. "Last week Matilda's team made 119 bags and you," I turned the page, "made 19."

"No, Ellen. I did not. I have my bags here," she said, pointing at what were probably close to a hundred of the beach bags.

"But you're late."

"But I have a long way to walk."

"You're still late. You could've left your house earlier. I came from Monrovia this morning and I got here on time."

"But you have a car."

At this point, our conversation had degenerated into banter and I wanted to refocus Bendu on the bigger issue: her team was not producing enough to warrant being given more lapa, and she wasn't about to bully me into giving her more.

I re-explained things. Her team members tried to drag her away, but she came bag, arguing and pointing at me and saying I wasn't being fair. It was stressful. I repeated myself for about 15 minutes, then gave up.

"Bendu," I said, "you've been in this Co-op since the beginning. But you're shouting and you're not being helpful. I know that if you're treating me this way, you're treating your team this way. If you don't show me that you can be a good leader to your team and to the group, we'll need to talk about replacing you."

And that's the short of it. She didn't like what I had to say, but fair is fair: I'm not going to hold other women back because Bendu's team can't up their output. Both teams of women are making money, and if Bendu can't be a good sport about being out-performed--and learn from what that lesson has to teach her, then someone else will.

It's not easy, though.

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