Q&A with J. Jill’s Kathie Lynch: Clothes Calls in Store

Kathie Lynch is the vice president of fulfillment for women’s apparel brand J. Jill, which was acquired by The Talbots in February 2006. Her group is responsible for filling all catalog and Web orders for the direct-to-consumer channel and shipping all merchandise to J. Jill retail and outlet stores. Lynch also oversees the operation and maintenance of the company’s Tilton, NH, distribution center.

Competition for jobs is a bigger issue these days. Is finding and retaining staff a problem?

In Tilton, we try to be an employer of choice in the area. I think we’ve had real success building an environment that fosters a positive culture built on respect for our associates and leadership. People leave for greener pastures and then want to come back — usually within a short period of time. In the latest example, the former employee called after four days. Almost all of our distribution center associates begin as seasonal associates.

How do we do it? Lots of communication via regular associate meetings and roundtables, recognition programs for performance and longevity, involvement of associates in process improvement and change management, investment in training and safety programs. We have a program here called WOW — the Commitment. It states our commitment to quality people, processes, product, and customer service; respect for every individual; and embracing change. It permeates all of our training and recognition programs and our performance review system.

Describe your “welcome to operations” moment.

It happened in my first operations manager job for a catalog company. I was part of the user team that was partnered with the internal IT group. Our order-release system truncated order details, resulting in the wrong number of pick-ticket requests being produced for fulfillment. Because a certain series of conditions needed to exist for the problem to occur, it started small but then grew exponentially over several days. I was responsible for the stock and pack operations most immediately affected. The result was hundreds of orders that were short product. It took many, many, many hours to review and fix the orders, contact customers, and make all the necessary corrections to the system. The experience made me understand the importance of detailed system specs and user testing.

The part of the job I love the most is…

Seeing people succeed in their jobs. It’s exciting when someone steps out of their comfort zone and demonstrates a new skill. For example, we have a packer who went along at barely acceptable productivity rates. When presented with a coaching plan by her supervisor, the worker over a two-week period increased her productivity 25% without sacrificing accuracy or presentation. Or maybe it’s the maintenance mechanic with strong analytical skills — and a little bit of training and encouragement — who is now a project manager.

The part of the job I find most challenging is…

The continual opportunity for improving our operation. It’s an exciting business. I am never bored.

What’s the greatest operational challenge you face?

Since the inception of our retail channel, we have been challenged with how to best service that business in a building designed specifically to process catalog orders. Each year we have made modifications in the facility to convert the building into one that better accommodates retail store processing. Because the retail channel growth has occurred at a very fast rate, starting in 1999 with two stores to 239 stores by the end of 2006, there is little room for error. As the brand continues to grow and mature, we will continue to be challenged from expense, quality, and service perspectives.

What’s the most interesting possession in your office?

My Boston Red Sox items commemorating the Red Sox 2004 World Series championship. I have the ticket stubs to game four of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees in 2004 and game four of the World Series in St. Louis when the Red Sox clinched. Living in New England is much easier as a Red Sox fan. When I lived in Connecticut and New York I always felt outnumbered.