Manufacturing Flexibility 




It is my proposal in this paper to affirm that from all the competitive components mentioned above, the one of flexibility is the one that has had the least attention in our past industrial history. It seems we would pretend to preserve Ford's model. If we look to the industrial plants in the Western hemisphere, we will observe that most of them are still applying the model from the days of yore—massive, standard, and stable production— when the market is demanding plants that can work in even smaller lots, under specific customer products and dates, and inserted in an unpredictable market. In "Brace for Japan's Hot New Strat­egy" (Fortune, September 1992), Thomas A. Steward had the courage to point in this direction. Mr. Steward contended that North American plants have improved their cost, quality, and service levels to equal those of Japan, but Japanese management has strengthened their competitive advantage by transforming their plants into flexible environments.

Flexibility is the ability of a manufacturing organization to effectively organize and reorganize its resources, responding to the changing conditions of its environment. Two concepts should be emphasized in this definition. The first is the fact that reorgan­izing is more important than organizing, given that the world in which we are living is constantly changing. It is more important to adjust to unforcastable reality than to have perfect plans that nobody follows. The second has to do with the source of the unpredictable—the environment. For soft systems thinkers (as opposed to hard systems, like computers, which are systems too), the environment is the only element of the organization that cannot be controlled. For manufacturing organizations, the environment

has two facets: the extrinsic (i.e. the demand, the customers, the offer, the vendors), and the intrinsic (i.e. the products, the process, the machines, the tools, the material, and above all, the human being).

Control, in the sense here described, implies the level of com­plexity as we try to analyze the possible alternatives in each of the elements of the environment. Given the level of uncertainty, it is impossible to generate all the various states that are required to keep the system stable. The more variety we generate, the more complex plant operations will become. This presents us with one of the classical dilemmas of manufacturing—between production and sales. Meanwhile, those responsible for sales and marketing request high levels of variety, whereas those in production look at these requests as degrees of complexity (see Figure 1). There has to be an adequate balance between flexibility and focalization, without affecting any of them. This presents a paradox: the level and the depth of discipline we are ready to impose on a plant will also decide the type of flexibility we will obtain from it.

To be Continued


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