Sifting through the responses, Willens settled on a brassiere manufacturer in Moscow; he had once been a clothing manufacturer in California.
Arriving at the Cheryomushki sewing factory late one summer afternoon two years ago, he was "shocked" at what he found. The plant itself was huge, employing more than 2,000 workers. It had been built a half century ago, and showed little sign of maintenance or repair in the intervening years. But inside the plant, Willens discovered, the equipment was relatively new— two to ten years old, and for the most part in good condition. The managers and workers' representatives were enthusiastic— "overwhelmed, really, by the idea someone had come nearly 10,000 miles to help them." The first day, Willens recalls, was spent in toasts, welcoming speeches, and an endless round of hand-shaking and smiles.
Over the next two weeks, as Willens and several associates he had brought along spent time with managers, bookkeepers, shop foremen, and workers (talking through interpreters), the dimensions of the plant's troubles became clearer. As with almost all Soviet enterprises, the appropriate ministry determined labor and material inputs and set production goals. The factory obediently churned out 22 million bras each year, and turned a profit on the books by selling its product back to the ministry. The problem, though, as the plant's veteran manager, Liudmilla Palchunova, explained it, was that Soviet women wouldn't buy the bras. Production was, in the Russian phrase, "for the warehouse." The Soviets were being forced to import bras from the West.
Willens decided that a little market research was in order. He conducted an American-style focus group. Among the seventeen women who gathered at the first meeting, there was initially a lot of nervous laughter at the sheer novelty of being asked what a consumer might want. After an hour or so, though, reticence gave way to candor: not one of the women was wearing a Soviet-made bra; fewer than half believed that the Soviets could make a bra a woman would want to wear.
Back at the plant, senior staff told Willens they thought they could solve the problem, if only they could import some foreign-made lace that would soften the feel of their product. But their ministry, short on hard currency, prohibited it. It was more important, the bureaucrats insisted, to focus on output— seven minutes per bra was the new work-norm decree.
Willens had met with officials in the ministry, including its head, and realized that skepticism was the kindest word to describe their feelings toward this Westerner and his presence in their back yard. So the American decided he needed to demonstrate the solution on his own.
Willens decided on a blind test— a Soviet lingerie version of the Pepsi challenge. Through a friend who owned a successful brassiere company in the United States, he arranged for the manufacture of a hundred bras, using precisely the same specifications and the same materials that the Soviets used, down to the thread— but including the imported lace the Soviet factory manager wanted. He also had the Soviet factory make a hundred bras with the imported lace. Willens then deliberately mislabeled fifty of the American-made bras as Soviet and fifty of the Soviet bras as American, and distributed all the bras among a new group of Soviet women, who agreed to return three weeks later to discuss their opinions of the "American" and "Soviet" bras they'd been wearing.