Speed of response has always been critical in manufacturing. From assembly lines in Henry Ford’s era to today’s modern configuration tools, speed and efficiency have been priorities for profit-driven manufacturers. The idiom, “Time is money,” could be the rallying cry behind most key manufacturing initiatives — from Lean processes to Continuous Improvement and ISO compliance. Shaving minutes from work cycles has become paramount. But, at what cost?
Now, digital technologies have put “agility” in the spotlight. The ability to react to volatility in the market place is critical. However, responding to change is not enough. Manufacturers must also anticipate future trends and strive to predict customer needs to properly prepare and adapt in advance. While modern technology supports this approach, the continuous rush of uncontrolled change can start to resemble a dog chasing its own tail. Strategy cannot be overlooked because without meaningful objectives, speed of change can be chaotic. As more manufacturers embark on digital journeys, now is the time to pause and consider the ongoing quest for speed and put it into perspective.
A Pause to Consider
Any seasoned veteran of manufacturing remembers the days of apprenticeships, training programs, and job shadowing. There were no manuals, automated workflows, or timestamps on batches. But there was a big clock on the wall and foreman with a clipboard. Sometimes, an efficiency expert would be brought in, along with his stop watch and zeal for time studies, task analysis, and eliminating worker breaks.
It was rare that a manufacturing plant did not have motivational posters in the cafeteria or banners across the entrance reminding workers of the value of safety, quality, and efficiency. The banners seldom preached, “Make a customer happy” or “Innovation starts here” because speed always trumped everything else.
Yet, we were incredibly slow, by today’s standards. Technology has continuously redefined timely responses, expectations for turn-around times, and what constitutes a highly productive work day. Even B2B commerce is fast-tracked. Our smart phones, tablets, and apps give us instant gratification as we hit “purchase” and know exactly when we can expect delivery. But, can engineers specifying custom dimensions for major industrial equipment, like generators, also expect over-night delivery? Do we want mission-critical equipment — like medical devices or mining equipment — to be fast-tracked through testing and inspections? Perhaps not. Some things should not be rushed.
Risks From Over-Emphasis on Speed
There are certainly downsides to focusing on speed alone. We know that speed without cautionary restraints or restricted parameters can be hazardous. Giving a customer “everything” they ask for can destroy margins. The same is true with levels of speed. At some point, acceleration will exceed the ROI, costing more to cut that extra hour out of delivery times than can be gained from extra sales or customer loyalty. Someone in the organization must know where that point is and make sure the ongoing effort to speed processes retains value and translates to more sales and bottom-line impact.
Today, we use the term “agility” as we talk about making pivots toward new markets, adjusting the supply chain in response to weather patterns, and anticipating customer needs. Agility implies the ability to move quickly — while retaining a firm footing and some degree of grace. It is not rushing at full speed. It is not blindly jumping on every fad. It is the difference between a racehorse running at full force out of the gate and one which paces itself to run the full race and make a powerful surge down the final stretch to win.
Diving into a new niche market or rushing to invest in a trendy product line just because you want to be there first is high-risk if you do not pause long enough to do the proper due diligence. Technology tools which generate data and forecast trends can help simplify decisions, but they cannot eliminate the need for C-level setting of priorities and determining focus areas. Discipline to not chase every opportunity is essential in today’s landscape which is exploding in bursts of ideas. Not every idea or time-saving short-cut leads to greater profitability.
What Level of Acceleration is Right?
Manufacturers often make rapid decisions which are largely automated, complex questions streamlined into basic “Go” or “No go” choices. The challenge is knowing when to trust automation and when to route escalations to a human for sign-off or personalized intervention. Many technologies have built-in safeguards to keep “fast” answers from being wrong. For example, Configure Price Quote solutions also have limitations built-in so the user cannot exceed safety or engineering parameters.
Every manufacturer must find its own balance of agility, acceleration, automation, and constraint — to conform with its own risk adversity attitudes and growth priorities. The main take-away from this reflection on the merits and risks of speed is that manufacturers should step on the accelerator to keep pace with market demands — but not abandon common sense when it comes to making short cuts. A strategy is always essential, even if that means pausing the whirlwind of activities.
Nick Castellina is Director of Industry & Solution Strategy at Infor.