Manufacturing Flexibility 




Adaptable Organization

In the article cited above, Steward makes an important observa­tion: "A factory is useless if it does not know what it is selling and if it cannot react to the continuously changing market needs." No use will be made of all the mechatronics in the world if flexible manufacturing systems and robotics are not adopted by organiza­tions flexible enough to interface rapidly with their environment.

Staford Beer says that "an organization is viable if it can survive in its particular environment." This survival can be given in two forms: one, increasing the ability of the organization to look into the future, or, increasing the organization's flexibility and capability to adapt, given its inability to forecast the future.

The complex interrelation of the demand/production systems, and the unpredictable environment of any system, makes it impossible to rely on systems that can plan every detail, making it compulsory for these organizations to become highly adaptable.

With this, I do not mean to denigrate the process of planning or suggest that any organization must be reactive to environmental changes. There have to be firm compromises, with the recognition that when these compromises become an obligation, the real situation will probably be different from the initial plan, requiring a different level of flexibility that permits the organization to adapt to the context as a whole.

In fact, the bigger the organization and its environment are, the more states of variability there are, and therefore, the more uncertainty for the organization. This requires processing a larger amount of data, which logically arranged will permit decision-makers at all levels to act according to the information and the estimates of their experience. A new dilemma now appears, how can we insure that an apparently isolated decision does not affect the rest, and is communicated to the organization.

From the pontoon bridge example, we could deduce that the degree of performance is given by the organizational level that the army has to keep control of the local situation, independently from what is happening at upper levels in the hierarchy. The data has to be captured on site, giving responsibility to the platoon members on how to use the data to diagnose the situation and solve the problems they meet under execution time. At the same time, the platoon has to be flexible and the battalion has to be kept under control. The design of such an organization has to include a mechanism that permits coordinated action between a large number of platoons in the battalion, which lets them react on time to an unpredictable event, such as heavy enemy artillery, present­ing a clear plan right there of what to do, without awaiting instructions from the Pentagon.

In these moments of truth, which every plant has every day, we require a highly adaptable and flexible organization that makes decisions, cuts traditional lines of authority, and lets decisions be made on the spot where the action is happening without changing the organization's hierarchical structure. After all, I think there is no organization more structured and at the same time more flexible than a successful army. What we cannot let happen is that a decision that should have been made at the front line takes precious time going up the hierarchy ladder, is analyzed and decided far away from the action, and then is again pushed down to the front line, endangering the battle taking place in front of our customer or vendor, or even worse, with the competition.

In summary, three conditions let an organization become truly adaptable:

1. Without losing authority, create autonomous groups that have the capacity to take decisions on all possible unpre­dictable events at plant level.

2. Delegate adequately the functions into these autonomous groups.

3. Create an integration function that keeps the unity of the organization.

To be Continued


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