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Agility - Historical Information
Agility Historical Information
This page contains text of documents of historical interest. These were posted to our original web site in 1996/97. There are two sets of text. An open letter to the Department of Trade and Industry and information about a European Agility Forum.
The following open letter was sent to the Department of Trade and Industry on February 17th 1997. The main motivation behind this letter was to help the DTI to realise that the current US concern with lean production (dressed up as agility) provides a short lived window for UK industry to address issues and problems that are highly relevant to industry but which are not attracting much attention elsewhere, especially in the US. The window is only short lived however, as US companies will soon wake up to the fact that lean production will not deliver longer term competitive advantages.
TEXT OF LETTER BEGINS:
In May 1993 I wrote to you about intense activities in the US focused on addressing a new topic called agile manufacturing. Nearly four years on from that letter it seems at long last that people in the UK and elsewhere in Europe are beginning to pay attention to agility. This belated interest has however been accompanied by confusion about definition - a situation which I also noted existed in the US when I first took an interest in what was happening following the publication of the report which first introduced the term agile manufacturing. This confusion still persists to this day in the US, a point which suggests that agility should be treated with some caution.
A major source of this confusion are those people who re-badge work that they would have previously called something else (like mass customisation or lean production etc.) The other significant factor contributing to the confusion is a lack of deep understanding about core issues and problems, and a widespread unwillingness to take the time to explore the field and to ask critical and probing questions. This latter factor is exasperated in the UK by some of the newcomers to the topic who do not yet have the necessary expertise and depth of understanding to fully recognise what is important or to critically assess the different meanings that are attributed to the word agility, and to relate these to existing topics and the published literature on post-mass production enterprise dating back to 1970.
The problem in defining what agility really means is illustrated by the case of the new product development practices implemented by Chrysler in the USA since the late 1980s. The lean production school have quoted these practices as examples of the adoption of lean production in the US automotive industry. However, the very same new product development practices are also quoted by the agile school as examples of agility. This either implies that lean and agile are virtually the same, or that there is something fundamentally wrong with many of the definitions of agility currently in use.
You will recall that back in the early 1980s there was a fairly unanimous view among members of the manufacturing community that the future lay in highly automated manufacturing facilities with very little need for human operators. The "lights out factory" was the vision to which a lot of people were aspiring at that time. It turns out that these people were on the whole spectacularly wrong. Why was that so?
The prime reason was that they made linear extrapolations based on practices in common use at that time, and predicted a future which never happened. And the reason why their predictions and expectations were wrong is because the change curve is nonlinear. This is also the fatal flaw in the bulk of the definitions of agility. Most look at what companies have been doing over the past 10 to 20 years and assume that this is a new paradigm which defines what companies will be doing in the future. This is only correct if the curve in linear - a very dangerous assumption to make.
Really this is the central point behind agility. The world is changing, but not in a linear fashion - the curve is highly nonlinear and this makes it impossible to make realistic predictions. The process of change is therefore surrounded by high degrees of uncertainty and unpredictability which is rendering invalid many taken for granted assumptions and elements of current practices, and making it harder and harder to plan for the future.
Particular strategies and products, whether customer and niche oriented or not, are just passing phases in a firm's history. Under conditions of change, uncertainty and unpredictability, any set of strategies and products only provide a company with a short term edge. What is more important under these change conditions are knowledge and adaptive capabilities. These two things provide more permanence and an ability to operate and prosper in a turbulent business environment.
While niche marketing, customisation and customer focus are all important competitive strategies they are not new, nor do they provide the basis for longer term competitive success in a nonlinear environment. Niche marketing and customisation are matters worthy of government attention to assist industry to better deal with these areas. However, what one must understand is that the current popular interest in these topics does not represent the emergence of a new frontier. What we are witnessing is the back-end of a diffusion curve - the late majority are now starting to adopt practices pioneered in the late 1970s by innovators and the early minority.
Consequently, I would urge that the DTI should reject any suggestions to link agility with mass customisation and niche marketing. What can be done is to help the late majority to adopt best practices by systematically addressing these matters in business, manufacturing and new product strategies, and to implement well defined techniques such as late configuration centres, assembly based variety, and product configurators. In addition, there is also a case for helping best practice companies move forward by addressing fabrication based variety (a much more difficult issue) using computer-based technologies such as rapid modelling techniques and associated technologies to enable rapid tooling and low volume manufacturing. The key point however is that this work is largely a matter of diffusion of best practice and technology transfer between sectors and firms.
Some of the leading people at the US Agility Forum use a definition of agility which covers everything - "the strategic implementation of techniques that companies are currently implementing piecemeal". This should sound familiar. The need for a strategically driven implementation of techniques was made in the opening pages of the brochure published in 1988 describing the DTI's Towards Integration Programme. A theme which has been carried through to other initiatives.
The problem with this definition of agility is that it says nothing new. It looks very much like a case of the "Emperors New Clothes". It proposes a view that is now widely accepted and has been well promoted by the DTI. It is also problematic in that it is of no value what-so-ever as it encompasses everything that firms have been doing over the past 20 years. For a definition to be useful it should be constraining. It should help people to define what is important and what is secondary and assist them to decide what to do at the level of action.
There is a real danger that history is about to repeat itself. Interpretations of agility based on current best practices ignore the nonlinear factor. Given the short term tendencies that prevail in the UK manufacturing community, it would be very easy to ignore this nonlinear factor. The self interest of people and organisations who are looking for funding and opportunities for instant fame, are also significant factors hindering a more serious, critical and reflective consideration of the issues.
What I would therefore urge is that the DTI should treat with extreme caution attempts to import from the USA definitions of agility that mean all things to all people. Ignore the siren voices and exercise some foresight.
The issues are clearly very complicated - much more so than the majority of people I have encountered in this country, or for that matter most people I have met in the US, have appreciated. The Financial Times have just published a report that I have prepared for them, which attempts to explore these complications with reference to new product development in the automotive industry. This report shows that already, best practice is being redefined and a whole new set of problems are on the horizon for which there are as yet no solutions. If the research proposal that was put together with Mike James-Moore from Warwick and Alan Harrison from Cranfield is funded by EPSRC, we will be able to explore the issues raised in this letter and shed more light on the complications.
A series of actions aimed at diffusing best practices in the area of customisation would be worthwhile. However, I suggest that you resist pressure from the manufacturing community, even if it is accompanied by industrial endorsement, to back ill-defined views of agility, put forward by people who have not yet established any track record or significant experience in this field. Otherwise you may find yourselves sponsoring things which you have already supported under different labels. Perhaps more importantly however, time will be lost in dealing with strategic issues which sooner or later industry will need to address.
My recommendations are as follows:
Diffusion of current best practices to the late majority should of course not be be ignored, but this is no long term remedy for declining competitiveness. Improved competitive performance in today's increasingly global and unforgiving business environment is achieved by companies that redefine best practice. This is the unique potential of agility, but the UK only has a limited window of opportunity to exploit this unique potential.
TEXT OF LETTER ENDS
The European Agility Forum was set-up in October 1995 by Paul T. Kidd and is operated by Cheshire Henbury. The European Agility Forum is intended to serve as a model of agility:
4. The European Agility Forum is primarily an information dissemination initiative. The main objectives are to:
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