Meaningful Differentiation and Flexibility in operations

The article title implies the meaning, being different and superior in some aspect of the business that has value to the customer. For instance it is having a wider product range or a functionally superior product or a superior after sales service. The underlying fundamental objective is to serve the customer better through various means. A company may make a product with a superior design, but, then that is done with the customer in mind; it is not a design for design’s sake and waiting for customers to make a bee-line for the better designed product. The cart should never be put before the horse. Such customer orientation will make the objective of the ‘differentiation’ clear to the decision makers. Differentiation is a strategy to win customers and to keep retaining them for a long time. The requirement therefore is to keep retaining the advantage of ‘differentiation’ by continual improvement in the specifically chosen area of differentiation. One could even diversify into other areas of differentiation.

In fact, today’s market requires that while a company differentiates itself (from the competitors), on one aspect, it should perform adequately on other aspects of service too. Concentrating exclusively on one aspect at the expense/neglect of other aspects is just not done. The company, therefore, does an adequate or satisfactory job on various fronts, such as providing flexibility in terms of:

1. Product design
2. Product range or product mix
3. Volumes
4. Quick deliveries
5. Quick introduction of new product/design
6. Responding quickly to the changed needs of the customer or quickly attending to the problems of the customer.

While flexibility is one of the differentiation strategies, the former is fast becoming a vital prerequisite for providing meaningful service to the customer. This is because the competitive conditions are changing rapidly and a company cannot hold on to the advantage of a particular kind of differentiation for a long time unless it is flexible enough to respond quickly to the changed needs to the customer. Future is not viewed as a static extrapolation of the past trends and the present; it is seen more as a dynamic phenomenon, although a few basic or floor level issues might remain the same.

Flexibility is a part of being responsive, responsible, reliable, accessible, communicative and empathetic to the customer. These are all service quality characteristics. Flexibility involves not only operations (manufacturing, supplies) but also the design and development, the project execution, the marketing and the servicing functions. The manufacturing / operations part consists of being flexible enough (flexibility in machines, process and in manpower) to process the altered designs, the variety, in small batches with minimal wastage of time ,of the desired quality, in a shortest process time possible and deliver on time for the logistics function to take over the next part of the responsibility. Flexibility in operations should provide alternative potential platforms to compete if the business so desires or if the market so requires it. It should provide the company with a capability to be resilient to threats of new/improved competition, of substitute products availability, of local government’s or international policies getting changed, of resources crunches suddenly popping up. An operations system should offer market flexibilities though flexibilities in machinery, processes, technology implementation, men, systems and arrangements and time utilization. The flexibility should improve the capacity (rather the capability) for self renewal and adaptation to the changing external and internal environment. Competing for tomorrow should be as much on the agenda as that for today.

The new approach is considered as

* Decrease response time by
* Reduction of operations lead times, delivery times through continuous improvements.
* No postponements of cancellation of the scheduled production, thus ensuring the supply on time.
* Improvements in quality; producing right the first time, self inspection and certification; all of this leading to unnecessary wastage of time and in actual reduction in operations/ process times.
* Improved machinery maintenance, improved design of the products and processes, so that the expenditure of time due to breakdowns, rejects, reworks is avoided.