The benefits of operational flexibility have been well documented, and include faster time to market, reduced product obsolescence and higher customer satisfaction. One of the benefits of my day-to-day activities is that I get to read a lot of analyst and industry research reports, providing a broad picture of what operational characteristics are desired and what can actually be attained. When an attribute is repeatedly mentioned over a period of years it tells me that either the market hasn’t yet embraced this concept, or that the actual implementation of this idea is difficult. With regards to this particular topic, my presumption is the latter.
One of the factors contributing to the challenge of improving flexibility is how do you measure it, and how do you measure improvement? Agility is a bit of an intangible attribute, so measuring effectiveness and improvement becomes somewhat of a difficult exercise, which then contributes to another challenge on how to improve. As is the case with Lean (see: It’s not Lean if You Can’t Measure It), you will be challenged to improve flexibility if you can’t measure it.
As a start, how about considering how collaborative each of your different departments operate? This might be a good barometer on how flexible your operations are currently. How well your IT systems interoperate with each other is another excellent metric that should be possible to measure. Here is an example, based on a passage I just read in Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steven Jobs, during the time when he came back to Apple in 1999 to try and save the company from bankruptcy. Steve faced a similar challenge at manufacturing organizations – departments were operating in silos and not speaking with each other. He forced engineering, design and manufacturing staff members to attend the same meetings and jointly solve all of their production challenges together, as a collaborative solution. The result was a steady stream of great products that were made well for a reasonable cost.
Ten years later, we now see significant technology advancements to help improve collaboration between engineering design and manufacturing execution systems. Those manufacturers that have embraced this collaboration strategy are well positioned for greater flexibility – nothing can be done in a silo anymore. Research findings substantiate this transformation. IDC Manufacturing Insights’ Pierfrancesco Manenti recently issued a perspective on “Rethinking the Factory of the Future.” He explained how vital manufacturing flexibility is to respond faster to variable market demand and achieve high levels of customer fulfillment.
According to Manenti, for 52 percent of the respondents, the factory of the future will be measured according to its production capability and flexibility rather than merely efficiency and production capacity. He also suggested that one of the ways that factories will be managed five years from now is through higher levels of collaboration, with a greater emphasis on involving employees, customers and partners in both processes and strategic decision making.
How well prepared are you for the collaborative factory of the future? Are you designing or implementing the changes today to improve your flexibility and collaboration in five years? If not, shouldn’t you?