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Agile Manufacturing: Key Issues


Paul T. KIDD
Cheshire Henbury

Abstract. This paper outlines the concept of Agile Manufacturing. A definition is provided along with a description of basic concepts. A number of key issues in this new area are also explored.

1. Introduction

Manufacturing industry may well be on the verge of a major paradigm shift. This shift is likely to take us away from mass production, way beyond lean manufacturing, into a world of Agile Manufacturing. Agile Manufacturing, however, is a relatively new term, one which was first introduced with the publication of the Iacocca Institute report 21st Century Manufacturing Enterprise Strategy [1]. Furthermore, at this point in time, Agile Manufacturing is not well understood and the conceptual aspects are still being defined. However, there is a tendency to view Agile Manufacturing as another programme of the month, and to use the term Agile Manufacturing as just another way of describing lean production, flexible manufacturing or CIM.

Many of our corporations today are under going massive transformations - reengineering business processes, flattening hierarchies, empowering people, implementing lean production concepts, etc. The list is almost endless. But none of these massive transformations, on their own or taken collectively, constitutes the implementation of Agile Manufacturing. What Agile Manufacturing really represents is the potential for a quantum leap forward in manufacturing. Instead of just chasing after the Japanese by copying their techniques in a prescriptive fashion, or implementing our own prescriptions such as CIM, in Agile Manufacturing we should be trying to achieve a competitive lead by doing something that our competitors are not doing.

Agile Manufacturing is something that many of our corporations have yet to fully comprehend, never mind implement. Agile Manufacturing is likely to be the way business will be conducted in the next century. It is not yet a reality. Our challenge is to make it a reality, first by more fully defining the conceptual aspects, and secondly by venturing into the frontier of implementation.

In this paper we will examine some of the key issues relevant to the development of Agile Manufacturing. Owing to space limitations we will only provide a very brief overview of Agile Manufacturing. The reader is referred to 21st Century Manufacturing Enterprise Strategy [1] and Agile Manufacturing: Forging New Frontiers [2] for more detailed information.

2. Definition and Concepts

The problem with a new idea such as Agile Manufacturing is the lack of a good sound definition and a set of concepts that most people would agree upon. References [1] and [2] have a reasonably common understanding of what constitutes Agile Manufacturing.

Agile Manufacturing should primarily be seen as a business concept. Its aim is quite simple - to put our enterprises way out in front of our primary competitors. In Agile Manufacturing our aim is to develop agile properties. We will then use this agility for competitive advantage, by being able to rapidly respond to changes occurring in the market environment and through our ability to use and exploit a fundamental resource -knowledge.

One fundamental idea in the exploitation of this resource is the idea of using technologies to lever the skills and knowledge of our people. We need to bring our people together, in dynamic teams formed around clearly identified market opportunities, so that it becomes possible to lever one another's knowledge. Through these processes we should seek to achieve the transformation of knowledge and ideas into new products and services, as well as improvements to our existing products and services.

The concept of Agile Manufacturing is also built around the synthesis of a number of enterprises that each have some core skills or competencies which they bring to a joint venturing operation, which is based on using each partners facilities and resources. For this reason, these joint venture enterprises are called virtual corporations, because they do not own significant capital resources of their own. This, it is believed, will help them to be agile, as they can be formed and changed very rapidly.

Central to the ability to form these joint ventures is the deployment of advanced information technologies and the development of highly nimble organisational structures to support highly skilled, knowledgeable and empowered people.

Agile Manufacturing enterprises are expected to be capable of rapidly responding to changes in customer demand. They should be able to take advantage of the windows of opportunities that, from time to time, appear in the market place. With Agile Manufacturing we should also develop new ways of interacting with our customers and suppliers. Our customers will not only be able to gain access to our products and services, but will also be able to easily assess and exploit our competencies, so enabling them to use these competencies to achieve the things that they are seeking.

3. Some Key Issues in Agile Manufacturing

3.1 The "I am a Horse" Syndrome

There is an old saying that hanging a sign on a cow that says "I am a horse" does not make it a horse. There is a real danger that Agile Manufacturing will fall prey to the unfortunate tendency in manufacturing circles to follow fashion and to relabel everything with a new fashionable label. The dangers in this are two fold. First, it will give Agile Manufacturing a bad reputation. Second, instead of getting to grips with the profound implications and issues raised by Agile Manufacturing, management will only acquire a superficial understanding, which leaves them vulnerable to those competitors that take Agile Manufacturing seriously. Of course this is good news for the competitors!

One sure way to fail with Agile Manufacturing is to hang a new sign up. Get smart, resist the temptation, and put the paint brush away.

3.2 The Existing Culture of Manufacturing

One of the important things that is likely to hold us back from making a quantum leap forward and exploring this new frontier of Agile Manufacturing, is the baggage of our traditions, conventions and our accepted values and beliefs. A key success factor is, without any doubt, the ability to master both the soft and hard issues in change management. However, if we are to achieve agility in our manufacturing enterprises, we should first try to fully understand the nature of our existing cultures, values, and traditions. We need to achieve this understanding, because we need to begin to recognise and come to terms with the fact that much of what we have taken for granted, probably no longer applies in the world of Agile Manufacturing. Achieving this understanding is the first step in facing up to the pain of consigning our existing culture to the garbage can of historically redundant ideas.

3.3 Understanding Agility

Agility is defined in dictionaries as quick moving, nimble and active. This is clearly not the same as flexibility which implies adaptability and versatility. Agility and flexibility are therefore different things.

Leanness (as in lean manufacturing [3]) is also a different concept to agility. Sometimes the terms lean and agile are used interchangeably, but this is not appropriate. The term lean is used because lean manufacturing is concerned with doing everything with less [4]. In other words, the excess of wasteful activities, unnecessary inventory, long lead times, etc are cut away through the application of just-in-time manufacturing, concurrent engineering, overhead cost reduction, improved supplier and customer relationships, total quality management, etc.

We can also consider CIM in the same light. When we link computers across applications, across functions and across enterprises we do not achieve agility. We might achieve a necessary condition for agility, that is, rapid communications and the exchange and reuse use of data, but we do not achieve agility.

Thus agility is not the same as flexibility, leanness or CIM. Understanding this point is very important. But if agility is none of these things, then what is it? This is a good question, and not one easily answered. Yet most of us would recognise agility if we saw it.

For example, we would not say the a Sumo wrestler was agile. Nor would we think that 50 Sumo wrestlers, tied together by a complex web of chains and ropes, all pulling in different directions, as agile. Quite the contrary. We would see them as lumbering, slow and unresponsive. However, we would all recognise a ballet dancer as agile. We would also think of a stage full of ballet dancers as agile, because what binds them together is something quite different.

This analogy between Sumo wrestlers and ballet dancers is very relevant to understanding the property of agility. Many of our corporations, to varying degrees, resemble Sumo wrestlers, tied together, but all pulling in different directions. If we want to develop agile properties, we need to understand what causes agility and what hinders agility. Only when we have developed this understanding can we begin to think about designing an agile enterprise. For, when we have such an understanding of the causes of agility, we can start to audit out current situation, and identify what needs to be changed.

4. Concluding Remarks

We have spent much time copying the Japanese. Now we may be about to teach the Japanese something. For a change, US manufacturing industry is realising that it has very little to gain, in the long term, by copying what other people are doing. There is now a growing realisation that global preeminence in manufacturing can only be achieved through innovation. We can learn from others, but in a highly competitive world we can only become world leaders if we develop new ideas that take us beyond the state-of-the-art. Basically, the issue is, should we adopt lean manufacturing in our own enterprises, i.e. should we mimic the Japanese, or should we do something different and better?

Without doubt there are a significant number of people who believe that we have to adopt lean manufacturing. But in adopting this approach we run the risk of forever chasing after a moving target. The Japanese will keep innovating. Thus, adopting lean manufacturing can only be a short term measure aimed doing something to close the competitive gap. In the longer term, if we want to catch up with and overtake the Japanese, lean manufacturing is not the answer. What we need to do, is something which the Japanese cannot do. That something may well be Agile Manufacturing.


[1] Iacocca Institute, 21st Century Manufacturing Enterprise Strategy. An Industry-Led View. Volumes 1 & 2. Iacocca Institute, Bethlehem, PA, 1991.

[2] Paul T. Kidd, Agile Manufacturing: Forging New Frontiers. Addison-Wesley, 1994.

[3] J.P. Womack, D.T. Jones and D. Roos, The Machine that Changed the World. Rawson Associates, New York, 1990.

[4] D.T. Jones, Beyond the Toyota Production System: The Era of Lean Production. In: C.A. Voss (Ed.), Manufacturing Strategy: Process and Content. Chapman & Hall, London, 1992, pp 189-210.







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