Agility

In recent time, the notion of agility has been picked up primarily for those who work at developing software, not producing sedans, and even in the digital arena the term now seems to be less relevant than it was not that long ago.

Back during the latter part of the last century (think about that for a moment; we are sufficiently into the 21st so that the 20th really becomes a historic period, not just something that happened not that long ago), I participated in an industry/government project at Lehigh University, the Agile Manufacturing Enterprise Forum (AMEF). There we were, in the early 90s, a group of us that represented a variety of industries, from automotive to electronics to aerospace, to consumer products. We had people who were interested in the manufacture of cars, computers and—seriously—candy bars.

The objective was to define “agility,” to determine the what as well as the ways and means that it could be accomplished. We were looking ahead...all the way to 2005.

On the one hand, some of the ideas that were promulgated by people including the head of the group I was part of, Rick Dove, seemed like a reach then—producing a product anytime, any volume, anywhere, and at a profit—and still one now. The burgeoning technology that is commonly known as “3D printing,” and more properly known as “additive manufacturing,” certainly makes agility seem more achievable. But there remains the challenge of time: traditional manufacturing operations like stamping and machining are typically much, much faster than building something layer-by-exceedingly-thin-layer, and by and large there is little tolerance among consumers to wait for something, whether it is a product or a service. On the other hand, it seemed that the technology companies that were advertising their products in magazines like the one that I edited then—Production, which gave rise to the one that you are reading now—could handle many of the challenges that were facing some of the companies circa 1992 (e.g., there were still things like transfer lines back then, fixed machining systems wherein if there were, say, 10 stations and any one of them failed to work, you were out of luck because there was a linear dependency of processing), like machining centers. (If you had a line of machining centers rather than that transfer line, if one of the machining centers went down, it didn’t stop production because the other machines were sufficiently flexible enough to pick up the work.)

In recent time, the notion of agility has been picked up primarily for those who work at developing software, not producing sedans, and even in the digital arena the term now seems to be less relevant than it was not that long ago. Which is another indicator of the overall impatience that we have today.

One of the big challenges that companies have when it comes to addressing new ways of providing products to customers is the old way of doing things. Consider this passage from Agile Competitors and Virtual Organizations, a book written by three people who were instrumental in the aforementioned AMEF, Steven L. Goldman, Roger N. Nagel and Kenneth Preiss: “Reforms introduced by companies since the early 1980s to improve their competitiveness—just-in-time logistics, the quality movement, ‘lean’ manufacturing—have been tactical responses to marketplace pressures. These reforms aim to improve how companies are doing what they are already doing. Although these efforts are appropriate and valuable, they reflect an acceptance of the status quo, rather than a recognition of the need to confront a new competitive reality, one that challenges what companies ought to be doing, not just how they can do a better job of what they are already doing.”

They wrote that in 1995.

One might argue that all of the developments related to developing electric vehicles (EVs) and autonomous ones, as well, are something that kicks up against the status quo. While autonomous tech is certainly outside the realm of the ordinary, when it comes to EVs can anyone really say that the Chevy Bolt, introduced in 2016, is all that different than the Saturn EV1 that General Motors put on the market 20 years earlier?

For all of the hosannas that Elon Musk is getting for his cars, are these cars fundamentally different—powertrain and over-the-air updates notwithstanding—than cars on offer by other companies that may have internal combustion engines under their hoods? (Arguably, the creation of the Supercharger network may end up being a more significant factor in the history of the EV than the Model S.)

Or let’s take something even more simple: How often does an OEM take a vehicle that isn’t selling well out of production versus making superficial changes and keeping it in production? Yes there are issues of paying for things like the tooling and keeping the plant operational, but if what was conceived of some 25 years ago comes to pass (and maybe it is already here but we’ve yet to see it in the sales numbers in a significant way), is that how success will be achieved? Not in an agile environment.