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The Bow Absolutely Matters (5 Steps to Control Quality & Delight Customers)

The bow absolutely matters.

5 lean principles you can use in your subscription box or fulfillment operation to control quality and delight customers


Think a neatly tied bow on a subscription box or the right amount of crinkle paper inside are nice to haves? Think again. It’s these hand-assembled details that social media influencers rant or rave about, and that can impact likes, shares, and sales. A simple YouTube search using the phrase “subscription box unboxing disappointment” illustrates this point clearly and with bonus entertainment value. Sites like and also keep tabs on boxes and customer reviews. Bottom line: poor subscription box quality can ripple through the social universe and create customer service headaches and lost customers.


There are approximately 5,000 companies in the U.S. who offer a subscription box, a number that has grown 100% per year for the past five years.1 As the growth of the subscription box industry soars, it’s more critical than ever to use lean principles to control quality, especially as customer demands for speed, personalization and a share-worthy experience grow.


It always starts with the customer.

To succeed in this fast-growing retail sector, a fulfillment operation must be set up to “wow!” the customer during the unboxing experience — from the relevance of products inside the box to their on-time delivery and appearance at the door step. Anything less is subject to one-star ratings and cancelled subscriptions. When lean principles are followed in the fulfillment center operation, companies can better meet these customer expectations while adding value to their own bottom line.


Five lean principles to drive continuous improvement

If you don’t have a resident Lean Six Sigma black belt on staff, there are still several basic tools and principles you can use to assess and improve your fulfillment operation. There are volumes written on lean tools and principles, but this list provides several that are most relevant to the subscription box fulfillment industry.

1. Take a Gemba walk.

“Going to Gemba” means spending time in the operation to understand what’s going on: observing processes, engaging employees, asking questions, jotting down notes, and taking pictures. Focus on at least these four areas:

  • Just-in-Time – Deliver components to the inbound warehouse, inspect for quality and count, and then transport to the conveyors when needed.
  • Standard work – Check to see if the SOPs that support the customer specification are documented and being followed consistently.
  • Defects – Look at the conformity of kits coming off the line and document any patterns in non-conformity.
  • Waste – See if any of the seven types of waste are present in the warehouse, on the conveyors, or in the shipping operation: defects, overproduction, waiting, transport, inventory, motion, or excessive processing.

2. Measure and document what’s going on.

To gather data, use tools and techniques such as these:

  • Baseline time studies for individual processes like putting components in the box, or affixing labels.
  • Spaghetti diagrams to see where wasted transport or motion might exist, for example between the warehouse and conveyors, or when restocking components on the line from pallets.
  • A Process Map that captures actual takt time as line workers place components, insert brochures and tie bows; this map can also note non-value-add tasks that should be modified or eliminated.
  • Photos or video that capture variances in box appearance or variances between how different line workers perform a task. 

3. Get to the root cause of defects, waste and inefficiencies.

Fulfillment operations are not overly complex which means you can often get to root cause swiftly to begin assessing which improvements to implement and how. Some lean tools that can help discover root cause are:

  • 5 Whys – Iteratively asking “why?” to get to a specific root cause. For example, slowly unearthing why a particular assembly line is consistently slower than others.
  • Ishikawa or Fishbone diagram – Identifying an issue or effect (such as quality, speed or variance) and linking various potential causes for exploration and analysis.
  • Scatter diagrams and regression analysis – Plotting data of an independent variable against a dependent variable, such as line speed and rework, to understand the relationship.

4. Plan to improve

Improvement plans are unique to each operation. While some larger subscription box companies might be highly sophisticated in their use of data and statistical inference to analyze processes, others might be transitioning from a home garage to a warehouse for the first time, trying to understand how to optimize line speeds and improve on-time delivery. No matter the size or complexity, the lean toolkit is full of relevant improvement resources.

  • Setting up the workflow – Enable single piece or continuous flow of boxes ready for components at an optimal speed, all while minimizing defects.
  • 5S – Within each task or work center, use 5S to keep boxes, components, fillers, print materials and tools organized (5S = sort, set, shine, standardize and sustain).
  • Standardizing work – Train workers to perform all tasks without variation such as consistently tying bows, or create poka yoke methods like jigs that mistake-proof certain tasks.
  • Andon – Place a signal in line (e.g. a bell or light) to empower workers to stop a line, identify a defect, and fix it before the issue becomes larger and more costly.
  • 2-bin kanban replenishment system – Use a 2-bin system to create “pull” for components and signal for a replacement to avoid wait times.
  • Visual management – Consider using any type of readily interpreted visual that makes a situation easy to understand just by looking at it, especially for multilingual For example: photographs of the finished subscription box to ensure consistency, data displays for speed and quality KPIs, and marking racks, pallets, boxes and jigs with color and words to quickly identify them and their purpose.

5. Sustain the gains

Kaizen or continuous improvement is a way of life at successful subscription box companies. Those who are best at it are good with follow-through: modifying procedures, documenting and training workers on new standards, revising information systems and fully engaging workers in the celebration of outcomes as much as they do the process. Without follow-through, it is too easy for teams to fall back on old habits and risk losing the improvements gained.



Subscription box and fulfillment operations could look very different in 5 or 10 years with innovations like blockchain technology linking supply chain transactions, automated guided vehicles handling materials, 3D printers creating components in line, highly dexterous robotic arms performing complex tasks, vision systems performing every quality check and drones delivering finished boxes to customers.


For now, fulfillment companies are wise to focus on delighting customers with the best available resources today. Most likely, this is a combination of lean-trained people and semi-automated devices like conveyors and vision systems. Whatever your resources and experience, chances are good that you have opportunities for continuous improvement using lean tools and principles. Go to the Gemba to see if the amount of crinkle paper and bows are just right, and that each box is destined to deliver a “wow!”, a like, a share and a subscription renewal.



Written by Lisa Manning, VP Marketing for Productiv, Inc.
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About Productiv

Productiv, Inc. is a national leader in subscription box fulfillment, kitting and contract packaging. We use lean principles throughout our operation to wring out costs, create efficiencies and meet the highest standards for quality. The author, Lisa Manning, is a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt with 25 years of experience improving customer experiences in the consumer packaged goods, manufacturing, and restaurant industries.